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COMMUNITY BUILDING IN ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICT
by
Wayne Teel

Constructive Approaches to Community and Political Conflic: Conflict and the Environment 5:44, Sabinet Online, 1996.


Teel summarizes my process for resolving an environmental conflict as set out in my 1996 book, Resolving Environmental Conflict:  Towards Sustainable Community Development. He teaches courses in Environmental Understanding for Conflict Transformation at the Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.



Environmental conflicts are ubiquitous. A variety of causes contribute to environmental degradation including over consumption by northern countries, rapid population growth in the south, increasingly sophisticated chemical products or by-products that have unanticipated toxic effects, deforestation, and massive use of fossil fuels in transport.

Even a brief examination of environmental troubles exposes rifts between those who address the problems. Players in environmental conflicts seldom fit easily into bipolar camps. Conflicts are almost always adversarial and seldom resolved to the satisfaction of all sides. The one player common to all these conflicts, the ecosystem, generally remains voiceless.

Though seldom reducible to two opposing, unified camps, the players involved generally fall into two broad categories. The first includes those whose first priority is economic growth. These people often claim the primary cause of environmental problems lies in over-population and subsequent degradation of environments by the poor. Their concerns centre on job creation and access to resources for production. Parties involved include government officials, mining companies, forest products industries, and sometimes employees. To these groups, the environment is a resource for profits, jobs, and economic well-being. The ecosystem lacks identity except as a container for desired raw materials.

On the other side stand diverse groups, often squabbling among themselves, yet united by a commitment to environmental integrity and opposed to the more powerful economic camp. Parties here may cite over-consumption, toxicity of pollutants, and land loss or degradation, with subsequent ethnic instability. Their first priorities include sustainability, ecosystem health, the well-being of minority or marginalized groups, and survival of endangered species. A wide variety of groups may be involved, among them environmentalists, representatives of economically marginalized people, and non-governmental organizations. To these people the environment is an ecosystem to be protected from abusers, or a home to be nurtured.

Despite common ground, conflict between these groups may be as important to transform as the conflict between them and the economy group. Ecologists and environmentalists ignore the human component of ecosystems in their proposed solutions to problems. Marginalized groups are commonly part of the ecosystem, as much victims of the conflict as the environment itself. Sometimes a transformative mediation process must take place between environmentalists and the marginalized prior to a wider process with groups proposing more destructive, extractive actions.

Chris Maser has clear recommendations about how you start and proceed in facilitating an environmental conflict. He does not start until the parties concerned reach a stalemate and are "at wit's end" concerning further progress. Unless the parties are exhausted in their own efforts they will not willingly listen to an outsider promoting change. He stresses that those who wish to transform complex and adversarial environmental conflicts must involve all parties in as inclusive a manner as possible.

Maser's basic approach emphasizes creating community among the disputants rather than solving specific conflict problems. Ownership of the solution ultimately must stay with the parties involved, not be imposed or directed by the outsider. For this reason Maser does not believe there is a need for the facilitator to know all the details of a conflict. Those details are contained within the participants, and drawing their knowledge into community awareness comprises a central part of the process. Once invited by the parties to facilitate, Maser first develops general criteria for the facilitation process, i.e. what it is and is not intended to do. He then divides the process into three main segments, each having its own focus.

Stage 1. Introduction: setting the foundation for community building

This stage begins building inclusiveness among the players. Participants get to know one another by sharing brief personal information. Maser encourages or even directs a mixing of the various parties, letting people converse informally in smaller groups in addition to wider formal sharing. Participation as equals is essential. The facilitator provides a safe atmosphere for sharing, empowering the weak and those less sure of themselves or their power base, while recognising the contribution of all. A facilitator places people on equal footing early in the process without taking sides or promoting alternatives.

After developing inclusiveness it is important to explain what the facilitation process includes, what the goals are, and how community creation among the parties can help. The role of the facilitator should be explained so that expectations are clear to all participants. Ultimate ownership of the success or failure belongs to the parties involved.

Stage 2. Developing an ecosystem understanding

Laying the foundation for a shared understanding of the ecosystem without preaching or promoting a particular viewpoint about the conflict itself is perhaps that hardest task of the facilitator. Without a shared understanding no healthy solution can be reached by the parties. This portion of the process demands greater facilitator input, using lecture, slides, and other visual aids. This is not a talk on the conflict; it is input about the environmental context where the conflict occurs.

Understanding natural cycles within the ecosystem, how water, soils, plants and animals fit into the overall picture, and how human communities presently operate in the ecosystem, sets the stage for discussion.

After a formal input session Maser takes the parties to the field. Walking through the ecosystem in and around the conflict area roots the entire conflict in its context. It is hard to talk abstractly about mine tailings and their impact on a stream if you have seen the stream together. In this way participants put substance to the formal input of the lecture presentation and begin sharing, in their own words, how this affects them. Maser believes it important this sharing begins in the field, not in an isolated building.

Personal stories told in this context have greater meaning to the various parties. They share a sense-based grounding of the stories, beginning to redefine their own perspective on the conflict. As the stories unfold, a concrete historical perspective emerges for both the participants and the facilitator. This historical perspective provides the foundation as you "progress toward a more abstract, futuristic perspective" (Maser, p.9). At this point people begin seeing the ecosystem as a complex entity, and that change is a "continuous process" not an isolated, one-time event.

Walking the ecosystem lets the group begin articulating visions and goals. These the facilitator records in a fashion available to all. Using flipcharts, blackboard lists, and newsprint sheets to share vision statements and goals keeps the entire group informed. If the parties are unable to reconcile vision and goals at this point, time may be needed separately to develop their own sets. This may take hours or even weeks. They must do it for themselves, it cannot be imposed or cajoled.

After visions and goals are articulated they should fit with the general criteria for the process established at the time of inviting the facilitator. As each party lays out its visions and goals, areas of overlap with other parties are identified. Helping people find and refine these points of overlap is the facilitator's main role. Establishing a single statement is not the goal.

Stage 3. Retelling and defining the next step

At this stage, if things go well, it is possible to articulate an emerging consensus, although that is not necessarily the goal of a facilitator, whose primary responsibility lies in creation of a community in dialogue. Short mediation processes, lasting three or four days, cannot expose and resolve all questions in most environmental conflicts. Retelling and recasting of stories in light of newly shared information is the key activity in this final stage of the process. This sharing provides the community with a fresh start at dialogue during regular interaction.

The last duty of the facilitator is to determine what the next step will be and to establish a mechanism for doing it. A definite time and place for the parties in conflict to reconvene is essential. On their own, or perhaps with the invited presence of the facilitator, they will pursue revision of their goals and visions. Only after a general consensus is reached will the group establish intermediate objectives for action. These steps rise from the group; they do not come from the facilitator.

Environmental conflict is a complex phenomenon. All the concerned parties may not become apparent in a single round of transformation work. Uncovering hidden variables and empowering the voiceless is central to the process. By helping groups and individuals of diverse perspectives get to know one another, establish a dialogue based on shared ecosystem understanding, and work towards a shared vision and goal, the facilitator becomes a community builder. Ultimately, conflict transformation is a community building exercise, with a healthy ecosystem as a foundation.


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Chris Maser
www.chrismaser.com
Corvallis, OR 97330

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