Conflict sensitivity and policymakers

04 Dec 2015
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One of the ambitions of the CoCooN programme was to increase the sensitivity of policymakers to conflicts around natural resources. So expectations were high at the beginning of the last CoCooN Conference. How would the policymakers respond to the results? And what strategies can be developed to increase conflict sensitivity?

CoCooN was also about bringing research and policy together. One of the challenges facing researchers is how to make their work more relevant and useful. They can have an impact by investigating practical social issues and addressing policymakers. This is not always easy. Some researchers are afraid of losing their independence and feel they should be driven primarily by academic curiosity. They also have difficulty connecting the world outside to their own academic sphere. The idea of CoCooN was that if academics had to work with NGOs they would be tempted to cross the bridge towards policymaking and address policy-relevant issues, and that NGOs and activists could help them to reach out – all this with the aim of making policymakers more sensitive to conflicts around natural resources.

Ton Dietz (ASC), Jeroen Verheul & Marion van Schaik (MoFa)Crossing bridges is not easy. Many issues have to be dealt with, including practical ones like how to connect long-term academic research with short-time information needs. But the disconnect is not entirely on the side of the academics. A telling moment at the conference occurred during a breakout session on the implementation of sustainability and human rights norms. Before delivering her presentation on the international legal aspects, researcher Kinanya Pijl asked how many policymakers were present. A silence fell. After some time one young woman raised her hand hesitantly. She explained that she was not really involved in the decision making process, but worked as a trainee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.On the participants list were the names of academics, activists and members of NGOs from all over the world, all very eager to exchange ideas with policymakers. But the problem was the policymakers were heavily outnumbered. The absence of policymakers was certainly a missed opportunity, because the issues discussed were very relevant to them.

An opportunity to discuss

The big question in the break-out session of Pijl was how to protect the natural environment and the local population against the negative impacts of the large-scale production of palm oil and soy and the activities of the timber logging industry. The findings of the CoCooN project Land and Rights on Troubled Water (LAR) help to answer that question. One of its main conclusions is that the present regulatory, monitoring and enforcement arrangements fail to protect local communities in the Amazon.

Several issues were raised during the discussion:

  • Researcher Kinanya PijlThe first is how to strengthen the legal position of local groups living on the frontline of the fight for the natural resources by making the legal procedures more available to them. One of Pijl’s policy recommendations was to make it easier for them to issue complains or start legal proceedings against governments or multinationals.
  • Another suggestion was to improve independent local monitoring. Here the local groups living on the frontline can play a crucial role, said Tim Boekhout van Solinge from Utrecht University, the coordinator of the LAR project. Of course, governments and international organizations already do a lot of monitoring, but there is a huge gap between the reality presented to policymakers in official reports and the reality on the ground. Corruption, outright criminality and non-independent monitoring (for example by researchers hired by the same multinationals that are engaged in the activities they have to monitor) are not the only factors to be accounted for. Sometimes very creative ways are found to evade rules and regulations. One example is the way deforestation is officially measured, in which only plots of more than 25 hectares are recorded. This is evaded by deforesting several smaller plots for new soy plantations instead of one big plot.
  • A third suggestion was to shift regulatory and monitoring activities to the North. Why not block imports of soya for which Western standards for herbicide applications are exceeded? This could be done by monitoring the soya coming into Northern harbours like Rotterdam (the residues of herbicide can be measured). This will not have a positive effect on health in the North, but it will remove the economic incentive to use herbicides in the producing countries.

The value of exchange with policymakers

The discussions at the other breakout sessions were equally relevant to policymakers. One was with Alexandra Urán and Marjo de Theije of the GOMIAM-project. Dirk-Jan Koch, special envoy for natural resources at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, moderated the session. In this session the objective was to discuss GOMIAM lessons with commercial and NGO parties that invest in the gold mining sector in the Amazon. Urán discussed with Fabeel Butt – who represented the Fair Gold program of Max Havelaar Foundation – about the Colombian Oro Verde (Green Gold) experience. De Theije talked with Andor Lips, Director Metals and Mining Finance of ING about the Banks investments. In Suriname, in the territory of the Paamaka Maroons, who used to make a living of small scale gold mining, a large-scale gold mine was built. Shouldn’t the Dutch government and private sector take responsibility for the negative consequences for the local population, and work for more inclusive development strategies? De Theije suggested that this should be addressed when we talk about combining aid and trade.

