Reflections on Community Communication for Exploration Geologists

Mining practitioners are well aware of the image crisis facing the industry, with negative effects on communities being a major feeder of the negative perception. The mining industry’s top risks and opportunities fall under the category of social and environmental, with impact to local communities facing the most scrutiny (Mitchell, 2021). For the improvement of both the present and future industry-community interface, responsible communication between exploration geologists and communities is essential. At the first stage of the mining life cycle, exploration geologists can set the scene for responsible and positive community engagement strategies. Although geologists are in an important communication role, they are often not equipped with the skills to start building this fundamental community–company relationship.

To address this gap, People and Mining (P&M), Ore Deposits Hub (ODH), and the Social Practice Forum (SPF) collaborated to deliver the workshop ‘Practices to People: An Introduction to Community Communication for Exploration Geologists’. The 7-hour workshop, designed and organised by Alannah Brett (ODH) and Rowan Halkes (P&M), took place on April 4th and 5th, 2022.  Over 60 exploration geologists from 21 countries participated (Fig. 1), with experience ranging from undergraduate students to seasoned professionals. Ten places for those in need were generously sponsored by Sinese, Consultoria, Lda.  Participants were led by the SPF and exploration geologists to develop their communication skills through interactive sessions, discussions and teamwork on real-world scenarios.  

 

Figure 1. Map of Participants’ Location at the Practices to People Workshop

Day 1: Laying the Groundwork

The first day of the workshop consisted of three lectures with Q&A sessions from the SPF, with speakers Liz Wall, Luc Zandvliet, Simon Wake, Laura García Jaramillo, and Ian Thomson. These specialists collectively have nearly 100 years of sustainable development experience in the mining industry. Hearing from them as social scientists, sustainability practitioners and exploration geologists highlighted the value and necessity for interdisciplinary teams and knowledge exchange. The three sessions explored included: 1) What to know, what to do, and how to behave; 2) Putting it into practice: how to get started and what it should look like, and 3) How to leave properly.

What to Know, What to Do, and How to Behave

The first session “What to know, what to do, and how to behave”, focused on due diligence, stakeholder mapping and knowledge, and understanding land ownership. Understanding the social licence to operate (SLO), and how to build, earn, and maintain trust is crucial for the sustainable development and continued operation of the mining industry (Morrison, 2014). The facilitators covered topics such as, stakeholder perception, hierarchy and power structures, culture, cultural sensitivities, and vulnerable populations. We were challenged to check our assumptions and to understand that context is everything. Liz Wall demonstrated contextual understanding with an example of an unexpected vulnerable population in Greenland, which is young men, as they are especially vulnerable to suicide. The importance of understanding a community, through talking to locals of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, classes, and ethnicities, provides details not available elsewhere.

This session also highlighted that there is no such thing as too much due diligence. It is common practice for exploration companies to use GIS software to plan technical activities, and develop an overview of existing infrastructure (airports, roads, hospitals) and geography (National Parks, water bodies, etc.). Social planning is just as essential, and aims to prepare the exploration geologist with an understanding of customs, procedures, ways of working, and intangible and tangible power hierarchies. This, of course, includes having a handle on relevant legislation.  For social due-diligence, collecting information from experts, such as researchers, companies or NGOs who have local experience, and local and regional government actors is recommended. When boots hit the ground, exploration geologists should have a baseline knowledge of land ownership, official and unofficial leadership structures, and just compensation strategies. Laura García Jaramillo emphasised that the social knowledge gathered should be integrated into the technical databases.  The next steps must also be prepared for when geologists arrive in the field.

Putting It Into Practice: How to Get Started and What It Should Look Like

With the theoretical basis in hand, we transitioned to “Putting it Into Practice: How to Get Started and What It Should Look Like”. This session demystified the practicalities of community engagement, with a focus on humility, and a reminder that we are guests in the community, no matter what the exploration permit says. In the words of Liz Wall: “The community does not owe you anything”. The process of community engagement also asks for geologists to be reflexive and self-aware.

