What is the future of community relations in mining?

Our first bi-monthly event for the People and Mining network was held on 27th September 2021, with a panel discussion on the theme of community relations in mining. We were joined by expert panellists Aimee Boulanger (Executive Director, Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA)), Cristina Villegas (Director of Mines to Markets, Pact), Jane Charman (Head of Community Engagement, Geothermal Engineering Ltd) and Nerys John (Head of Social Impact, The De Beers Group).

Challenges now and for the future

To open the event, each of our panellists offered their answer to ‘What will the future of community engagement look like?’. Themes that emerged included: indigenous communities and free, prior and informed consent, varying definitions of community, specific frameworks and guidance for mining at different scales, and community uniqueness.

The audience contributed to discussion by answering the same question in an interactive Mentimeter survey, and by asking questions of the panellists. Often similar themes were raised to the panellists in the audience responses, and others were associated with improving partnerships and concern about the track record of mining companies. There was apprehension that community relations could become increasingly tricky, stressful, and polarised. Conflict may continue, due to differing objectives of communities, various stakeholders, regulatory bodies, and companies. As the panel continued, opportunities to move the mining industry forward for the benefit of all were unpacked, offering the foundations for positive change.

“Right to extract is not a given”

Consent was a recurring theme throughout, in the form of ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’, especially in the context of indigenous communities. Thinking of local communities around mines as ‘host’ communities reminds companies that they are guests in the area, and that their presence there depends on local consent.

Minimising impacts and maximising benefits and partnerships

A consensus among participants was that local communities need clear and meaningful benefits from mining operations. Greater involvement in projects that create shared value can develop closer ties and build trust between mining companies and the local population. Securing local supply chains and truly local employment at all levels with ongoing skills training could help in this regard. Where companies have made commitments to communities, these should be honoured even if ownership or management of the project changes.

While in many cases local investment, jobs and infrastructure developments can be part of community commitments, concerns may be less about the benefits and more about worries related to environmental and health impacts of mining and mine closure. Often these concerns are justified. Modern mining best practice and legislation often aims to reduce environmental impacts and put in place assessments, monitoring and reporting systems to maintain higher standards. However, these best practice systems are not in place everywhere and not well known.

While technology was cautioned for its potential to alienate some populations, it can help reduce social and environmental impacts and improve safety at mines. Ultimately, context is key and the need for holistic thinking about mining impacts was succinctly summarised by one participant:

“It will no longer be possible to look at the E [environmental] without the S [social]. They are interlinked and intertwined and need to be addressed together to effectively address the issues we are facing today”.

Companies need to be part of communities

Our discussion highlighted the need for company partnerships with and participation in community that was partnership-based and not just transactional. Companies need to be active in communities, involving the community in decision-making and developing inclusive policies. Future generations must be considered, with everyone involved seeing mines as part of the wider social system, linked into long-term regional planning and proactively planning post-closure transitions.

To forge partnerships, communication needs to be transparent and involve active listening. Open dialogue and collaboration between companies, community representatives and stakeholders at all stages of extractive industry operations are required to better understand everyone’s needs and desires.

“Community engagement and relations is not just a tick-box-exercise during social and environmental impact assessment but should be done in a meaningful manner throughout operations, not just through grievance mechanisms, but also in the form of dialogue, consultations & regular (anonymous) community surveys.”

“Keep listening”

Though community voices often remain underheard, it is also worth considering how we resolve the world’s need for raw materials which requires mining to develop and transition to a green economy. Is this a story heard clearly and understood in our societies? It was pointed out that there is a need for the societal requirement for mining to be understood among communities too.

A clear message from the session was that no mine or community is like another. While lessons can be learnt, there is no ‘magic recipe’ that can be applied in all cases. How best to work with communities will vary with each project and each location, though consent, respect and partnership are likely to be important everywhere.

Our community engagement discussion naturally fell to focusing on local communities, those living with and next to mining projects. In future discussions we could look at different interpretations of community – national, international, communities within communities.

We look forward to continuing the discussion!

The People and Mining Core Team

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