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Finding Solutions to Environmental Conflict: Q&A With Josh Fisher

Photo: Josh Fisher
Sunset on the Tambopata River, Peru. Photo: Josh Fisher

In a rapidly warming world, conflicts inevitably arise between those affected by dwindling resources and changing climate conditions. Josh Fisher’s work centers on trying to avert conflict and provide opportunities for cooperation through understanding the relationships between conflict, environment and development. Fisher is an Earth Institute Postdoctoral Research Fellow, scientist and lecturer at the Earth Institute’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity.

How did you first get involved in this kind of work?

Josh Fisher in the field.
Josh Fisher in the field.

My interest in this work started while growing up on a ranch. From a very early age I was responsible for growing crops and raising cattle and all aspects of land management. My parents taught me the importance of environmental stewardship, both to maintain the ecological integrity but also to provide for our family’s subsistence.

Over the years, I worked for the Bureau of Land Management, did development and environmental projects in Latin America, and worked in Mozambique on environmental and sustainable economic projects. I kept running into issues of conflict, whether it was water conflicts on our ranch or stakeholder conflicts on public lands in the western U.S., or conflicts around access to resources in Mozambique. So I got into a Ph.D. program in conflict resolution at George Mason University at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution.


What is the process you go through?

When you think about the environment, whether it’s the urban environment or the more natural environment, different social actors, whether they’re individuals or groups, have a stake in the environment and each has a set of interests, needs and positions around the environment. And those needs are always countervailing and competing needs. So the act of environmental management really is a form of conflict management, trying to balance the different needs of the individual stakeholders and find strategies that maintain social cohesion and environmental integrity.

Any time there is environmental conflict, the first step is understanding and defining what that conflict is. One stakeholder might think that the conflict is about access to a resource, another might think it’s about land tenure, and still another might think it’s about constitutional rights to a certain set of behaviors. Identifying and defining the problem involves a series of discussions with the stakeholders to see what their vision of the conflict is, then mapping out those different definitions to create a unified view of the conflict.

Josh and team holding a stakeholder workshop with traditional authorities in Gorongosa National Park. Photo: Josh Fisher
Josh and team holding a stakeholder workshop with traditional authorities in Gorongosa National Park. Photo: Josh Fisher

The next step is stakeholder identification. That entails analyzing each individual stakeholder’s needs, interests and positions. Then you go to a phase of conflict mapping where you try to see what’s driving the conflict between them. You come up with an initial sketch of your view of the conflict, but then you have to take it to the stakeholders to see if what you’re perceiving is what actually exists in the social situation.

Once you have a comprehensive map of the conflict, then you start a participatory process with the different stakeholders, trying creatively to envision the future that they want and develop some scenarios to get from the current impasse to that desired state. Through that conversation, the problem is owned and the solutions are generated and owned by the stakeholders. When you have a set of solutions formulated, you go about trying to implement them. And that implementation varies widely, because each environmental conflict has a different set of legal, administrative and procedural constraints…who can implement a certain solution, how they can implement it, and who’s going to pay for the implementation and maintain the solution that you put in place.


Who are the various stakeholders you have to deal with?

Right now, for example, in this work in the Amazon, I’m working with an NGO called the Amazon Conservation Association that is contracted by the Peruvian government to manage a large parcel of land for conservation called the Los Amigos Conservation Concession. The NGO is the primary stakeholder, the decision maker in the area. But there are about 12 communities that surround the conservation concession, composed of different indigenous groups. There are also small-scale miners and loggers who’ve come down into the forest from other areas to make a living, exploring gold and tropical hardwood resources. A fourth set of stakeholders is the regional governments. The fifth stakeholder is the national government’s agency that oversees protected areas like national parks, conservation concessions and forest reserves. But then because the area is hugely important as forest for regulating the flow of water through the region, there are stakeholders all through the continent, in Brazil, Bolivia and Colombia. And then these forests are hugely important for regulating climate and producing oxygen, so in the end, everybody is a stakeholder. The entire planet becomes a stakeholder.

Josh Fisher and research assistant Pia Zevallos mapping stakeholder profiles in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Photo: Josh Fisher
Josh Fisher and research assistant Pia Zevallos mapping stakeholder profiles in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Photo: Josh Fisher

Environmental conflicts are socially complex because environments produce a series of ecosystem services that exist at the very local level, all the way to the global scale. One of the hard parts about working with these conflicts is understanding who really is a primary stakeholder and who ought to be included in these discussions.


Tell me about a few specific conflicts you’ve addressed. What were the solutions that you came up with?

Gorengosa National Park is a protected area in Mozambique that was established in the early part of the 20th century by the Portuguese governors. In 2011, the national park annexed Gorengosa Mountain, which is incredibly important for the temperate rain forest it holds. Right now on the mountain, there’s a huge threat from agricultural expansion and resulting deforestation, up into the high elevation slopes. The problem is that there are communities established on the mountain who’ve been living there for a long time with a certain set of agricultural, hunting, and forestry practices that they have traditionally used for subsistence livelihoods. Once the mountain became part of the park, those actions were no longer legal. So the park managers were faced with these questions of 1. What do we do with the populations that are living there? 2. How do we administer the mountain in such a way that they can continue to make their livelihoods? And 3. How do we try and curb the deforestation that’s going on?