Another focus of session 2 was how collaboration through local procurement, as opposed to monetary transactions, builds trust with communities. The facilitators highlighted that as you build collaborative opportunities, you also deepen your knowledge of potential issues in the community, and have the opportunity to manage expectations. Managing expectations was a predominant theme in the Q&A. As an example of how this can be done, facilitators suggested concluding community meetings with a summary of key points clarifying any commitments made, or not made, for the current step of the project. Although exploration geologists are eternally hopeful, they must be equally pragmatic.

How to Leave

With many examples on the practicalities of positive interactions, we came to the final but essential topic –  “How to Leave”. This started with a short poll on how many participants had never returned to an exploration site when they thought they would (82%) and how many had returned when they thought they wouldn’t (50%). This showed again the exploration geologists’ eternal optimism, and moreover the importance of maintaining realistic expectations, and leaving with all aspects of the project and community engagement satisfactorily concluded. The practical process ensures that any commitments made are delivered upon and outstanding grievances resolved. Reclamation and remediation measures may include the repair of roads, or infrastructure and equipment dissemblance, storage, transportation, and/or responsible disposal. The leave no trace principle should be standard. A ceremonial event marking the end of the exploration campaign for both company and community, such as a BBQ, was also highlighted as an opportunity to celebrate both the exploration campaign and to say thank you to the community. Whether it’s your team or another company coming back, we all need a positive, clean record for exploration and mining to be supported globally.

Develop honest, transparent, and open communication from the start

Overall, day 1 highlighted the importance of developing honest, transparent, and open communication from the start to the end of an exploration campaign. Company leaders have the responsibility to provide exploration geologists, as well as other staff who interact with the community, with communication training. This training should include having the team on the same page about the stage of exploration and realistic expectations.  This also includes the CEO’s pitch, and providing the shareholder and community stakeholders with the same story.  Companies have to be careful not to overpromise, nor under promise.  A grounded honesty is key.

The day finished with a short presentation by James McQuilken from Pact, for which half of workshop funds were donated. Pact has spearheaded the Moyo Gems Project, which aims to support women artisanal and small-scale miners (ASM) in Tanzania, to get a fair price for the gems they extract. The results of the Moyo Gems project have been phenomenal, with the ASM miners receiving 95% of the sale money, meaning the profits directly benefit the communities. The $1100 donated to Moyo Gems will be used for PPE and mining equipment for the women ASM miners. With this success story of mining and community and the three sessions fresh in our minds, we were briefed for the Communication Challenge of team-based communication scenarios ahead for day 2.  

Day 2: Putting It Into Practice

Our newly learned and refreshed skills were put to practice in the Communication Challenge on day two. The exploration scenarios developed by the SPF team and exploration geology facilitators Lucy Crane, Benedikt Steiner, and Benjamin Teschner, had teams of participants in breakout rooms critically think about communication issues that arise in exploration programs. As the participants, we were paired with facilitators who provided ideas and feedback to a set of questions designed to challenge.  At the end of the challenge, the groups then presented their three main findings.

The scenarios were diverse, and focused on key concepts (Fig. 2) explored on day 1. Benedikt Steiner facilitated two groups through an exploration project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and focused on transparency. Simon Wake led two groups through a scenario in fictional Iritainia, which included challenges of post-war realities, and focused on trust. Laura Garcia led two groups through a greenfield scenario in Papua New Guinea, with limited infrastructure and local mining knowledge, and focused on the integration of social and technical information. Liz Wall and Luc Zandvliet led a group in a brownfields scenario in Nicaragua, working with Indigenous landowners and settler land renters, and focused on free, prior, and informed consent. Lucy Crane led two groups through a scenario in Morocco and highlighted the importance of stakeholder mapping. Finally, Benjamin Teschner led two groups through a reverse scenario, where he asked the participants to imagine an exploration company exploring near their home communities, bringing the focus to empathy for the community.  These scenarios placed us as exploration geologists and community members and presented large but realistic challenges that exploration projects face.

