Conflict management in natural resources : a study of land, water and forest conflicts in Nepal

B.R. Upreti

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


This book is based on the research into natural resource (NR)-conflict carried out between 1997 and 2000 in the Dolakha district of central Nepal, and in several reference sites around the country. The study focussed especially on land, water and forest/pasture conflicts and their resolution/management practices. Five inter-connected conflict cases related to irrigation, Guthi -land, spring water source and forest-pasture land were examined and compared with eleven reference groups. The study was conducted mainly using qualitative research methods. Conflicts in natural resources are an inevitable part of the social process and this study has embraced them as a source of learning to create opportunities for social change in a community. In this study I have used legal anthropological and social learning perspectives to analyse the dynamics of conflict. The performances of existing formal and informal conflict management approaches have been analysed. Inter-linkages of NR-related conflicts with broader social contexts are examined. Based on the findings an alternative approach of conflict management is proposed. Access and control and political, environmental and economic motives were found to be the driving forces in creating NR-related conflict. An uneven distribution of resources created scarcity, competition and conflict and these were common characteristics of NRM in Nepal. This book argues that such situations are increasingly due to the lack of a conducive national policy and legal and institutional arrangements, and a top-down approach to NRM.

The aims of the study were to understand and analyse the dynamics of NR-conflicts and their resolution, and to seek alternatives to improve community-level conflict-management practices. It is hope that it also stimulates debate on embracing conflict as a source of learning to reform the NRM sector and bring broader social change in the community. The study was framed under three main research questions. What are common conflicts concerning natural resources and their management practices at the community level, and why do they occur? What are the implications of the conflict for natural resources and the community? Finally, how can natural resource-conflict be effectively managed at the local level?

This book is arranged in three parts and nine chapters. In the first part the problem context, the theoretical framework, methodological tools and general overview of Nepal are discussed. Theoretical concepts such as mediation, negotiation, arbitration, adjudication, litigation, legal pluralism, property rights, forum shopping, constructivist perspective, soft system thinking, cognitive system, communicative rationality, platforms for negotiation and adaptive management are discussed to derive a conceptual model to analyse natural resource-conflict. A brief socio-economic, cultural, political, and historical overview of Nepal are presented. The political economy of natural resources is discussed, a brief review of Nepalese NRM policies, laws and regulations is presented and finally the general characteristics of the study area are described.

In the first part of the book I have argued that the behaviour of people towards natural resources is shaped and reshaped by a specific context and local power relationships. The existence of plural legal systems in the community itself was a source of conflict in NR. Different and even conflicting perspectives, values, objectives and knowledge of local people about a particular natural resource were manifested in the specific context and shaped by social relationships. Any particular conflict is linked with historical, cultural, political, economic and institutional issues, as well as the social context and is affected by norms, values and daily practices.

Four chapters in the second part of the book are devoted to empirical investigations. In this part general NR-related conflicts and their characteristics found in the study area are documented. Most common formal and informal conflict management practices are discussed. The first case relates to conflict between old and new users on an old farmers-managed irrigation system. The second case highlights the conflict between a powerful elite group and general villagers to control a part of forest-pasture land. The third case deals with the conflict between two groups of people to access and control a spring water source for drinking water. In all these three cases local social relationships, ownership issues, the ambiguous role of external development organisations, effects of time and space, and gender issues have greatly contributed to escalating and managing the conflict. The forth case investigates an ADB-funded irrigation project where severe conflicts erupted in the process of its planning and construction. This case shows that formal intervention, if not implemented properly, not only fails to appropriately develop and manage local natural resources but can also cause severe conflict in a community. The conflict issues in this case were analysed in terms of participation, decision making, transparency and corruption, working practice of the water users committee, the role of technology, communication and information. The fifth case presents the conflict between landowners and tenants over Guthi land to control ownership rights. The effects of socio-political change, practical applications of state rules and laws, effects of time and context, peoples' initiatives and the importance of social relationships are analysed in relation to escalation, transformation and resolution of conflict.