We went in and did a social survey, a household survey, soil sampling, and an agricultural assessment to try and understand just what is going on on this mountain. One of the strategies the park had been considering was moving entire villages off the mountain, which would be highly controversial. But we came in with a set of recommendations for agroforestry interventions that would improve the agricultural yield for these communities while reducing their impact on and their need to expand to the higher elevation slopes.

Agroforesty plot in Gorongosa National Park. Photo: Josh Fisher
Agroforesty plot in Gorongosa National Park. Photo: Josh Fisher

We also found that there is an immigrant and migrant community that’s coming in seasonably, paid by external actors to come in and grow cash crops and export them off the mountain. So our recommendation was two-fold. One was to do agriculture and agroforestry development projects with the local communities to minimize their need to expand. The second was improving the forest patrolling done by the park to stop these external actors from coming in and conducting illegal activities. We’re waiting now to see what the park’s going to do.

In Peru, I’m working on a project in the Los Amigos Conservation Concession, which is managed according to a management plan that’s valid for five years. Traditionally these management plans have focused very explicitly on ecology and biology, without a lot of emphasis on the social dynamics. But if all the communities are on board with what’s going on in the park and are benefitting from the forest concession, then they’re more likely to abide by the management laws. In 2013, it’s time to write a new management plan, so this was an excellent opportunity to really inform the new management plan with the social dynamics.

Forest Canopy lookout over a forest concession and Madre de Dios River, Peru. Photo: Josh Fisher
Forest Canopy lookout over a forest concession and Madre de Dios River, Peru. Photo: Josh Fisher

Peru is one of the world’s largest producers of gold, and throughout the entire Peruvian Amazon there are large conflicts associated with illegal mining. Peru has a system of formal mining on the industrial scale as well as on the small scale. But then there are a lot of people who engage in small-scaling mining illegally. That produces a lot of conflict with the formal mining sector and with indigenous groups whose land gets invaded, as well as with land managers who are contracted by the state to manage these forests for conservation sake. What this project is trying to do is see if we can create a model for conservation that can incentivize people to not engage in these destructive practices, to not mine in protected areas. The trick is designing land use strategies that accommodate everything, to create a mosaic of land uses that are complementary rather than competitive.

But it’s tough…because people do need these resources to survive and to make a livelihood.  So in addition to just straight forest management actions, we’re considering agriculture development projects that will complement the management plan so that we can reduce the need to hunt in the concession and improve people’s ability to make their livelihood outside the concession. For example, finding ways to improve the community’s access to Brazil nut markets and their process of drying the nuts. Also we’re working on identifying communities to do aquaculture projects, because fish farming is a potentially important source of revenue.


What is the most important thing you’ve learned from working with indigenous people?

That the tie between societies and the environment is real. It’s not just that we need the resources to survive. The social relationships we have are negotiated either actively or tacitly around the environment that we exist in, so we are inexorably tied to the environment.


How will climate change alter the potential for conflicts in the world?

A changing climate will inevitably lead to conflicts. Any sort of change requires the renegotiation of our social relationships around the environment, whether it’s water or vegetation, or open space. And with a changing climate, we’re seeing increased rates of change all around in environmental aspects. So naturally people’s needs and interests and positions around those environmental aspects change and give rise to conflicts. The question for me is not whether or not climate change will create conflict, but rather how do we manage those conflicts productively and use a changing climate as an opportunity to reinforce positive social relationships rather than allowing these conflicts to degrade into violence or into political deadlock or economic conflict.


Why do you feel this field is important?

We have the choice to either respond to conflict when it becomes intractable or socially painful enough that we have to respond to it, or we can confront it directly, and use it as a tool for positive change. So by deliberately working on managing conflict, I think we can try and steer these competing needs and interests in a way that will be productive and lead to social benefits, rather than just reacting and trying to mitigate disaster after disaster after social disaster. Conflict itself isn’t positive or negative, it’s just an opportunity for change.









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Dr. Aung Ze Ya
Dr. Aung Ze Ya
8 years ago

It is easily seen that Mr. Josh Fisher performed pretty good research.
I think the Trust Building and Benefit Sharing Issues are important.
Sustainable Capacity Building Program to decrease the conflicts are also needed.

Martin K. Tanui
Martin K. Tanui
6 years ago

That was a very refreshing reading. I am particularly interested with Socio-cultural Interventions such as Indigenous Knowledge in environmental management and conflict resolution. The resilience of indeginous peoples in the face of environmetal hazards and and the manner in which they resloved conflicts can offer strategies that are acceptable to local stakeholders.