Conflict transformation and grassroots universities – Alma Soto Sanchez

01 Nov 2018
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Following training at The Centre For People and Forests in Bangkok, Thailand on “Transforming forest landscape conflicts for better governance”, researcher Alma Patricia Soto Sánchez draws parallels on the experiences in Mexico with those of researchers and communities in Nepal, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Thailand. Alma writes on her research with the Conflict and Cooperation over REDD+ in Mexico, Nepal and Vietnam (CoCooR) project where some young people feel helpless in addressing conflict facing their communities. She explains how new approaches could foster cooperation and lead to improved decision-making around forests in Mexico.

While communities in forested areas of Mexico have held historical claim to land, pressure on local resources has grown as a result of competing claims over the land, including government logging permissions in areas already occupied and utilised.

One example of communities dealing with these external pressures was the case of the ODRENASIJ – an organisation formed in 1980 by 13 communities that demanded the return of their rights over the forest. The forest had until that time been granted to a parastatal company that both the exploited and transformed thenresource. The organisation demanded control of the forest be returned to the communities through the concept of term comunalidad or “communality”. Comunalidad entails the  social ownership of land, political and social organisation – through assemblies and local systems of governance – collective work and benefits as the four cornerstones of daily life.

Through this struggle, indigenous communities from the Sierra Norte in the northern highlands of Oaxaca reversed the presidential decree that granted the logging to the parastatal for another 20 years, gaining the restoration of the right to manage their forest and their territories, leading to a form of community forestry that is emblematic of self-determination, indigenous and community organisation processes.

Comunalidad gained political meaning and has since been embraced for demands on recognition, territorial control, self-determination, education, and lately to counteract land concessions. Critically, through comunalidad – and the four cornerstones it carries – legal actions and communication processes have also been improved. The process has resulted in the reconstitution and revitalisation of political and social organisations, as well as knowledge sharing practices – including the teaching of local languages and traditional practices to younger generations.

Through this process, communities have a way of enforcing participation on the decision-making of the present and future for their communities and territories. The communication part of the strategy is done through community radios, and other social media that has been vital to strengthening networks and the capacity building of young people to produce and disseminate their own media content.

Conflict close to home
However, conflict doesn’t only arise from external forces. Conflict can also be experienced between adjoining communities. Community-based conflicts identified through CoCooR include those over boundaries, access to the water, road construction, and budget distribution among the municipality and the communities. And there are also conflicts within communities, caused by political parties that have been replacing customary political authority systems and religious organisations. Conflict has also had some positive effects in some communities where it has highlighted the women’s political involvement in customary political systems as imposed by law from the subnational government.

In some areas, conflicts have escalated to the point of violence, death and injury. One outcome has been an increase of university students wanting to help the authorities of their communities to solve, or at least lessenm their community’s ongoing conflicts. However, the actual process of doing so is almost impossible. Because the students are part of one of the groups or communities involved, they find themselves being considered biased and unable to bring conflicting communities together. Furthermore, both national and subnational governments are usually too busy to enforce or propose solutions or to facilitate dialogue between the competing groups. Far too often, a violent episode is followed by communities exercising greater caution and exhibiting greater distrust of neighbouring communities instead of finding solutions and ways to cooperate.

The feeling of helplessness these young people are feeling is not unlike the concerns of forest communities around the world. Our discussions with researchers and stakeholders from Cambodia, Nepal and Ethiopia, facilitated by the workshop, highlighted the need to set in motion opportunity and space for dialogue between communities.

Before this training, I had spoken to professors of local universities about the possibility of becoming mediators. Importantly, these professors are indigenous and from the region and will be able to foster greater levels of trust from the communities. From the training and south-south learning, it became clear that researchers and leaders need to work with other actors at the regional and state level to foster cooperation and lessen the likelihood of violent conflict.

By using an approach that seeks to transform conflicts, we can propose the first steps towards dialogue. The lessons learnt will be especially useful to young people who have great potential to transform the conflict their communities are facing.

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