Conservation conflict and how to resolve it

Saturday 11 May 2019 | Published in Environment


Conservation conflict and how to resolve it
Auraka e Kupenga street march against purse seine fishing. 19051098

Conservation conflicts are increasing across the globe and can result in negative impacts on biodiversity, human livelihoods and human well-being. Although such conflicts can positively influence change, they are more often destructive, costly and can not only threaten effective conservation but also prevent economic development, social equality and resource sustainability.

Conservation conflict can be defined as a situation that occurs when two or more parties with strongly held opinions clash over conservation objectives, and when one party is perceived to affirm its interest at the expense of another. Conservation conflicts occur primarily between people who have opposing values and views, or when there is a lack of trust between stakeholders. More commonly, conflicts can arise due to poor or inadequate consultations that result in key stakeholders being excluded from conservation planning or disadvantaged in negotiations by not being made fully aware of the available evidence to make informed decisions.

WTF – Where’s the Fish?

In the Cook Islands, a conflict around commercial fishing by purse seine vessels, ended up in the High Court in 2017. The case against government was initiated by local NGO Te Ipukarea Society (TIS) and some of Rarotonga’s traditional leaders from Te Au o Tonga, challenging government’s fisheries partnership deal with the European Union in 2016. The key issues identified in the case related to the lack of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), together with the lack of adequate public consultation.

Te Ipukarea Society raised public awareness of the issue, utilising local media sources. The result was a public outcry inspiring three protest marches and a petition to ban purse seine fishing within the Cook Islands Exclusive Economic Zone. The case was initially won by government, but was won on appeal because the required EIA had not been conducted. Government has since appealed this Court of Appeal decision to the Privy Council, a date for which has not yet been set.

Steps to mitigate institutional conflict

To mitigate such conflict, it is key to establish trust from the very beginning. In order to build trust, early stakeholder engagement is encouraged to produce high quality decisions. Quality information needs to be available to all stakeholders, to improve the effectiveness of engagement.

Along with building trust, the willingness of parties to consider a negotiated agreement is also key to mitigating conflict. Parties with different values may opt not to negotiate, and may try harder to undermine a process. An example of this occurred in the given case study, whereby government’s interest was based largely on economic gains, as opposed to a more conservation minded focus from the perspective of the NGO and traditional leaders.

A breakdown in negotiation can also occur when one party fails to acknowledge the legitimacy of another party, labelling them as insignificant or trouble makers. When in negotiation, it is difficult to achieve a win-win situation for all stakeholders. This is why it is important that goals, arguments and potential trade-offs are made clear at the start when understanding the underlying issues before seeking solutions.

Firming decisions through legislation

Legislative tools can work well to manage conservation conflicts by setting out clear rules and regulations for all parties. Conservation conflicts can be avoided or minimised by ensuring the fair engagement of all relevant stakeholders in the development of those legislative tools. One example of such a process was in the development of the Marae Moana Act 2017. The Act states that: “A marine protected area of 50 nautical miles (measured from each coastline of the 15 islands that make up the Cook Islands) is established, all seabed minerals activities and large-scale commercial fishing in the area are prohibited” (Marae Moana Act 2017 section 3). Government were seeking a fisheries protected area of only 24 nautical miles from each coastline, as it would have been more appealing to commercial fishing companies. However, once all the relevant scientific evidence was disclosed to all stakeholders, the full proposed 50 nautical mile limit was able to be agreed upon and confirmed.

The need to be critical of evidence being used

Scientific information played a crucial role in justifying the position statements of both the Government and TIS. However, scientific information can also sometimes cause bias, for example, science can become politicised if stakeholders focus solely on the research that supports their own position. Those who choose to use scientific information as justification, also need to acknowledge their own personal interests, for stakeholders to make unbiased decisions.

The role that media plays also warrants careful consideration. Sometimes the media can sensationalise conflict issues rather than simply state the facts based on evidence. Support for constructive journalism is therefore an important part of achieving effective conflict resolutions.


The core principle of mitigating conflict is establishing trust. Trust is achieved through early stakeholder engagement and in the availability of quality and transparent information, ensuring all evidence is made available and any gaps identified. The Cook Islands with its small population size can benefit from the opportunities for improved information sharing and coordination of well represented stakeholder consultations and discussions. Engaging stakeholders from the very beginning with transparent information will help mitigate future conservation conflicts and assist in achieving positive and collaborative conservation change.

-Te Ipukarea Society