Action-oriented research in environmental conflicts

The Research Group of Responsive Natural Resources Governance has a lot to give when it comes to understanding prolonged environmental conflicts. Training is now used to put research findings into practice.

Text Sari Eskelinen Photos Irmeli Mustalahti, Violeta Gutiérres Zamora and Varpu Heiskanen

Environmental conflicts can easily escalate into violence. “As researchers, it is our ethical duty to share our skills in order to support the communities’ ways of collaboration and conflict mitigation,” Researcher Violeta Gutiérrez Zamora says.

Born in Mexico, Gutiérrez Zamora has been conducting field research in San Pedro El Alto, and she returned to Finland in early 2018. Located in south-west Mexico, San Pedro El Alto is home to massive natural resources. Unfortunately, however, the problems relating to the governance of natural resources and to the use of those resources are also massive. The parties to the environmental conflict there include the local community and the neighbouring communities, as well as the regional and central government.

“The issues related to the governance of forests and land in San Pedro El Alto are very complicated, and this is partially influenced by the overlapping normative systems that control indigenous peoples’ collective ownership of the land.”


San Pedro El Alto is just one example of the various environmental conflicts taking place around the world.

“The conflict in San Pedro El Alto is multilayered and multifaceted, dating back hundreds of years,” says Professor of Social Scientific Bioeconomy Research Irmeli Mustalahti.

Mustalahti and Gutiérrez Zamora visited San Pedro El Alto for the first time in 2015. The village is one of the sites of research studied by UEF’s Research Group of Responsive Natural Resources Governance in a project funded by the Academy of Finland.

“When we arrived in San Pedro El Alto in 2015 to do field research, the local community had recently had a serious conflict with the neighbouring communities, and they asked for our support in resolving the situation,” Gutiérrez Zamora says.  

As a result, two participatory workshops were held. The participants were members of the communities, representatives of the Forest National Commission (CONAFOR), and forestry students doing their internship in San Pedro.  

“In our second workshop, the participants were mostly from the community of San Pedro, because the issues they wanted to go deeper into were more sensitive. In both the workshops, we approached conflict resolution through collaborative forest management and development,” Gutiérrez Zamora explains.

The conflict in San Pedro El Alto was presented as a case study during a course in environmental governance and conflict resolution held in Joensuu in 2016. Among the course teachers were two Mexicans, Professor Mara Hernández from CIDE and Lecturer Diego García Osorio from UNAM, as well as several other experts and scholars of natural resources governance from Finland and other Nordic countries. The same course will be organised again in August 2018.


In the case of many environmental conflicts, there is very little negotiation to be done, and conflict resolution mainly comes down to establishing collaboration between the parties.

“Environmental conflicts often date back several generations, and in many cases the opposite party is not a concrete person or organisation that could be brought to the negotiating table.”  

This is why in Mexico, too, collaboration has been framed and built little by little between the parties, and the results are promising. However, time will tell how things turn out.  

“In San Pedro El Alto, the participatory and facilitated workshops haven’t been used as a tool for conflict resolution before, so people were eager to expand collaboration within their own community and to the neighbouring communities, too. Women from a regional collaborative project of pine needle handicrafts in particular expressed their interest in receiving this kind of training,” Gutiérrez Zamora says.

Some of the funding for the workshops in Mexico came from the local community, some from central government, and some from the research project.


Courses addressing environmental conflict resolution are closely linked with the activities of the Research Group of Responsive Natural Resources Governance at the University of Eastern Finland. The case study in Mexico constitutes part of a larger research group analysing change in environmental governance actors’ participation in the various processes and instruments, as well as the conflicts of the processes in which decisions regarding the forest and land resources are made. Furthermore, justice and rights to resources are also important concepts of inquiry. The research group led by Professor Irmeli Mustalahti focuses on a number of case study countries, including Finland, Russia, Laos, Nepal, Mozambique, Tanzania and Mexico.


Gutiérrez Zamora is writing her PhD for the research group. Her research focuses on developing methods for conflict resolution and participation in situations that have escalated into violence and in which conflict resolution is difficult to reach due to a strong sense of injustice.

Her research findings will be put into practice in various training courses and workshops.  

“The objective is for our research to support the lives of people to whom this kind of training is not easily accessible.”

International approach to education and research

In August 2018, the Joensuu Campus of the University of Eastern Finland will host a course in environmental conflict resolution for doctoral and Master’s level students. The course is already the third of its kind. Organised since 2016, the courses are funded by the Nordic Forestry, Veterinary and Agricultural University Network (NOVA), and they attract participants from various countries every year.

“The courses focus on collaborative approaches in conflict resolution. These methods can be used both in research and in practical conflict resolution situations,” Irmeli Mustalahti says.

Funding for the courses has been secured until 2019, and they are closely linked with research carried out at the University of Eastern Finland. This year, the University of Eastern Finland will also launch two extensive projects funded by the Strategic Research Council, and the methods developed in these projects will be tested on the NOVA course.

“The two projects, ALL YOUTH and CORE, seek to develop collaborative conflict resolution methods for the natural resources governance.”

Professor Irmeli Mustalahti leads the working group of the ALL-YOUTH project seeking to involve young people in the bioeconomy and sustainable well-being. The CORE project, on the other hand, is tasked with the development of participatory methods in environmental governance, and is led by Professor of Environmental Policy Lasse Peltonen. Both projects are linked to the Nordic and global network studying and teaching collaborative conflict resolution methods.

“This is a novel way for us to integrate our strategic research projects, ALL-YOUTH and CORE, into the work of international research networks. We can make our expertise available to our international partners, and vice versa. This creates unique opportunities for the further development of natural resources governance and collaborative conflict resolution methods,” Mustalahti says.

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Located in south-west Mexico, San Pedro El Alto is home to massive natural resources, and environmental conflicts date back hundreds of years.

UEF Bulletin 2018