Mediating environmental disputes

Practicing environmental mediation

Mediation is one way to settle environmental conflicts of interest, compared to traditional forms like litigation, legislative and regulatory change or alternative methods, such as arbitration and consensus building. It can be applied to resolve site-specific and policy level disputes, including land-use, resource management, use of public lands, water resources, energy, air quality and toxins issues. Participants in a mediation might include a mixture of environmental groups, private companies and government entities.

Mediation can provide conflict resolution for environmental disputes far less expensively, in terms of time and money, than can litigation. Moreover, it can provide all participants a greater sense of satisfaction because of their active role. It allows the participants to maintain a degree of control. It allows the consideration of more creative environmental options than does litigation. Most important, mediation promotes cooperation.


Mediation is a facilitated negotiation process used when direct negotiation have reached a deadlock. Parties can bring in a trained professional mediator to help them resolve the dispute. The mediator is neutral; he or she must not be an advocate for either party, although the mediator can help to overcome a marked imbalance in power between the parties. The mediator is not a decision maker; but assists the parties in reaching their own, mutually agreeable decision.

Governments should include within their environmental mandates setting up dedicated systems for mediation on environment-related disputes - by establishing an environmental ombudsman, for example - to supplement the increasing role of the judiciary for achieving environmental protection and sound management.


Environmental mediation was first used in the U.S. in the 1970s. Fitchburg, a suburb of Madison, was serviced partly by a municipal water facility and partly by a temporary private system built in the 1940s and 1950s. A new municipal water facility was expected to be built to permanently service the whole area but no one wanted to pay for it. By the late 1970s that had not been done and the situation had become tense. Residents looked in turn to developers, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the local council to try to find a solution. Finally a professional mediator was brought in by the DNR to break the deadlock. Four mediation sessions, including all involved parties were held during the ensuing year with the result that an agreement was reached and the water facility was constructed.

In March 1997, the organisation Partners Hungary was invited to mediate in a dispute between a private company which was operating an incinerator in Dorog, and the town's local environmental association. A number of issues were involved, including whether the facility was operating in compliance with applicable environmental regulations and whether local officials were receiving any financial gain from the incinerator. To satisfy the civil society organisation's (CSO) interests, Partners' mediators helped the different sides develop a plan for it to monitor the incinerator. Partners continued to meet with representatives of the parties on a regular basis to check that they were satisfied with implementation of the agreement.

Type Classification:
G: Very Specific strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 15: Life on LandGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions