Addressing conflict in multi-stakeholder situations

[Chapter 7 in: Allen, W.J. (2001) Working together for environmental management: the role of information sharing and collaborative learning. PhD (Development Studies), Massey University.]

Time period in which main work on this issue carried out:

Jul- 94 Jan- 95 Jul- 95 Jan- 96 Jul- 96 Jan- 97 Jul- 97 Jan- 98 Jul- 98 Jan- 99 Jul- 99 Jan- 00

Allen, W., Brown, K., Gloag, T., Morris, J., Simpson, K., Thomas, J. & Young, R. (1998). Building partnerships for conservation in the Waitaki/Mackenzie basins. Landcare Research Contract Report LC9899/033, Lincoln, New Zealand.

The importance of conflict as a condition for learning is discussed, as are some of the challenges posed for action researchers as they manage processes which are conflict-laden. Involving the right groups from the beginning is suggested as an important step in multi-stakeholder projects wishing to minimise conflict. An example is provided of an actual conflict management exercise involving a rare wading bird (black stilt), a conservation agency and farmers. The suggested approach differs from the more conventional approach to conflict where the aim is to "solve' the problem; here it was to initiate a process which would facilitate ongoing communication and begin to build trust between the two parties as part of an ongoing process to help them manage adjoining land and local wildlife. The accompanying chapter report documents the approach and outcomes from this exercise.

One of the most reliable indicators of a team that is continually learning is the visible conflict of ideas. In great teams conflict becomes productive. There may, and often will be, conflict around the vision ... the essence of the 'visioning' process lies in the gradual emergence of a shared vision from different personal visions. Even when people share a common vision, they may have many different ideas about how to achieve that vision ... The free flow of conflicting ideas is critical for creative thinking, for discovering new solutions ... Conflict becomes, in effect, part of the ongoing dialogue. (Senge 1990b p. 249)

The 'conflict of ideas' which Senge refers to in the above quote involves the clash among personal visions. Instead of an organisational team we could as easily substitute a group of stakeholders who have come together to address their goals, values and strategies in respect of a common perceived environmental issue. In Senge's view conflict is not seen as an obstacle to collaborative learning, but rather as a means through which learning occurs. In fact, conflict is essential for creativity and problem solving. In particular, the successful development of double-loop learning as outlined as a desired outcome for environmental action research (see Chapter 3) represents a form of conflict management in which different stakeholders are helped to inquire into the reasoning behind the positions they take, and the meaning of these positions for them.

Thus 'conflict is like a soup which must be kept boiling if it is to cook, but cannot be allowed to boil over' (Rothman & Friedman n.d.). From this perspective the role of the action researcher is to control conflict, and those in conflict -- sometimes reducing or resolving it, but sometimes even stimulating it. However, 'when conflict is not well managed it may result in negative consequences such as polarisation of views, breakdown in working relationships, and irrational or violent behaviour' (Orlando 1993 p. 368).

Although Chapters 4 and 5 referred to the use of ISKM to help 'communities' share their experiences and observations to develop the knowledge needed to support sound resource-management decision making, the HMP project through which it was developed involved mainly farmers and scientists. Indeed, as Allen and Kilvington (1999) note, science staff in most, if not all, previous high country research initiatives have tended to work separately with Department of Conservation (DOC) staff and local farming families, or solely with one or other group. In part this is a tactic to avoid dealing with possible conflict. However, the need for emerging research initiatives to involve different stakeholders, and manage conflict, is well illustrated in the tussock grasslands of the South Island high country in which this programme was set.

As these two groups collectively manage all the tussock grasslands in this area, and as one of the main land-use debates revolves around determining trade-offs and synergies between conservation and pastoralism, there is little doubt that both groups would have been better served by science had they been provided with more well-facilitated opportunities to come together and discuss the implications of emerging research findings. (Allen & Kilvington 1999).

This is consistent with our own experiences through the HMP. It is easy to argue that there was little need to involve DOC staff in the project. It was after all funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries with the aim of bringing farmer knowledge into the research process. However, the need -- and the desire -- to involve DOC in the process was often discussed by the program staff and steering committee members; but during these discussions the conflict that would be caused by bringing these two groups together was always seen as a barrier. It was generally agreed that although the concept was good, more would be gained by making a start with farmers otherwise we would spend all our time arguing and get nothing done.

However, the dangers of not involving relevant groups from the beginning, and the need to deal with conflict was well illustrated as the HMP finished, and the next significant phase of developing the ISKM process was continued in the high country with funding from .... the Department of Conservation (DOC)! During 1996 DOC Head Office staff became interested in the ISKM approach to sharing information and adaptive management. Landcare Research was subsequently contracted to develop an Internet-based Conservation Information System for the Tussock Grasslands (for use by local DOC conservancies), of which Hieracium could be seen as one module within this larger system (Allen et al. 1998c).

Clearly the first step in developing any such system (particularly under a participatory approach) is to visit the actual people on-the-ground that will be using the system and gain an understanding of their needs. However, the reception we got when we visited one Conservancy Office was frosty, to say the least. As became clear, this was a direct result of the fact that as a research group we were known to have worked almost exclusively with farmers (through the HMP and related MAF-funded research) for the previous two years. Accordingly, we were regarded as being 'farmer-oriented' not 'conservation oriented'. It was also, in part, a reaction to a project being funded and called for by Head Office without any consultation with the staff that were to use it. These are good lessons to take into account in the design of future collaborative initiatives. (See also Chapter 8 for a more detailed discussion of the role of this DOC-funded initiative to the overall case study.)

