I am at a table with fifteen people around it. They represent several tribal governments, a federal agency that has caused critical contamination of their natural and cultural resources, a state agency responsible for natural resource protection, and another federal agency thrown in for good measure. Some of these parties have lawyers with them, some have technical experts. There is a consultant to research, gather data and help the group come to agreement on the facts. And there is me, responsible for the negotiating environment at the table.
The goal is to determine damages to the resources and find ways of compensating for those losses. Some of the damages cannot be remediated, some tribes are suffering economic, social or cultural impacts, or all three, and there are limited funds with which to compensate. The damage is done and these parties are left to pick up the pieces and reconstruct a way forward. In the world of natural resource mediation this is about as grim as it gets.
I should dread these meetings, and yet I look forward to them. How can this be and what does it tell us about handling conflict?
Those at the table have been meeting for many years (before I joined them) and have more years to go. They have worked through suspicion, resentment, guilt, despair and a host of other high emotions that they might have felt. And they have come to the inevitable conclusion that the perceived enemy is not embodied in that man or woman across the table who wears that name tag. Yes, the government may have acted recklessly and caused irreparable damage, but that employee sitting at the table is not personally responsible and should not bear the blame. The tribal representatives may not have even been alive at the time of the original contamination, but their parents and grandparents remember it well, and they themselves carry the burden and the pain. We all bring our histories to the table with us, and those histories deserve respect.
The various representatives – tribal, federal and state — have struggled to hear and accept each others’ stories. They have taken field trips. They have spent hundreds of hours together and survived challenging times. The latest study may bring good news or bad news about the extent of contamination and the potential for restoration. But by now there is an honesty and a level of trust at the table that allows the group to talk about painful and controversial topics with patience, thoughtfulness and a shared view of reality. As a result they have been able to see past those ID badges and connect with each other, human to human. Amazingly I sense at times they have real affection for each other.
I’m not saying that tough times don’t lie ahead. They do. I know that mistrust and anger, aggression and defensiveness will bubble up again. But the foundation is there. The relationships that have been built through stormy times will endure. And that is why, rather than dreading that upcoming meeting, I look forward to seeing everyone, catching up, having a laugh or two, before we settle down to business.