Wetenschap - 14 juni 2001

Conflicts can bring about development

Conflicts can bring about development

Local conflicts can result in more empowered people in Nepal. The recent killing of the king however has hit the Nepalese badly.

In Nepal conflicts over natural resources are often dealt with in an informal way. Rather than taking them to a formal court, people rely on their own communities to discuss problems. If for example a conflict arises over the use of drinking water, people get together in Chautari, a public place surrounded by big trees. There the elders of both parties discuss the problem with those involved and decide on the issue. PhD candidate Bishnu Raj Upreti calls this joint exercise interactive conflict management. People prefer this informal way of solving conflicts, as it is cheaper than the formal system. Also, people have more trust in local elders than in formal officials. Not surprisingly so as, according to Upreti, local political leaders and government bureaucrats are corrupt and use their position for their own benefit.

Learning experiences

The good news however is that people can learn from these conflicts and thus come up with better ways to deal with these 'professional problem makers', as Upreti calls them. He studied five cases of conflicts over the use of drinking water and access to irrigation systems, land and forests. In all cases he saw that people were more empowered after the conflict than before, better able to demand services they were entitled to. Also, people came up with alternatives for solving the problem. In the case of conflict over drinking water, the conflicting villages together managed to secure funds for a new drinking water project that delivered enough water for both villages.

A disadvantage of interactive conflict management is that it is not well documented. If the problem arises again, there is no jurisprudence to refer to. Also, some think the local system is too susceptible to power relations, resulting in biased rulings. In this light Upreti pleads for more legal training of local people on their rights. "Those without legal knowledge are generally exploited by those who have," he states. Local non-governmental organisations have a role in facilitating the process of conflict-solving.

No outcome

The recent killing of members of the royal house of Nepal will affect local processes and conflicts, according to Upreti. The elders for example, and many others, believe that the murdered king Birendra was the incarnation of Vishnu. This, combined with the king's reforms towards democracy, made him popular with local people. Some even committed suicide upon hearing of the killing, Upreti tells. Apart from the issue of the hows and the whys of the killing, the new king, Gyanendra, is generally seen as non-democratic, and likely to increase the power of the military, which will also be felt in rural areas. Asked about what the final outcome of the tragedy will be, Upreti replies there will be no outcome. "There is no evidence. All that will happen is that the current king will legitimise the situation as it is now."

Upreti defended his thesis on Wednesday 13 June; he was supervised by Dr Franz von Benda-Beckmann, legal anthropologist, and Prof. Niels R?ling of Communication and Innovation Studies.

Joris Tielens

A community meeting at one of the villages in Nepal where PhD graduate Bishnu Raj Upreti did fieldwork to gather examples of conflict management in natural resources.