CoCooN Conference 27112015-246The value of a direct exchange of ideas between the project members and policymakers became apparent in the breakout session on sustainable small-scale fisheries, in which a presentation was given about the REINCORPFISH project on small-scale fishing. The project illustrates well the complexity of the problems facing policymakers: the problem of overfishing in the fishing grounds near the borders by trawlers; a social conflict, because the fishers in Sri Lanka belong to the Tamil minority; a political dimension involving conflicts of interest between the region and the national state; the implications of international law on fishing rights; and an economically driven conflict between small-scale fishing and large-scale fishing.

What added value to this presentation was the contribution by two policymakers at the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs (Lianne Kersbergen and Gelare Nader) about international agreements on fishing rights and EU law-making. They presented tough dilemmas regarding the rights of small-scale fishers and sustainable fishing. If we really want to be conflict sensitive, they argued, we have to look at the big picture of international competition. What use is it to ban or strictly regulate the European fishery sector, if Chinese or Russian fleets, which have much less regard for the interests of local fisherman and sustainability, take their place? They also pointed out that most policies are European, limiting the playing field of national policies.

CoCooN goes for conflict sensitivity

So a key requirement for conflict sensitivity is a supply of relevant information and analysis. On this score, the aggregated CoCooN results could provide plenty of material for a guidebook on political sensitivity. For example, the NEBE project focusing on nationalization and state activism in the extractive industries in Bolivia and Peru teaches us the same lesson as the LAR project: the importance of real-time on the ground information from the frontline to the process of policymaking and monitoring. But it adds the notion that new technology enables this – not just with digital cameras, laptops and smart phones, but also by providing local communities with drones to register deforestation and oil spills. One of the conclusions of the ‘Groundwater in the political domain’ project is that policymakers and NGOs are too quick to target their interventions at the national level. In a country like Yemen it is better to intervene at a ‘user level’, because at a national level there is no interest in the subject at all. In the political context of Pakistan, it is best to intervene at the district level. The Jatropha project teaches us about the effect of hypes (in this case Jatropha as a biofuel), which can lead policymakers astray all over the world, binding them to undesirable side effects.

The demand side

The other key condition for conflict sensitivity is on the demand side: policymakers should become more receptive to possible drivers of conflict and more willing to take the time to absorb relevant research and information. During the different panel discussions suggestions were made on how to increase political awareness. Some of these were addressed to researchers.

  • Reina Buijs, director-general for international cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said they should be more communicative and realise that an academic article has an average of five readers. And those readers are not policymakers because, like embassy diplomats, they suffer from a chronicle lack of time.
  • The answer is to keep it short and simple, like policy briefs, suggested Marion van Schaik, senior policy advisor water & environment at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But it was also commonly acknowledged that this alone would not do the trick.
  • Dirk-Jan Koch suggested that training courses and workshops might help, arguing that policymakers should learn to be more aware of possible drivers of conflicts when taking investment decisions, for example. Of course, there are checklists that address certain conflict issues, but this is not enough. Such training courses could also include techniques for making better use of research and knowledge.
  • Another idea, proposed by Danielle Hirsch of the Dutch NGO Both ENDS, is to ‘force’ conflict sensitivity into the decision-making and monitoring process. She agreed with Tim Boekhout van Solinge that independent local monitoring was crucial when dealing with local resources and suggested making such monitoring a mandatory condition before engaging in infrastructural programmes or when signing trade agreements.

Reina Buijs (MoFa)  at the CoCooN Conference

A new generation of CoCooN?

Reina Buijs argued that interest in conflict sensitivity is also related to the political climate. In her speech she recalled that the development of the CoCooN programme was triggered by the fact that the theme of conflict and cooperation on natural resources was heavily debated among Dutch policymakers in the 1990s. She argued that in the present debate about migration and the conflicts in Syria and Iraq there is a growing awareness that the issue of conflicts over natural resources needs to be acknowledged. Overexploitation of groundwater resources, drought resulting from climate change and unsustainable agricultural practices are among the drivers of migration and conflict. There may well be a need for policy-relevant research knowledge and CoCooN-like programmes on these issues too.

Blog written by Michiel Zonneveld of The Broker



  • 04 Dec 2015

    at 17:30 Kate Berry, Professor of Geography, University of Nevada wrote

    Too much has been made about the differences between researchers and others and, I believe, the issue of researchers potentially losing independence misses the mark. Researchers are part of civil society and one of their significant contributions is the ability to provide fresh perspectives on situations involving conflicts and/or collaboration over natural resources. Such perspectives may be invaluable to facilitate greater conflict sensitivity and in understanding the dynamics (as well as limitations) of collaboration. Moreover, the expertise of researchers in collecting relevant data is important in many of CoCooN consortiums. It is also noteworthy that researchers are increasingly found not only in academic institutions, but also working within NGOs and government agencies as part of broader interdisciplinary teams.

