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Conquering Conflict

By Jon Reidel Article published November 5, 2003

New saleem photo
Assistant Professor Saleem Ali, shown here teaching an environmental conflict resolution course, completed his first book dealing with the success and failure of environmentalists trying to convince indigenous communities not to sell rights to their land to mining companies. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

For Saleem Ali, assistant professor of environmental studies, conflict is a daily occurrence. He’s spent the majority of his professional life studying confrontations, why they occur, and most importantly, how to resolve them. He teaches a class on environmental conflict resolution, writes extensively on the topic, and gives speeches on the art of resolving disputes. In one form or another, conflict resolution seeps into all of his work.

Ali traces his fascination with conflict to his upbringing in Pakistan and the United States by parents with vastly different mechanisms for dealing with conflict. He describes his mother, a professor of political science and international law, as more directly confrontational than his father, who taught political science at UMass-Dartmouth. Ali’s recently published first book, Mining, the Environment, and Indigenous Development Conflicts (University of Arizona Press), which examines environmental conflicts between mining companies and indigenous communities and the factors that lead to those conflicts, is appropriately dedicated to his parents.

“With profound love and gratitude to my mother, Parveen S. Ali, who taught me the virtue of principled confrontation, and to my father, Shaukat Ali, from whom I learned the value of pragmatic conciliation,” reads the dedication.

Tragically, Ali’s father passed away just a few weeks before the book was released in late October.

“He was really looking forward to seeing the book, but at least he saw a draft manuscript,” Ali says. “My mother was more confrontational and he was more conciliatory on everything. This book brings those two elements together. There’s no doubt that they’ve had a major influence on my work. The dedication really means a lot to me.”

Framing the issue
The 254-page book, which is based on Ali’s doctoral dissertation in the Department of Urban Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, examines resource conflict and environmental impact assessment by asking why indigenous communities support environmental causes in some cases of mining development, but not others. Ali uses four case studies from the U.S. and Canada to get at the answer. They include the Navajos and Hopis with Peabody Coal in Arizona; the Chippewas with the Crandon Mine proposal in Wisconsin; the Chipewyan Inuits, Dene, and Cree with Cameco in Saskatchewan; and the Innu and Inuits with Inco in Labrador.

Through these case studies Ali examines why under certain circumstances some tribes agreed to negotiate mining agreements on their land, and why some negotiations were successful and others failed. In short, aggressive mining companies appearing overeager to pay off indigenous landowners and attain mining rights are generally unsuccessful. Not wanting to be taken advantage of in ways that are reminiscent of past injustices, some indigenous communities are resentful and unwilling to barter with anyone coming off as untrustworthy. Equally unsuccessful in their attempts to convince indigenous communities not to “sell out” to mining companies are pedantic environmentalists preaching the virtues of the land.

Ali, who avoids taking sides with environmentalists or mining companies and focuses on the art of negotiation and conflict resolution, draws attention to the difficulty that some communities face in trying to attain the duel desires of preserving important natural resources and spurring needed economic development.

“A lot depends on how environmentalists frame the issue,” Ali says. “They can’t just say ‘mining is bad for you.’ There can be a holier-than-though attitude among environmentalists when it comes to mining that can be detrimental. There’s often an assumed alliance between environmentalists and Native Americans, but that’s often not the case.”

Adding info to an esoteric topic
In his review of the book, Ken Pepion, executive director of the Harvard University Native American Program, writes that “given the relatively sparse research comparing U.S. tribal governments and Canadian indigenous groups in the area of mining development, this is an important contribution to our understanding of the factors influencing decision making among these groups in both nations.”

An initial run of 800 hardcover copies was finished in September with another run expected later in the year before the book is converted to paperback. Hundreds of fliers have been sent out to mining companies and various environmental and academic institutions nationwide. Ali says he hopes the book appeals to a wide variety of people, but is aware that the topic doesn’t necessarily have mass appeal. Given the current state of world affairs, however, the book’s broader focus on conflict resolution could give it a more universal appeal.

“It’s an academic book, but it’s written in a narrative way that I think is readable for most everyone,” Ali says. “It started off as my dissertation, but went through many revisions and peer reviews. It’s the culmination of four-and-a-half years of work.”