Something very exciting happened this week. The first paper to come out of my PhD has been published by Land Use Policy – it’s now out there in the world. Which is exciting because it now means my work can contribute to something and – hopefully – make some sort of difference, which is why I set out to do this PhD in the first place. I hope the paper will spark some thought and discussion. In the spirit of that, I wanted to use this opportunity to make a few things clear.
What is the paper about, and why did I choose this topic?
This paper takes an independent, critical look at the interactions between organisations involved in the conflict between the interests of raptor conservation and driven grouse shooting in Scotland. We would like to make something very clear: the aim of this paper is not to assess the validity of, or criticise, these organisations or their actions. It does not say they shouldn’t be doing what they are, or that they don’t have the right to. We wanted to examine their interactions from the perspective of conflict management, exploring if and how conflict exists at this level, and the implications this may hold for the conflict and possible paths towards its management.
The idea for this paper came from my early work with people on the ground. I spent a lot of time travelling the country, speaking to raptor monitors, gamekeepers, land managers, and members of organisations, to explore what they perceived to be the main issues. I wanted to learn from them, dig deep, and find out what the underlying conflicts were. I imagine conflicts as an iceberg: often, we only see the “surface dispute”, which in this case, is the illegal killing of birds of prey. Whilst this is a serious issue and requires attention, there is a wealth of evidence from the relevant fields of research that suggest there is much more going on beneath it – issues to do with land ownership, governance, who has the right to do what, morality and different values. It is important we identify and explore these issues, because evidence suggests that if they are not addressed, the conflict will persist – even if the surface dispute is resolved. I wanted my early work with stakeholders to underpin my research, and so what I’ve chosen to study is based on their concerns. Organisational conflict was a theme that came up time and time again – people identified high profile organisations “battling” it out in stakeholder meetings, which they thought to be damaging to the situation. This quote from a raptor monitor illustrates it nicely:
“And there’s two bodies – or many bodies – on both sides, and the only way you’re going to get any forward movement is by getting those organisations together, and the only way you can do that is by getting the confrontational people out of the equation. I mean, people have got to stand their ground, it’s logical but… people are very entrenched.”
I used discourse analysis. Put very simply, this means I analysed how organisations wrote about the situation and portrayed each other in the public domain. For this, I used the news articles that were freely available on each of the organisations’ websites. A note here: I completed the analysis over a year ago (Feb 2017) and so some things may have changed since then in terms of what may have been said since then.
What did I find?
There was some evidence of contestation between organisations. Key issues – such as the extent of illegal killing – were interpreted differently depending on who was talking. Organisations also discussed other actors, and used the platform to challenge and debate their claims. The motives, credibility, and responsibility of other organisations within the conflict were questioned, and often, arguments would escalate as organisations directly responded to one another. One of the most interesting findings was the mutual opinions organisations held of each other. They would portray the other as making false claims and accusations, of asserting their own interests at the expense of others, of damaging partnership efforts and attempting to sway the public and the government. We conclude that there is a discursive conflict here, with organisations using their public platforms to ‘battle it out’.
It was not all negative. There were shared arguments and concerns – the illegal killing of raptors was wrong and needed to be stopped, raptors should be protected, and wildlife crime needed to be allocated higher priority by government.
Why does this matter?
These organisations are fully entitled to fight for their own beliefs and causes. In itself that is not wrong. However, I am looking at this from a conflict management perspective. These are very powerful, high profile voices we see and hear about all the time; they represent various interests at stakeholder meetings, and are quoted in the media with respect to the raptor-grouse conflict. The danger of there being conflict between them is that their arguments will dominate, drowning out quieter, silent or more nuanced voices. There is often a disconnect between how people feel on the ground, vs how institutions interact publicly with one another. Tensions between stakeholders may be exacerbated based on what someone has said in the media. Further, organisations may have the power to influence policy, and if one interpretation is seen to be favoured over others, some groups may feel excluded, marginalised, and refuse to collaborate in the future as a result. This is not unique to the raptor-grouse case; similar findings are found in cases of conservation conflict all over the world.
We suggest that to move forwards with the conflict in some way, conflict managers may need to address the underlying reasons for this organisational conflict before holding stakeholder meetings, and think carefully about how the dynamics between these groups may affect the process. A positive aspect that came out of our analysis was there appeared to be areas of agreement, which we could possibly use as a springboard for more effective dialogue in the future.
A final word
I am extremely passionate about trying to address this conflict. I set out to do a PhD because I could see issues and complexity that was going unnoticed and unaddressed, and so I take a more pragmatic perspective. The paper is a vehicle to highlight an issue that I, my supervisory team, and many others, feel is important and needs to be discussed robustly and respectively. We hope this paper has a positive impact in contributing to the understanding of a situation that is inherently complex, and damaging not just to human lives and livelihoods, but also the wildlife and landscape and decisions made about its management.
If you are interested, the full paper can be found here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264837718303065. And please don’t hesitate to comment or get in touch with feedback and questions – I welcome discussion!