In hindsight this was my first real experience with a conflict situation in relation to my own research work. Although over the next few months our relationship with the Conservancy staff was to improve as we were prepared to listen, and demonstrated a desire to develop a system that met their needs, it raised the issue of needing to be overt in dealing with conflict -- and for these skills to be important in multi-stakeholder processes.

This chapter report covers a subsequent conflict management exercise that I managed with the aim of resolving relationship difficulties between the DOC staff and local landholders in the Waitaki/Mackenzie basins. This project was funded by the DOC Twizel Area Office to increase the involvement of local landholders within the Black Stilt (Kaki) Recovery Programme. At the time I was involved it was obvious that relationships between the DOC and landholders in the Waitaki/Mackenzie basins had been strained for some time. Also, the manner in which local conservation values were being dealt with through the development of local district plans contributed significantly to this tension.

In response to these issues some landholders had taken the step of denying DOC access to their property, preventing staff from carrying out activities related to the black stilt and other conservation projects. Many important black stilt habitats are on farmed or adjoining land, and farmer support is important if recovery tasks at these sites are to be achieved and conservation benefits obtained.

This is included as a case study in this thesis because it provides a good example of the role of conflict management in environmental management situations, particularly those where a collaborative approach to address an issue is a desired goal. While it is not directly related to the management of tussock grasslands, it is set in high country and involves the same parties. Within the context of the development of ISKM this chapter also highlights the need to incorporate 'relationship building' as a starting point. The entry point for working with communities is dependent on good relationships at an individual, as well as an organisational, level. For people to work together trust must be built up. Also building this trust and dealing with conflict is an ongoing process that must be continued.

In terms of action research this conflict management exercise was carried out through three iterative cycles. The initial objective posed by DOC staff was to manage a conflict resolution process to gain better access to bird habitat on private land, and to increase private landholder involvement in recovery efforts. However, when landholders were canvassed to ascertain their support for a meeting to resolve these issues, it became apparent that they saw issues over the black stilt as symptoms of a wider problem of 'lack of trust' between farming families and DOC.

This is consistent with Orlando's (1993 p. 368) observation that the real issues causing the conflict will at times be hidden, and that in some instances the 'expressed' reasons for the conflict may in fact, be traced back to underlying hidden -- or unspoken -- reasons. However, if the conflict situation is to be handled constructively, it is important to deal with the emotional component first.

In response, a second plan-act-reflect cycle was initiated with DOC staff. The initial aim of addressing the issue of access to the black stilt was postponed, and instead a series of workshops were held to improve relationships between local DOC staff and landholders. Common ground was reached during these workshops and a number of positive steps to improve working relationships were identified and implemented. Building trust in this way is one of the main reasons why successful participation processes take time. Importantly, in this case, both parties regarded this exercise as being a first step in a much longer process.

This approach to conflict management can be contrasted with the more common practice of conflict resolution, where the emphasis is on finding a mutually agreeable settlement of an immediate dispute (Burgess & Burgess 1997). In contrast, the approach taken here is more consistent with action research where it seeks to empower the parties to better understand their own situation and needs, as well as those of others. 'While such empowerment and recognition often lay the groundwork for a mutually-acceptable settlement, such an outcome is not the primary goal. Rather, the parties' empowerment and recognition are the main objectives of such a transformative approach' (Burgess & Burgess 1997).

Indeed if action researchers put too much emphasis on developing agreements and fostering improved working relationships at all costs, they run the risk of reinforcing the status quo of the existing system. Conflict resolution in this sense lends itself to single-loop learning, which merely focusses on changing individual and collective action strategies, while leaving the underlying values and norms unchanged. As Rothman & Friedman (n.d.) note, this may be counter-productive in facilitating double-loop learning, which involves a far more critical inquiry into and changing of underlying goals, values and standards for performance, as well as strategies and assumptions.

The third cycle involved the writing of the report presented in this chapter as a final step in the process. It was jointly authored by myself as facilitator, two DOC representatives, and four farmers. The suggestion to also include two women among the latter group came from the farmers, and represented an acknowledgement that women often do have different perspectives on environmental and conservation-oriented issues and play different roles in their subsequent management than men. This is highlighted in other areas related to environmental and land management such as organic farming. For example as Liepins and Campbell (1998) point out, 'women's social positions as the carers and reproducers of family, farm and community structures mean they are strategically placed to more frequently consider and support the implementation of organic farming because of their multiple experiences as farmers, family members, primary health carers, consumers and community networkers.' These perspectives and roles are crucial to learning and highlight the need to more actively identify and involve different stakeholder groups through our research processes.

See also the following paper which represents the remainder of this chapter: Allen, W., Brown, K., Gloag, T., Morris, J., Simpson, K., Thomas, J. & Young, R. (1998). Building partnerships for conservation in the Waitaki/Mackenzie basins. Landcare Research Contract Report LC9899/033, Lincoln, New Zealand.


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