Mali | © Helvetas

Rethinking the Management of Natural Resource Conflicts

BY: Owen Frazer, Fidèle Koukponou, Bélou Abiguël Elijan Djaouga, Boubacar Diarra - 25. June 2024
© Helvetas

Conflicts over natural resources are a constant throughout human history. In a changing world, successfully preventing and managing these conflicts requires adapting to contemporary challenges.  

In the north of Benin, conflicts between sedentary farmers and nomadic pastoralists are a regular occurrence. At their heart, these conflicts are over the access to and use of land and other natural resources, such as water sources. Although pastoralism and sedentary agriculture have historically had a symbiotic relationship in Benin and the wider region, conflicts between the two communities have also always been part of the landscape.

Mechanisms to prevent and manage these conflicts have long existed, but their effectiveness is challenged by some current trends. These same challenges can be found in several contexts where Helvetas works that face conflicts over natural resources. Supporting communities to manage natural resource conflicts has been a longstanding component of Helvetas’ work on conflict transformation; however, we must continue to learn and adapt our programming to take into account these new challenges. This is all the more important because of the interlinkages between conflicts over natural resources and the spread of violent insurgencies in many contexts where Helvetas is present, such as in the countries of the Sahel region.

Adapting to the effects of climate change

The role of climate change in driving conflict has established itself as a central concern for peace and security. In northern Benin, like many other contexts where pastoralism and agriculture are practiced side-by-side, unpredictable weather patterns are requiring both pastoralists and farmers to adapt their practices. Changing migration patterns of herders, water scarcity, and the deteriorating quality of arable land all contribute to the potential for increased conflict between farmers and herders. These factors are compounded by the insecurity caused by attacks from non-state armed groups.

Supporting local communities to adapt to the effects of climate change must therefore be part of any effort to transform local conflict dynamics. The project “Wéi – promoting resilience and peace in the border communities of Atacora region” supports efforts to transform conflicts and promote social cohesion in northern Benin. It includes measures to help local communities adapt to the effects of climate change, such as creating new boreholes and water storage infrastructure, and supporting reforesting to address soil erosion.

However, such activities must be done in a coordinated manner so that they do not fuel further conflict. The project places a strong emphasis on dialogue with all concerned stakeholders. Suzanne Sahgui, a rice producer involved with the project, said the project has had a positive effect on relationships within her village: “The management of social and economic infrastructure adapted to climate change has improved in my area through the setting up of infrastructure management committees. Dialogue between herders and farmers has improved. Social cohesion has also improved.”

Reimagining intergenerational relations

Tensions between generations is another factor that cannot be ignored. In many countries where Helvetas works, young people are a large, and often growing, proportion of the population. This brings opportunities as well as challenges.

In Mali, the average age is 21 and 47% of the population is under 40. One area where tensions between young and old manifests is over access to land. Young people and women are increasingly unwilling to accept traditional patriarchal structures of land ownership that put control of the land in the hands of heads of families. When left unaddressed, these grievances contribute to young people migrating, engaging in dangerous occupations such as mining, turning to crime, and sometimes even joining armed insurgencies. Helvetas has a long history of working on natural resource conflicts in Mali, including supporting reform of the land laws in Mali to improve the rights of young people and women to access and work the land.

However, changes in the law are not enough to ensure fairer access to land. Helvetas therefore recently conducted a project, funded by the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund, that supported young people and women to know and claim their rights under this new law and equip them with the skills to farm their land productively. Helvetas supported local civil society organizations, including women’s, farmers’ and youth associations, to inform people about the new legislation and help them to receive certificates of land ownership. Over 18 months, 2,479 young people, including 1,686 of whom are women, received such certificates.

Crucial to the project’s success was to focus not only on legal aspects, but to also support and work with local traditional and state-based mechanisms for resolving land disputes. By providing women and young people with training on conflict resolution and mediation, the project was also successful in promoting their involvement in such mechanisms, fora that had traditionally been the domain of older men.

“Today, we women are present and our opinions count in the resolution of conflicts in our villages,” said the president of the rural women’s association of Dieli. “We can say that we have taken a step forward and that we have been given an important place in decision-making on issues such as the management of natural resources and agricultural land.”

Young people are also seeing new roles for themselves in their communities. “Before, we were never involved in conflict resolution because the elders felt that the issue was beyond us,” said a young person from San commune who received training as a ‘peace champion.’ “What's more, young people aren't members of the village council, because that's forbidden by our customs. But now we help our elders to find and apply solutions to conflicts in the villages and even within families.”

