Natural Resources and Conflict: A Guide for Mediation Practitioners

United Nations Department of Political Affairs and United Nations Environment Programme


Mediation has been underutilized by the international system in addressing disputes over natural resources, for three main reasons. First, issues in these conflicts tend to be very technical in nature and, as such, require that mediators themselves have extensive technical expertise or have access to it. In many places, such specialized knowledge is either not available or not fully trusted by one or more of the parties in the dispute. Second, the international system still lags behind in identifying or acting on opportunities for proactive use of mediation as a tool for conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Finally, where technical solutions are available, the political dimension of natural resource disputes is often overlooked. Yet resource disputes are inherently political, in that they feed into power disparities among various players. Accordingly, any comprehensive attempt at conflict resolution must take into account the political context of the conflict along with its technical dimensions.

This guide seeks to addresses these challenges and demonstrate the value of mediation as an effective tool for resolving disputes around natural resources. It examines sector-specific challenges that may arise when mediating conflicts over extractive resources, land, or water, and provides guidance on intervention strategies for natural resources in the broader context of peace negotiations.

Key findings:


  • Context is extremely important. Each natural resource sector addressed in this guide—extractives, land, and water—generates multiple forms of conflict, which require different approaches to mediation. The design of a mediation process should take into account the characteristics and functionality of the resource in question, together with mechanisms for dealing with uncertainty. In all cases, it is essential to understand the root cause of the conflict, the interaction of natural resources with other conflict drivers, the broader political economy, and the entry-points for a mediated solution.
  • Effective mediation requires a clear but nuanced mapping of actors and interests. Mediators should only enter into the interactive phases of the mediation process once they have become well informed about the complex network of relationships among natural resource actors and their interests. The analysis should consider direct and indirect actors at the different levels of the conflict dynamic, and should capture the range of their multifaceted interests.
  • Equal access to impartial scientific and technical information about the resource in dispute is key. One of the prerequisites to effective mediation processes over natural resources is for all parties to have equal access to impartial scientific and technical information about the resource in dispute. This can be jointly generated by the parties themselves or by an independent third party. The very process of generating common information can also have confidence building benefits.
  • Careful attention is needed to identify the stakeholders that should be engaged in the mediation process. Designers of mediation processes should think carefully about which stakeholders to involve. Inviting the participation of all stakeholders may, for example, prove too unwieldy or fragmented to produce consensus. Understanding which actors to include in mediation, and the potential political impacts of including some and excluding others, is essential. In turn, ensuring consultation with a sufficiently wide set of stakeholders is crucial to establish and maintain the legitimacy of the process. This can be particularly important with groups that tend to be marginalized, such as indigenous people, women, or youth.
  • Mediation should aim for collaboration over shared benefits, which can generate the trust needed to tackle other issues. Mediators approaching a conflict over natural resources should try to help parties move past zero-sum, win-lose positions. Mediators should try to identify ways that stakeholders can maximize shared benefits and address common problems and challenges together. When possible, natural resources should be treated as a platform for cooperation that transcends religious, ideological, political, or tribal differences, as initial cooperation over natural resources can sometimes be leveraged to tackle more challenging problems down the line.
  • Mediation techniques are available to overcome critical impasses and entrenched positions. Once involved in negotiations, mediators can break down impasses using a number of techniques: focusing the talks on technical issues; conducting joint information gathering; identifying and sharing multiple benefits; or using scenario-building approaches. Altering fixed or inflexible default positions can sometimes be achieved by moving parties away from questions of natural resource ownership and toward broader issues of benefit-sharing, predictable access, and management—areas where opportunities for mutual benefit can be found.
  • Natural resource issues in peace negotiations are frequently addressed to lay the foundation for future reforms, and not necessarily to resolve problems immediately. Mediators addressing natural resource conflicts in a peace process should keep in mind that their objective is not necessarily to resolve the issue during the negotiation, but often to create an institutional framework and momentum that can deal with natural resource issues at a later time. This can often be achieved by including direct or indirect provisions on natural resources in the peace agreement. Alternatively, issues of natural resource governance can be embedded in a follow-up track to that peace agreement—for example, through a commission, a needs assessment, or a peacebuilding plan.



UN DPA & UNEP (2015). Natural Resources and Conflict: A Guide for Mediation Practitioners. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme, New York: United Nations Department of Political Affairs.