May 15, 2013

Becoming Conflict-Smart

By Elisabeth Kvitashvili, Deputy Assistant Administrator-designate for Middle East Bureau and former Director of the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Ms. Kvitashvili has led USAID’s work to analyze and respond to instability, extremism, and insurgency, and has worked on humanitarian and conflict-related programs in parts of the Middle East, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. She brings her experience with the process of dealing with conflict in the vulnerable central Africa region to this weeks’ ‘Landscape Roundtable’ on  landscape approaches and conflict.

In the vast landscape that is central Africa, more than 80 million people depend on the rich forests and associated natural resources, including land, for their livelihoods and food security. The small-scale farmers of Rwanda, southwestern Uganda, and Eastern Congo, many of them women, all cultivate rich volcanic soil that produces an abundance of micro-nutrient rich crops. Unfortunately, conflict (both local and national) is endemic to this part of central Africa. The conflict context is complex and problems emerge at multiple levels, requiring solutions also be developed and implemented at multiple levels. In other words, addressing conflict requires a holistic approach that identifies underlying causes and resulting vulnerabilities, and then addresses them at appropriate scales.

Conflict sensitive ecosystem or landscape management, which considers the range of natural resources and human uses in the area, has been successfully used in various places as a tool to help mitigate conflict. Applied well, effective resource management can not only address sources of grievance and reduce the propensity for conflict, it can also present an opportunity for environmental peace building. This is true in the case of central Africa where the fight for control of natural resources (including land) is at the heart of some of the conflicts; local, national and international. Using an integrated landscape approach to mitigate conflict might entail, for example, bringing governments and local communities together to determine how to ensure the equitable use of forest resources.

The first step would entail a careful resource mapping and conflict analysis to ensure that the dimensions of contestation and the potential for a program to exacerbate or mitigate those dynamics were understood. Program designers would have to understand how the land in dispute is used, including consideration of resources on and under the land (from trees to fruit to wildlife to sub-surface minerals), then identify the people/institutions (both formal and informal) charged with the use and management of forest resources (including the perceived effectiveness and legitimacy of those institutions). From there it is a matter of working to support clarification and enforcement of local communities’ ownership, access, and rights to the resources in ways that protect subsistence needs and allow them their livelihood. All this while giving the government the space it needs to provide concessions to logging companies to generate national income and, ideally, still ensuring sustainable conservation of the overall resource.

If landscape management is done with conflict in mind, it can bring the right people to the table in the right sequence and at the right time to find common solutions to problems of environmental management that, if not dealt with in a conflict-sensitive manner, will otherwise often exacerbate or even generate conflict. A landscape approach considers the “system”, widening the perspective on trade-offs and cost/benefit calculations as well as ensuring that stovepiped sectoral interventions are minimized. The result is often improved management of resources, thus reducing pressure on limited and valuable resources and minimizing competition.

In central Niger for example, where the rural population has faced increasing conflict, land degradation, and food insecurity, a well-managed, productive agroforestry system has reduced local conflict, including a reduction in resort to violence. Conflicts in that area are primarily driven by too many people with inadequate amounts of (1) animal browse and pasture, (2) wood for fuel and construction, (3) space for food crops and animal passages and (4) scarce water. Violent conflict has been mitigated by negotiating rules on how the available resources would be used and managed and how the rules would be enforced. The conveyance of authority and responsibility from the State to local populations over the management of natural resources represented a sea change away from the top-down, State-led approach that remained from colonial times and was ineffective at managing local competition.

To be conflict-smart, users of landscape management approaches must be aware not only of the physical aspects of the ecosystem and the technical challenges/opportunities of resource management, but also of the economic, political, and social dimensions of the area – specifically including an understanding of how the landscape is connected to and/or influenced by conflict.  Program designers must consider how the program itself is affected by a local conflict context (e.g. can you do the activities given security constraints? Can you achieve your objectives while doing no harm?). Ideally, the approach will go one step further, seeking opportunities to use improved resource management as an entry point to peace building, including addressing underlying sources of grievance and fostering social cohesion to reduce conflict.

Photo credit: Kaarli Sundsmo (USAID)

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