    And it’s worth considering, what is meant by policymakers? Are these elected politicians? Are these individuals working within executive agencies to interpret and implement statutes and judicial decisions? Are these only from the Netherlands? As was raised at the conference, the involvement of policymakers in CoCooN projects needs to be determined in a case-by-case basis as it is quite context specific. In many cases the most relevant policymakers were half-a-world away so it is understandable that they were not there. Yet, it may have been a missed opportunity for Dutch politicians and executive agency personnel to learn more about the policy dynamics and needs concerning environmental management in developing countries. The conference, however, is only one venue through which CoCooN is ‘getting the word’ out. The Broker is another as are the videos, posters, presentations, reports, and publications being produced by these projects and consortium.

    Kate Berry, Professor of Geography, University of Nevada, Reno and chair of the CoCooN International Panel Advisory Committee


  • 04 Dec 2015

    at 21:58 Reina Buijs, Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote

    I would like to stress that the focus on trade and aid does not inhibit conflict sensitiveness. Our current development A World to Gain has indeed a strong focus on trade and development. But it underlines the need for investment that benefit both people and environment, and foster transparency. This provides good entry points for use of CoCooN’s findings. For instance in the natural resource sector: transparency in revenues of natural resources is an important tool to combat corruption, and ultimately prevent tension between local populations and companies exploiting resources.

    Reina Buijs, Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs


  • 05 Dec 2015

    at 11:28 Jacqueline Cramer, chair of the CoCooN Steering Committee and Professor Sustainability and innovation at the University of Utrecht wrote

    I think the blog could have been more explicit about the outcome of the panel discussion I was allowed to preside. For me one of the outstanding conclusions was that CoCooN delivered the insights that could attribute a lot to a manual on conflict sensitiveness in the policymaking process at a local level. Danielle Hirsch of Both ENDS added to this that there are more examples of joint work by researchers and NGO’s that could be used. Point number one in such a manual should be that it is essential to take local voices and interests into account when we have to (co) decide about infrastructural project, investment decisions in general and trade treaties. The CoCooN programme shows how on the ground information can help assess potential conflicts. What does contribute is to bring together local groups around mutual interests. The Renincorpfish project showed for example how you can build bridges between local fishermen and big fishing companies in India en Sri Lanka. Another point is how you can strengthen the position of local people in existing- and not yet existing-legal frameworks In order to get heard. A lot is said about the importance of independent local monitoring. Key to the issue is the use of modern information technology for and by the ones that are literally on the frontline in the fight over natural resources. I was really triggered by the way Drones were used by indigenous people in the NEBE-project to assess the damage caused by for example the oil-drilling industry.

    Jacqueline Cramer, chair of the CoCooN Steering Committee and Professor Sustainability and innovation at the University of Utrecht


  • 06 Dec 2015

    at 14:17 Dr D.J. Koch Special Envoy Natural Resources Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands wrote

    I do agree that it is very important that policymakers become more conflict sensitive. For me training is indeed a very good instrument. In the basic course on international development we should have a module on ‘conflict sensitive programming’. But of course this is not the only strategy we can think of. We could for example make a checklist that can be used for investment decisions that have implications on conflicts relating to natural resources. It is also important that policymakers, when dealing with projects on infrastructure, make use of independent local conflict monitoring systems.

    Dr D.J. Koch Special Envoy Natural Resources Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands


  • 07 Dec 2015

    at 10:32 Leida Rijnhout, Director Global Policies and Sustainability at the European Environmental Bureau wrote

    Linking citizen-based knowledge, with the more traditional scientific research is highly relevant. Even better if this leads to evidence-based policy recommendations, concrete enough to be integrated in current strategies. EEB was one of the 23 partners in a 5-year program on Environmental Justice Organisations, Liability and Trade (EJOLT). It was funded by the European Commission in the FP-7 Framework (Science in Society). EJOLT delivered many scientific reports on resource conflict issues, fact sheets and articles in scientific journals. EJOLT worked with a group of scientists and lawyers, activists, local communities and NGOs all around the world. Policy briefs were developed with clear recommendations and distributed to EU decision makers. It also developed the Atlas of Environmental Justice (, which is very relevant to policymakers. This online interactive Atlas contains a huge database of more than 1600 cases of local environmental conflicts. The cases are described and give information on involved actors, type of resource conflict and on content and status of legal actions. This tool gives the possibility to exchange information and make the cases more visible, which helps in gathering support for finding a solution.

    Leida Rijnhout, Director Global Policies and Sustainability at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB)


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