In 2014, CBI and Casa de la Paz, a Chilean partner organization, jointly mediated a conflict between a major Chilean forestry company and a small community located next to one of the company’s plantations. The process began after the community requested our help in addressing a range of concerns about the company’s activities, and the company agreed to engage in a dialogue process.

The community’s primary concerns included:

  • The potential environmental impacts (e.g. for water resources and soil quality) of the company’s eucalyptus plantation;
  • The visual impacts of clear-cutting, and the implications of these impacts for the local tourism industry; and
  • The potential impacts of chemical herbicides used for weed control, particularly for the health of local residents and the livelihood of local beekeepers.

The parties had been unable to address these issues on their own, and communication between them had broken down. To address the situation, we proposed and implemented a dialogue process structured around the Mutual Gains Approach:

Step 1: Preparation. During this “phase”, we interviewed stakeholders from both the community and the company to understand the issues in play and help construct a shared understanding of the problem. We then conducted a joint training to ensure that both sides were prepared to engage in mutual gains negotiation and constructive dialogue.

Step 2: Value Creation. We held a half-day meeting whose sole purpose was to clarify both sides’ fundamental interests and help the parties engage in perspective taking. By the end of that workshop, both sides had articulated the core interests that would have to be met in any agreement.

Step 3: Value distribution. We asked both parties to prepare three proposals that would, in their opinion, address the substantive issues in play in a way that satisfied the core interests articulated by both sides. Each proposal had to be a “package” that addressed all of the core issues and included tradeoffs among them. We then had a series of meetings in which we considered the proposals and evaluated them against previously agreed-upon criteria. In between these meetings, the parties were asked to make adjustments to their proposals and confirm their viability with the stakeholders they represented. Eventually, the parties agreed on a single “package.”

Step 4: Follow through. Once we reached agreement on how to address the issues, we helped the parties negotiate a detailed implementation plan that considered elements such as deadlines for implementing different parts of the agreement; methodologies and technical considerations; and communication and problem-solving mechanisms. The implementation plan was signed along with the agreement.

At the end of the mediation, we conducted interviews with the parties to understand how they evaluated the process. Among other comments, the parties emphasized that the structure of the process and the help of the mediation team were fundamental for reaching agreement. They added that the joint training was particularly helpful for gaining skills, building rapport, and learning to be more flexible by focusing on interests instead of positions. The parties’ primary critique of the process was its duration – indeed, it took ten months to reach agreement. Interestingly, although both parties said their relationship had improved during the process, one party expressed ongoing doubts about the other party’s commitment to both the process and upholding the agreement. Regarding this latter point, it will be important to evaluate how well the agreement is actually implemented in the coming months and years.

There have been few dialogue processes like this one in Chile, despite the increasing incidence of this kind of conflict in recent years. Below are a few reflections on what made it work, and what future processes like this one might take into account.

1. Creating mechanisms for joint “ownership” helps build trust in the process and the mediators. According to the OECD, Chile is one of the countries with the lowest levels of trust, both in its institutions and in other people. This poses a particular challenge for mediators and facilitators who claim to be impartial, especially when one party (usually the company) is paying for the mediation. That’s why we insisted on ensuring that both parties contributed to financing this dialogue process. While the company paid the bulk of the costs, the community provided contributions such as housing when we visited the area, and coffee and snacks at our meetings. We also created an hourly rate for their time and accounted for their transportation and other direct costs, to make sure that the community’s time and expenses were appropriately valued. These cost sharing mechanisms were stipulated in our contract with the parties. Although the community’s contributions were small compared to what the company paid, they enabled a sense of joint ownership of the process and helped reduce, at least for most community stakeholders, suspicion that we were biased toward the company because it was paying the bills.

2. Joint training can help build skills, as well as rapport and empathy. As already mentioned, we asked key stakeholders from both parties to participate in a training workshop together. The goal was to ensure that both sides could utilize the same core negotiation and communication concepts and skills. Beyond this purpose, however, the workshop offered the parties an opportunity to interact in an informal environment that was not directly aimed at addressing the conflict between them. This enabled the parties to get to know each other better as individuals, outside of their “normal” conflict dynamic. Moreover, we asked the parties to participate in negotiation exercises tailored for their context, and each time we asked the company representatives to play the role of community members and the community representatives to play the role of company executives. The parties told us afterward that these exercises were interesting pedagogically, but also forced them to take the perspective of their counterpart in a way they hadn’t before.

3. Clearly identifying key interests provides a reference point for addressing disagreements and deadlocks. Unsurprisingly, at several points during the negotiation process the parties got bogged down in disagreements about both substance and process. Even seemingly mutually beneficial solutions were viewed skeptically if they involved, for example, modifying previous agreements or the agreed-upon process (see next point for more on this issue). One of the most powerful tools for moving through these disagreements and seeming deadlocks was our ability to reference the core interests the parties had identified early in the process. That is, we were able to help frame the substance of proposals in terms of how the parties had articulated their own interests, thereby helping them see the value (or lack of value) in potential options, regardless of their frustrations around process or less important issues. Likewise, we were able to help the parties brainstorm new ways of meeting the articulated interests when new ideas were necessary for moving forward.

4. Process matters as much as substance. The dialogue process nearly broke down when one of the parties deviated from the agreed upon process by introducing a new proposal, rather than selecting among a set of options that had been created jointly during our meetings. Although the new proposal met both parties’ core interests well, the unilateral decision not to consider the previous proposals caused deep frustration for the other side, and increased their doubts about whether the commitments created in a potential agreement would really be upheld. As a result, this party threatened to walk away from the table, despite having (what appeared to us to be) a better offer on the table. Ultimately, we were able get the process back on track by brainstorming ways to create additional value for the party that had threatened to walk away. In other words, one party’s breach of process put the whole mediation at risk, and ended up forcing that party to make an additional concession.

5. The MGA process feels slow in the beginning, but pays big dividends. Structuring the process around the Mutual Gains Approach meant that we invested two months in the beginning in “preparation” and “value creation.” By the time we actually began “negotiating,” the parties were getting frustrated at the slow pace. As we’ve mentioned, the length of the process was the parties’ biggest criticism of it. That said, in the evaluation the parties also said that the process design had been an important factor in reaching agreement, and they placed a high value on the training in particular. In other words, from both our perspective and theirs, having a more robust – and ultimately successful process - was worth the extra time it took.