Identification of users, the sharing of benefits, access to the forest products, payment of royalties, illegal exploitation of NTFP, participation and contribution of users in managing forests, and leadership were the most common issues in forest-conflict. In water source disputes, sharing the water for different purposes, contributions for maintenance of irrigation and drinking water systems, ambiguous roles and responsibilities of water users committees were the common sources of conflict. In the case of land inheritance, demarcation, ownership and rights, tenancy issues, encroachment, payment of land tax and rents were all frequent contentious issues. In all types of NR-related conflicts, significant roles were played by bureaucracy, corruption and misuse of resources and the abuse of power and authority. In addition to these NR-related conflicts in the study area, there were also other conflicts related to borrowing and transactions, external development interventions, family matters, party politics, character defamation, prostitution and sexual abuse and religion. However, all these conflicts crosscut and linked with natural resource conflicts and in practice it is not possible to draw a clear demarcation between them. The study shows that conflict is more common if the parties involved belong to different political, caste/ethnic and economic groups and these associations may be the triggering force in conflict. When the conflicting parties realise the cost of the conflict is too high and the benefits too low it can often be shortened.

The third part of two chapters mainly focuses on analysis of conflict, and presents an alternate method of CM at local level as well as drawing conclusions from the issues discussed. In Chapter Eight overall analyses of the conflict cases are made based on the theoretical references discussed in Chapter Two. Dynamics of NR-conflict are analysed and common conflict management options used in the study area are presented. The analysis is framed under property rights issues, the role of formal and informal laws, caste, ethnicity and social relationships, power and politics, external interventions and issues of corruption, communication, information and networking, leadership and gender issues. Based on the overall analysis, Chapter Nine presents an alternative approach called interactive conflict management. This alternative methodological approach provides some ways to overcome the weaknesses of existing CM practices and proposes a learning-based and action oriented procedure. Based on the analyses of opportunities, challenges and limitations for its institutionalisation, ICM provides a step-by-step procedure to accomplish conflict resolution. Finally, the area for future research is identified.

All the cases seem to suggest that elite's manipulation of land, water and forest conflicts has increased the ability of tenants and villagers to defend their rights, to protest and negotiate in situations of conflict. Generally, the degree, intensity and antagonistic effects were less marked in NR-conflict. Local people as far as possible follow accommodative strategies rather than confrontation. Although many conflicts remain unsolved for extended periods the existence of a workable relationship between parties involved in the conflict is common. In NR-related conflict the situation is usually, less antagonistic because of the accommodative nature of the people involved. Villagers consider social relationships as an important factor in managing community level NR conflicts. People use their own criteria to classify conflict based on the socio-cultural context. The major criterion is the effect of the conflict on social relationships and a conflict is only categorised as severe when it cause these to be disrupted. Compromise was a commonly used strategy in managing community-level conflict and this was based on trade-offs between disputants. Analysis of all conflict cases shows that managing conflict is managing social relationships. Empirical information demonstrated that conflict is both a negative as well as a positive social phenomenon.

The focus of ICM is to make conflict management forums easily accessible to rural people and to minimise dependence on adversarial forms of conflict resolution. Developing local capacity in conflict management starts with participatory conflict analysis. Appropriate training on negotiation, facilitation, communication, conflict analysis, mediation skills, legal awareness, etc. help to develop the ability of people actively involved in conflict management to achieve a local resolution. ICM acknowledges the knowledge, skills and experiences of a community to manage conflict. Diversity embedded in a local community can be mobilised to resolve/manage conflict. The success or failure to resolve a conflict depends on a fuller understanding of the interdependence by people. With the ICM process actors generate knowledge, skills, confidence, trusts, resources and insights to deal with NR-conflicts on a community-level. Conflicts that arose due to confusion and misunderstanding can be resolved by putting all the relevant information to the actors concerned. A complete analysis of a conflict situation (whole complexity of socio-political relations and their effects on natural resource conflicts) is vital before any negotiated agreements are implemented. Assessment of such an analysis gives people an understanding of the fundamental causes of conflict and the potential and limitations for resolution.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • von Benda-Beckmann, F., Promotor
  • Röling, N.G., Promotor
Award date13 Jun 2001
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789058084293
Publication statusPublished - 2001


  • resource management
  • natural resources
  • conflict
  • land
  • irrigation
  • water
  • forests
  • nepal


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