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The Environment, Conflict, and Resolution

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Conflict Resolution Institute

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Environmental Conflict Resolution

During the Spring Quarter of 2019, the Conflict Resolution Institute organized an event called "Drops of Insight: An Interdisciplinary Panel on Water Conflict". The event convened a panel of University of Denver professors from the disciplines of conflict resolution, psychology, economics, business, and geography to discuss conflict on the Colorado River and how practitioners can apply conflict resolution principles to these type of natural resource issues. This panel offered great insight to practical ways that conflict can be mitigated through collaboration and education. While each panelist was an expert in their own right and not necessarily familiar with the other panelists' content, themes for common ground were naturally threaded throughout each presentation. While the Colorado River represents one significant example of natural resource conflicts that can occur, there are countless other examples of conflicts concerning water resources, land use planning, agricultural and pastoral lands, forestry management, environmental pollution and hazards, fisheries, etc. Furthermore, these conflicts arise in all levels of society, from local to national to international levels. Yet, many of these conflicts which are ostensibly about the distribution of natural resources are often embroiled in larger conflicts related to community health and well-being, ethnic and racial justice, cultural preservation, economic development, and the role of government in society.

Environmental conflict resolution is a sub-set of the conflict resolution field which focuses on how to effectively resolve natural resource conflicts. Over the past several decades, academics, practitioners, and those involved in a conflict have recognized that using collaborative strategies can be a better alternative to lengthy legal battles and violence. During this time period, the field of environmental conflict resolution became institutionalized and rigorously studied by academics. For example, the United States government established offices of conflict resolution in the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior, and Department of Energy. The US government also funds the US Institute of Environmental Conflict Resolution. Academics have asked questions on how natural resource conflicts arise, how they can be avoided through planning and management, how climate change and increasing population size will exacerbate them, and how they can be resolved. Practitioners have started non-profits and consultancies that operate at the local, national, and international levels to address these types of conflicts as well.

It is unsurprising that people often fight over environmental resources. The nature of environmental issues is that they are often transboundary. A river passes through communities, territories, and countries; fisheries can be shared by multiple nations; air pollution is not confined by political and social boundaries. As a result, the way that one group of people manages a resource often affects a downstream or nearby neighbor. However, despite the pervasiveness of these conflicts, it is more often than not that parties choose to cooperate rather than fight. According to United Nations – Water, there have been 295 international water agreements negotiated and signed since 1948 in comparison to 37 acute conflicts over water during that same time period. As we look towards a future where the effects of climate change and increasing population continue to put strain on our natural resources, environmental conflict resolution will continue to represent a problem-solving alternative to violence and legal battles that can build greater resilience, peace, and sustainability.

Our panelists for "Drops of Insight: An Interdisciplinary Panel on Water Conflict":

  • Dr. Douglas Allen, Daniels School of Business, University of Denver
  • Dr. Tamra Pearson d'Estree, Conflict Resolution Institute, Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver
  • Dr. Juan Carlos, Department of Economics, University of Denver 
  • Dr. Hillary Hamann, Department of Geography and the Environment, University of Denver
  • Dr. Gwen Mitchell, School of Professional Psychology, International Disaster Psychology, University of Denver  


~Sam Wallace, MA '19