How do we turn conflict into coexistence?

Implicit in the conservation of change principle is that solutions for sustainability must be place-based: reflecting the uniqueness of local ecosystems (and what they can and cannot provide) and also the varied needs, values, aspirations, and self expressions of the people that live within them. Unlike an industrial way of thinking about sustainability, which seeks standardized solutions that "scale up" to solve global problems, the conservation of change requires that we move toward a landscape of heterogeneous but integrated solutions that solve local and regional problems. 

If you want a visual for what I'm talking about, take a look at the cover art for Courtney White's book, Grass Soil Hope(And read my review of it here.)

What does it take for people with diverse interests in shared land and seascapes to co-exist?

There's a catch, however; if bioculturally diverse societies are the goal, then conflict over shared resources is inevitable. That is, different groups of people with different values and priorities for natural resources will not always agree on the best ways of using those resources. This may be especially true for resources that are 'subtractable', meaning that if one group draws from a resource another cannot. Some conflict can be a good thing — a force to ensure that people's diverse needs are met and even a source of innovation. However, conflicts can also escalate to the point that communities are fractured, and people are unable to work together on solving problems. Worse still is when conflict escalates to the point where people are driven to hate and violence to protect their basic means of survival and expression. 

  Hannah Harrison, my collaborator on much of this work, with a king salmon caught at her uncle's set-net site.


Hannah Harrison, my collaborator on much of this work, with a king salmon caught at her uncle's set-net site.

My new paper in the journal Human Ecology explores the issue of conflict over resources, and asks the question: what does it take for people with diverse interests in shared ecosystems to co-exist?

To answer this question, my paper focuses on the ongoing conflicts over salmon fisheries in the Cook Inlet region of Alaska. I've done research in this region for years; over that time, conflicts among sport, commercial, and personal use fishers have escalated to the point that some sport sector boosters were pushing to pass a constitutional amendment to end a kind of commercial fishing called set-netting in the region. The proposed set-net ban, which was rejected by Alaska's Supreme Court, would have eliminated a way of life for many local fishermen whose families have fished for salmon on the east side of Cook Inlet for generations. Nevertheless, the fact that people were willing to explore such an extreme action is indicative that local conflicts are more rancorous than ever.

   Figure 1.  Standardized catch data for the four major salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet.


Figure 1. Standardized catch data for the four major salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet.

I have heard from fishermen in Cook Inlet on a number of occasions that they are tired of fighting to fish. Yet, it is noteworthy that the multiple commercial, sport, and personal use fisheries have more or less been able to persist and even grow despite these long-simmering disputes. Have a look at Figure 1, which shows catch data (standardized for comparison) for the four major fisheries in the region. Several things are noteworthy, including the fact that the growth of sport and personal use fishing over the last couple of decades has not notably affected commercial fishing success. These fisheries appear capable of coexisting. The drift fishery had no problem recovering from an outright closure in 1989 due to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It appears that only with recent declines in king salmon have the social conflicts escalated to the point where one group was (is?) in danger of being pushed out.  

My new paper explores in detail what has made coexistence of these fisheries possible to date, and what would be necessary to foster a less contentious form of coexistence moving forward. Without going into too much detail (read the paper in its entirety here), I combine theory from ecology and anthropology to propose a set of mechanisms for effective coexistence of multiple stakeholder groups in a shared resource setting. Of these, I highlight 3 here:

  • Resilience: the circumstances of competition among groups must be such that each group is capable of recovering from some surprise event. The case of drift fishing and the oil spill noted above is a good example. The drift fishery was resilient, meaning that competition from other groups didn't push them out while they were temporarily impacted by the spill.
     
  • Equity: if the rules and institutions governing shared resources ensure that everyone's basic needs are protected, the escalation of conflict to a point where one group wishes to eliminate another is unlikely. Equity in resource management and allocation also ensures that people do not have incentives to over-harvest resources.
     
  • Pluralism: conflict does not escalate to the point where people's lives or livelihoods are at stake when people value and even prioritize cultural diversity, recognizing and accepting the rights of different people to exist within the same social and ecological spaces. 
  Figure 2.  Declines in catch diversity may signal a decline in resilience for one or more Cook Inlet Fisheries. 

Figure 2. Declines in catch diversity may signal a decline in resilience for one or more Cook Inlet Fisheries. 

That the proposed set-net ban for Cook Inlet is officially dead does not mean that the conflict among sport and commercial fishers will subside; indeed for Cook Inlet, data suggests that all three of the above mechanisms of coexistence are in jeopardy. Figure 2 shows how catch diversity has changed for these fisheries over time. Catch diversity can be a measure of resilience, in that people have a portfolio of options should one species (e.g., king salmon) have one or more poor years. 2012 is a case in point: because of poor king salmon returns, both set-net fishing and (eventually) sport fishing were closed to king salmon. You will see in figure 1 that sport fisheries had an above average year in 2012, whereas set-net fishers were hugely impacted. This latter point suggests that equity is a problem as well, in terms of whether the various fishing sectors are sharing the burden of conservation actions.

Finally, it seems fair to say that pluralism is currently in short supply, given that until recently one group of fishers was actively seeking to eliminate another's way of life. 

Is There a Solution?

Perhaps all that is needed is a few young leaders willing to cross the proverbial picket line and remind everyone of the many values that they share for their families and communities.

Sport, commercial, and personal use fisheries all make important contributions to the communities of Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula, economic and otherwise; yet, their coexistence thus far may very well have been bolstered by the sheer abundance of salmon. Now that kings are apparently in decline, and with the specter of climate change looming for more impacts on salmon, circumstances are only likely to get more strained. I believe that the coexistence framework I explore in my new paper offers guideposts for pursuing solutions. First, look to issues of equity: are people's needs being met, and are their basic rights protected? Then, look to resilience: what options do people have when crisis occurs? Are short-term conservation actions reducing people's resilience? If so, what alternatives can be weighed? Third, and the most difficult perhaps, is to find a way to short-circuit the conflict escalation that has depleted good will among people in these communities. It may have to be the youngest generation coming into fishing that achieves this, though they are growing up with the conflict all around them. 

Generally, crisis serves as a catalyst for people to abandon old grudges and come together to work toward shared goals. Hopefully, the people of Cook Inlet will not need to wait for a salmon fishery to collapse before they take these first steps. My sense is that many people involved in this conflict simply don't understand the extent of the problem or the cumulative impact that it has had on so many families. Our previous research shows that people in these groups actually share a core set of values for their families and communities; perhaps all that is needed is a few young leaders willing to cross the proverbial picket line and remind everyone of that fact.