Figure 2. Key Concepts Surrounding Social License to Operate Explored in Workshop

 

There is no one size fits all solution

Summary presentations by each breakout group  of key points brought out the participating geologists’ personal experiences from their wide breadth of fieldwork. Whether in the Global North or Global South, the communication challenges are similar, but nuanced to local cultures and settings.  A recurring theme was the importance of local procurement. Integrating the exploration program into the pre-existing fabrics of the community is crucial in developing community relationships. The groups that imagined themselves as community members realised that they would face anxiety at the prospect of a mine, as it is difficult to sit in that stage of unknowing while the exploration takes place. All groups emphasised the importance of respect, for culture, land, and customs; underlining the fact that an exploration company is a guest in the community. There is no one size fits all solution. This exercise brought home the practicalities of community interactions, provided participants with a deeper understanding of our role as exploration geologists, and provided a framework of extensive exploration experiences to learn from. The final panel discussion led by Alannah Brett (ODH) and Rowan Halkes (P&M) brought together the wealth of experience of all the facilitators, into the take home message that open, honest, consistent and realistic communication paves the way for a positive exploration- community relationship.

At the centre of an exploration project is the community.  Exploration geologists have the potential to be the positive interface between the community and the corporation. Equipping geologists with communication skills is crucial for the healthy development of this relationship, and is imperative to earning and maintaining the SLO. Communicating from the beginning, in the exploration phase of the mine life cycle, builds a foundation for the responsible development of a resource project.  As facilitator Benjamin Teschner has said , ‘how you start matters’ (2013, p. 332). The Practices to People: An Introduction to Community Communication for Exploration Geologists’ Workshop gave attendees tools to develop community communication on their projects around the world. Now we have the responsibility to advocate for this type of training in order to build momentum for this cornerstone of the mining industry’s future.      

Author: Cassia Johnson, P.Geo, M.Sc., PhD Candidate at University of Exeter

Cassia is a professional geologist currently pursuing an interdsicplinary PhD in Politics and Engineering, focusing on small-scale mining in the Global North.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank People and Mining, Ore Deposits Hub, and the Social Practice Forum for organising this workshop, which has come at a critical time in the mining industry.  It is one thing to point out a problem, and another thing altogether to provide solutions, which is what this workshop achieved.  I would specifically like to thank the speakers and facilitators of the workshop:  Liz Wall, Luc Zandvliet, Simon Wake, Laura García Jaramillo, Lucy Crane, Benedikt Steiner, Benjamin Teschner, and Ian Thomson, whose invaluable life experience and expertise provided a socially responsible exploration framework to work from moving forward.  A special thanks to Alannah Brett and Rowan Halkes who were the key designers of this event, addressing the knowledge gap in our profession, and Joshua Sandin for his work behind the scenes.

Although my name is on the blog, Alannah, Rowan, and Joshua contributed significantly to this post with their ideas, edits, and even the map.  My thinking is influenced by my amazing PhD supervisory team: Dr. Kathryn Moore, Dr. Deborah McFarlane, and Dr. Penda Diallo. Last and not least I would like to thank the other workshop participants, who provided an open and inquisitive space for the much-needed discussion on our role as geologists in a sustainable future.

References

Mitchell, P., 2021. Top mining and metals risks and opportunities in 2022 [WWW Document]. EY. URL https://www.ey.com/en_gl/mining-metals/top-10-business-risks-and-opportunities-for-mining-and-metals-in-2022 (accessed 4.13.22).

Morrison, J., 2014. Social license: how to keep your organization legitimate. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England.

Teschner, B., 2013. How you start matters: A comparison of Gold Fields’ Tarkwa and Damang Mines and their divergent relationships with local small-scale miners in Ghana. Resources Policy 38, 332–340. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2013.03.006

 

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