Understanding Community Conflict
Janet Ayres - Purdue Agricultural Economics
The expansion of CAFOs in Indiana has created high levels of conflict in
communities, largely because people disagree over the permitting of
operations, location of the facilities, and their impacts on the community.
The stakes are high, and conflicts are emotionally charged. CAFO owners,
other farmers, neighbors, and elected officials are pitted against one
another, oftentimes damaging relationships for years.
Are there better ways of dealing with such complex and controversial
issues? This series on community conflicts is intended to help people
involved with CAFO issues deal with their differences in more effective
and constructive ways. This publication is intended to provide a better
understanding of CAFOs as a source of community conflict.
Understanding CAFOs as Public Issues
CAFOs are private decisions that become public issues. As such, they have
several distinct characteristics that make them complex and controversial.
- Private and public decision making. CAFOs, like many other public issues,
start as private decisions made by individuals or business entities.
Producers are interested in developing economically viable agricultural
operations and therefore want to either expand their current operation
to a CAFO, or introduce a new operation into the community. The issue
moves, often very quickly, from a private business decision into the
public realm when there is a perceived threat to the health, safety, or
welfare of the citizens. Consequently, public bodies become involved
in the issue, ultimately making policy decisions that result in state
regulations (e.g., Indiana's Department of Environmental Management's
permitting process), local land use zoning ordinances, or the
expenditure of tax dollars. As public decisions, they affect the broader
community and have long-term consequences.
- Complexity of the issue. The "CAFO issue" is not a single issue with
a simple solution. While any one person may view the issue from
a particular perspective or area of concern, such as economics, air and water quality, or community quality of
life, in reality a multitude of economic, social
environmental, and political issues are inextricably
- Multiple stakeholders. There are many stakeholders
in this conflict — producers, state agricultural
organizations, agricultural businesses, state
agencies, local plan commissions and decision
makers, environmental groups, the broader rural
community, and many others. Each stakeholder
views CAFOs from a different perspective, with
different information and knowledge about the
issue and with different interests to be served.
- Role of the news media. CAFOs are public issues,
and they are played out in the public arena.
The news media is critical in shaping how the
issues are defined, how they are discussed and
deliberated, how the public understands the
issues, and, ultimately, how the issues are resolved.
- Public deliberation. The complexity of the issues,
the involvement of multiple stakeholders, and the
resulting need for public policies necessitates that,
in a democratic society, such issues be discussed
and deliberated in an open, public process.
Public policies have tradeoffs that may benefit
some stakeholders and disadvantage others. It is
important that multiple perspectives be heard and
considered in order for elected officials to make
Understanding Sources of Conflict
In general, there are five major sources of public
conflict. Complex issues, such as CAFOs, have
- Data. Information is one of the primary sources
of conflict. There may be too much information,
not enough information, different views of what
data are important, different interpretations of
data, misinformation, and even conflicting data.
Experts don't always agree. People can work
through such differences through more effective
communication and a collaborative problemsolving
- Structure. Some conflicts may center on who has
the authority to regulate and/or monitor CAFO
operations and land use. Is this the responsibility of state agencies? Local government? Producers?
The uncertainty of who makes which decisions
and/or the imbalance in power among outside
agencies, corporations and local decision makers
is an issue in some rural counties. The changing
structure of agricultural operations and the
globalization of markets are also examples of
structural issues that create ever-changing
circumstances. Structural issues are difficult to
- Relationships. Because stakes are high with
CAFOs, emotions run high. Often there is poor
communication, miscommunication, or no
communication at all between the parties.
There may be misperceptions or stereotypes of
CAFO owners or of their employees who may be
"outsiders." Assumptions are made. Little, if any,
trust may exist between the different parties.
Relationships are fragile at best. The parties
involved can work to build better relationships
with each other.
- Values. Values may be at the heart of the conflict.
People have different ideas about what is
desirable and important, and consequently have
different goals. To debate values is not useful and
often escalates the conflict. Ethically speaking,
values are not negotiated because they are part
of people's identity; it is demeaning to place one
set of values over another. It is helpful to move
the conversation to people's concerns, where their
interests can be negotiated.
- Interests. People frequently enter public meetings
with their minds made up, with a solution they
have already decided upon — their "position." They
are either in favor of the CAFO or against it. When
people are locked into their "positions" it sets up a
dueling situation to see which side wins. A more
useful approach is to focus on people's "interests"
and what motivates them to form their position.
One way to identify underlying interests is to ask
the question, "Why do you support (or oppose) the
CAFO?" When people understand their interests
and those of other parties, creative options can
be explored, interests can be negotiated and,
perhaps, decisions can be made to meet the needs
of both parties.
CAFO expansion in Indiana has created deeply
dividing conflicts in rural communities, with
far-reaching consequences. When a CAFO is
proposed, the conflict escalates very quickly. People
immediately take sides (either for it or against
it), their positions harden, communication stops,
perceptions become distorted, and unrealistic
goals are advocated. This causes the conflict to
escalate. As the conflict spirals up, people become
more polarized from one another, less interested in
resolving their differences and more interested in
Such behavior is not only stressful but takes a toll on
the psychological well-being of everyone involved.
It's not useful because it does little to address the
issues or real concerns and, in fact, exacerbates
the conflict. A more constructive approach is a
collaborative problem-solving process that brings
people with different views together early on, before
people are locked into their positions, to discuss the
issues, exchange data and information, and search
for solutions that go beyond their own limited
perspective of what is desirable or possible. Elected
officials' and citizens' understanding of CAFOs as
public issues and the sources of conflict is only one
component of a collaborative process.
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Managing Public Disputes. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Daniels, Steven E. and Gregg B. Walker. 2001.
Working through Environmental Conflict — the
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Moore, Christopher W. 2003. The Mediation Process —
Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict (3rd ed.). San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.