Collaborative tools and environmental conflicts

In previous newsletters we have dealt with the topic of democratic control. An interesting conference was held in Milan on 22 November last year on the subject of “Developing collaboration in environmental and urban conflicts“. We asked one of the speakers, Veronica Dini, who is a lawyer, to tell us why and how we should develop collaborative tools in the area of environmental conflicts. She kindly sent us the following.

“The first reason lies in the fact that, as the news shows, it is impossible not to be concerned with and about the environment: there are too many urgent matters to be dealt with and too many significant challenges to be faced. The second reason is that the management and protection of the environment are related to basic goods and interests that, at the very least, are seen as being mutually opposed; in this area, therefore, conflict is unavoidable and destined to worsen as available resources are exhausted.

Having clarified why this matter is so important, in the legal, social and political debate, we need to take on board the fact that conflict can be prevented and managed through a number of institutions and strategies: by having recourse to judicial authority or by using  collaborative tools. In the former case, to put it extremely briefly, the solution to the problem is delegated to a third party that filters it through the lens of the law and assigns rights and wrongs to the case.

Unlike the legal route, collaborative tools  (including those used in deliberative democracy, mediation, collaborative practice and restorative justice), require the direct involvement of the parties, supported by experts and facilitators, who are required to examine the reasons for the conflict and the real interests involved. The ultimate aim is to arrive at the identification of a concrete, constructive, creative solution, which might not necessarily involve the attribution of legal responsibilities.

Whereas judicial decisions risk crystallizing the conflict, preventing any real resolution, tools that favour the direct participation of the parties can reveal new behavioural options capable of influencing both situations and regulations.

Research and experimentation in this area carried out since 2015, (www.mediazioneambiente.it and www.systasis.it) have shown that the 2nd option is not only practical in the environmental context but can also lead to positive results in many different cases.

Among these I would mention a dispute over the management of a local public service which not even the court of appeal had been able to resolve, in which the parties (the local authority and the company that managed the service), faced with a stalemate that had lasted more than 10 years, decided to go to mediation: in this way, finally, they were able to set in motion a direct confrontation and direct the dialogue towards the effective resolution of the problem that had led to the dispute in the first place. The process ended with the signing of three agreements.

In other cases, mediation has permitted the planning of a protected area in a shared, transparent and efficient way; or has induced a public authority to agree to subject an urban project opposed by part of the  community to administrative procedures that were more participatory and open to challenge.

It should moreover be stressed that it is not a question simply of  mediation: the regulations approved by many local authorities for the shared management of common goods and those confiscated from criminals (see for example www.circola.org) are important tools for achieving a kind of land management that is orientated towards the effective participation of citizens and the concrete protection of the environment. The collaboration agreements reached in this context therefore also constitute the outcome of processes that led to shared decisions, equitable resolution of the interests at play, and creative prevention/management of conflict.

Naturally, given that these are extremely complex conflicts also from the technical point of view, often involving large numbers of parties and requiring the reconciliation of basic rights and significant economic interests, there is still a long way to go. Moreover the problems are not solely technical but also, and perhaps even more so, cultural: we must – as citizens, public administrators, operators and professionals  –  learn to take on, personally, the conflict situations in which we find ourselves involved and take responsibility for trying to prevent and resolve them. We must learn to listen and discuss in a symmetrical and constructive way. This requires a radical change in the cultural paradigm. This is both urgent and necessary, at every level; so we are all invited to reflect on this and orient ourselves towards it.”

Further information from: Avv. Veronica Dini (vd@veronicadini.comveronica.dini@systasis.it)