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Mediating Forest Conflicts in Southeast Asia: Getting the Positives out of Conflicts over Forests and Land

01 Mar 2014
Ahmad Dhiaulhaq; David Gritten; Toon De Bruyn
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Mediating Forest Conflicts in Southeast Asia: Getting the Positives out of Conflicts over Forests and Land

The high incidence of forest conflict in Southeast Asia underscores the need for conflict-transformation tools to maximize the positive impacts and reduce potential damage. Mediation is considered one of the most effective approaches in transforming conflict over natural resources. Mediation is often chosen when negotiation between conflict parties fails due to the complexity and intensity of the conflict and because of unequal negotiating power. It is also chosen when the judicial process is considered too complex and requires higher transaction costs.

This issue paper is based on analysis of six conflict mediation cases in three countries in Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand). The study aimed to increase the understanding of how mediation has been applied in transforming forest conflicts, including what factors led to the success and the challenges encountered. The paper also provides suggestions on how mediation, as an approach for conflict transformation, can be strengthened in Southeast Asia.

The findings of the study indicate that mediation was crucial in transforming the six forest and land conflicts. It facilitated the creation of an environment conducive for multi-stakeholder dialogue, built trust among conflict parties and instilled problem-solving capacity of the conflict parties. Mediation brought out several positive outcomes for the conflict parties beyond just the settlement of the conflict: It improved mutual understanding and respect, fostered better social relations and long-term cooperation and increased the parties’ capacity to find sustainable solutions to conflict. The impacts from the six cases are categorized from economic, environmental and social points of view, with the social outcomes considered the most notable impact of the mediation experience.

The study also found that mediation can be applied in various types of forest and land conflicts that involved different actors, issues and at varying levels of intensity. Five of the mediation cases studied involved communities in conflict with external actors (plantation companies, mining companies and protected area authority); the sixth case involved a conflict between communities. In terms of conflict intensity, the cases were of medium to high intensity.

The success of the mediation process in the six cases hinged, to a large extent, on the commitment, participation and trust of all the conflict parties to the mediation as well as the skills and competence of the mediators. The achievement of the agreements, for example, was largely possible because the mediators possessed the right skills, knowledge and personality traits needed for mediating the conflict. In achieving their mediation objectives, those mediators worked as a team and performed several roles, including process facilitator, communication facilitator, advisor, capacity developer and resource provider.

Although the six cases studied followed a general mediation process, the approaches and type of mediation used varied, depending on the dynamics and context of the conflict. There did not seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach. However, there are principles governing the mediation process that were apparent across all the case studies, including the participatory nature of the process, capacity development, restoration of relationships and communication.

Despite mediation’s important role in transforming conflict in the six cases, the study found that it is not a silver bullet for all situations. Like other conflict-transformation approaches, mediation has limitations. In some cases, for example, the results of mediation are difficult to be enforced because the decisions are not legally binding; therefore, its’ implementation depends on the willingness of all parties to comply with the agreement. It is also not immune to the influence of internal and external factors, such as the socio-political climate at the local or higher level. Nor can it stand alone in addressing the root causes of a conflict; sometimes it requires policy changes. There are also a limited number of skilled mediators available to mediate the vast number of forest and land conflicts in the region.

Taking into account the potential of mediation in transforming conflict, the challenges and the lessons learned from the six cases, we offer the following ideas for supporting and promoting the mediation recourse in the region:

  • Mediation capacity needs to be strengthened by providing more integrated capacity development programmes on mediation.
  • More research and analysis needs to be conducted, including on the failed mediation attempts, and the good practices in mediation need to be more broadly disseminated.
  • Mediation needs much greater promoting and awareness-raising of its merits, particularly about its availability and effectiveness as a tool for transforming natural resource conflict.
  • A network or a community of practice of mediation practitioners and experts should be established as a platform for collaborative learning, particularly to exchange their knowledge and experiences.
  • Policies that favour mediation should also be put in place to promote and justify the use of the mediation in addressing forest and land conflict.