In negotiation, its generally considered good practice to think about what happens if parties decide to walk away from the table without an agreement. Professionally, this is called a BATNA, or your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. While this seems like common sense, I am beginning to notice how often negotiators underestimate the usefulness of spending time identifying and strengthening the BATNA.

I was reminded of this last week while visiting an indigenous community in the Amazon Rainforest with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). UNDP is currently serving as a quasi-mediator between the local Peruvian government and an indigenous community, as they negotiate property rights in the region.

This isn’t a new story. It’s the tale of two cultures, with both sides claiming rights to the land. This particular conflict however, has taken on a life of its own and has already resulted in 8 deaths.

I was there as UNDP presented the most recent proposition from the government, in response to the indigenous community’s claims that thousands of hectares of jungle are part of their ancestral lands. Much of that land has already been deforested by producers of oil palm, so the negotiation is limited to the remaining lands. However, it’s not just about the land, and any agreement is likely to disappoint either side with regards to their deeper interests like autonomy, livelihood, status, respect, profit, access to resources, etc.

For the indigenous community, the land offered by the government was not enough and the proposal was met with every emotion imaginable for a community that feels like it is slowly being squeezed onto smaller and smaller parcels of lands, and watching their way of life fade: sadness, anger, disappointment, fear, and sometimes even despair.

As a bystander, it was disheartening, and the most intense moment was when it became clear to the elders that, because of their weak alternatives, there wasn’t much they could do. We left before they came to a decision, although I think it is likely that they will accept the deal and receive titles to the offered section of land. In reviewing the situation with the UNDP mediator, I learned that other communities were so dissatisfied with the government proposals that they rejected them outright, leaving them without any official titles to land; hardly a good alternative.

With a little more organizing and international awareness, and due to the growing concerns around climate change, indigenous communities might have opportunities to strengthen their BATNAs in the future. But for the moment, this story remains a very real reminder of the importance of a strong BATNA to strengthen your ability to negotiate. So, do yourself a favor – next time you’re preparing for a negotiation (salary, where to eat dinner, how to spend your time) take 5 minutes and think about your BATNA, and how to strengthen it. And if you need a hand, let me know!