Harmonizing state-centred and traditional approaches

Mali is just one example of a state that has passed new laws to try and address some of the underlying causes of conflicts over natural resources. Such legal reforms are often an important part of the solution. However, they bring with them new challenges. First is the simple informational challenge of ensuring people are aware of new laws and regulations. In Benin, the state has introduced several new laws and decrees related to pastoralism and the use of natural resources. As recently as May 8, another presidential decree on pastoralism was issued. “The pace of change in the legal situation means many people are simply not aware of their rights and obligations,” said Rachidou Mama, who is responsible for social cohesion activities within the Wéi project. “We therefore work closely with our local partner Potal Men to disseminate this information via community meetings, local radio stations and other channels.”

But it is not only a matter of ensuring people are better informed. In many contexts, states introduce new norms and structures that overlap, or even compete with, the authority and functioning of traditional mechanisms for managing disputes over natural resources. Even when people are aware of the laws and state mechanisms for resolving their disputes, many continue to prefer traditional mechanisms. State conflict management is often repressive and feared by the population and is used when the authorities decide to use force to enforce order and discipline. Traditional conflict management mechanisms that mobilize social capital, the cultural heritage of societies and religious resources often produce more lasting and sustainable solutions. Therefore, an important component in many Helvetas projects working on this topic is to support the coordination and harmonization of state-based and traditional mechanisms for dispute resolution.

Building a common understanding between local government officers and traditional authorities was a key aim of a Helvetas project on natural resource management among pastoralist communities of the Borana Zone in southern Ethiopia. Similarly, in Pakistan the Land and Water Diplomacy project was implemented in the context of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas being formally integrated into the legal and administrative system of Pakistan. As part of the transition, Helvetas identified a need for reinforcing alternative dispute resolution mechanisms in a way that was complementary to the formal legal system. The project trained community mediators in alternative dispute resolution and supported local authorities and civil society organizations to engage in confidence-building measures and dialogue around land and water management. In contexts like this, “external” actors such as Helvetas and its partners can play an important convening and facilitation role to help promote coordination and harmonization between different actors.

Avoiding harm

While action and support at the local level is important, structural factors that contribute to many of these conflicts mean that action at a national, or even international, level is often needed. For example, Helvetas has been providing dialogue and technical support to the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan regarding the management of water resources in the North and Big Fergana Canals that provide water for irrigating agricultural land in the two countries. And on the issue of farmer-herder conflicts, it has been providing support at the national level to the government of Benin.

The government of Benin recently established the High Commission for the Settlement of Pastoralists. One of the objectives of the High Commission's program for the settlement of livestock farmers is to reduce conflicts between farmers and pastoralists.  The World Bank and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) are accompanying the High Commission in implementing the program. Within the framework of SDC's support, Helvetas is providing guidance to the High Commission on the topic of conflict sensitivity. In discussions with the High Commission and other actors in Benin, four priorities have emerged that are essential to avoid harm.

First, ensure decision-making processes are truly inclusive. Pressure to move fast and produce results can undermine this principle of ensuring that all interest groups are properly consulted at all steps of a process. If certain interest groups feel excluded, any intervention runs a high risk of creating rather than preventing or reducing conflicts. The landscape approach is an approach that can help to ensure this inclusivity when it comes to natural resource conflicts. It ensures that the interests of all users and stakeholders in a particular space or landscape are considered.

Second, reinforce existing institutions. This means working to ensure they have the necessary legitimacy, resources and capacities to carry out their functions fairly and effectively. It also means ensuring coordination with other actors to ensure that multiple interventions do not create parallel structures, such as new conflict management mechanisms, or overload the capacities of existing institutions.

Third, create realistic expectations and meet them. For example, farmer-herder conflicts involve addressing tricky questions of land ownership, which can take time and may be beyond the scope of some projects. But unless these underlying issues are addressed, interventions may not lead to sustainable solutions.

Finally, be aware of potential market impacts. Activities such as constructing common-use infrastructure on privately held land can increase the value of that land and the incentive to sell it. This can potentially undermine the sustainability of the investment or be a source of conflict in itself.

Promoting the effective prevention and management of conflicts over natural resources requires us to adapt and take account of new challenges such as climate change, growing youth populations and contradictions between new and old institutions. At the same time, it requires us to continue paying close attention to the unintended consequences of our actions to make sure that we do not make matters worse.

About the Authors

Owen Frazer is Helvetas’ Senior Advisor for Conflict Transformation.

Bélou Abiguël Elijan Djaouga is a consultant with Helvetas Benin and an expert on farmer-herder conflicts.

Fidèle Koukponou is the head of the Helvetas office in Natitingou, northern Benin, and co-ordinator of the Wéi project.

Boubacar Diarra is a Programme Co-ordinator with Helvetas Mali and a regional advisor on conflict sensitivity.

Conflict Transformation

Sustainable development can only happen in a peaceful context, where human rights are respected and promoted.

Voice, Inclusion & Cohesion

In many countries where we work, men and women are unable to claim their rights and participate actively in decision-making processes.