Analyzing Social Perceptions to Optimize BenefitsThu, 02/21/2013 - 15:05
Vera & Carvajal Abogados Ambientales (V&C) has over 20 years of experience in environmental law and it has been recognized by Chambers and Partners as one of Mexico’s top firms for environmental consulting and litigation services. Luis Vera Morales, founding partner of V&C Abogados Ambientales, recounts the evolution of the company. “We started out as a law firm specialized in environmental matters,” he says. “Later on, we incorporated a technical area which is now bigger than our litigation area. We now have a social consultancy area as well, because the issues we address are socio-environmental.” The driving force behind this development is the firm’s awareness of the shortcomings of traditional negotiation processes with communities. “Mining companies and their consultants usually meet with communities, bringing along a sociologist. They get acquainted with the area, speak with the people, and conduct oral negotiations. Even if the resulting agreement is written, the local people often do not know what has been signed and, by the time the mining works begin, they already have a negative perception towards the project,” Vera Morales explains. The firm believes that there is a lack of transparency towards the communities in these processes. Vera Morales states that, even if communities do believe they are gaining from the mining project, the usual granting of monthly royalties does not leave any permanent improvements behind once the project ends, which may cause dissatisfaction as mining operations progress. “We realized something was wrong when, despite compliance with all norms and regulations, projects were being stalled by drawn out or unsuccessful negotiations,” says Vera Morales. V&C Abogados Ambientales therefore associated with French partners who developed an innovative community engagement system based on the analysis of perception.
When V&C approaches a community, the company does so with a fairly developed project and several scenarios of how it will positively affect the surrounding communities. Even if the project involves the relocation of a community, the company presents a scenario with details of how this will be done and explains the ways in which the relocation could benefit the locals. They design a set of questions to be answered by all community members and run the resulting information in their Categorical Perception Analysis (APC) system, which uses algorithms to analyze the dispersion of perception data; then a Boolean filter measures the intensity or quality of these perceptions and classifies answers into decision making patters. “The use of the APC system allows us to build consensus even where there is a lack of information and high risk levels. We create routes of acceptability for any project because we have a transparent way of presenting scenarios to the communities and we deliver believable solutions to their concerns,” Vera Morales details.
V&C understands that timeframes are extremely important in the mining industry. The incorporation of their technical area into the company’s consensus building services provides the firm with a quick and effective decision making system. “Once an investment is set, time flies,” Vera Morales continues. “There is a lot of pressure to do things quickly. We do not approach communities just to tell them we want to build a mine, but also show details such where the dam will be and how we are going to provide electricity, among many other things. Once we get their feedback, we make the necessary changes for the project to be accepted by the communities. Our team has mathematicians, biologists, and other scientific experts who figure out ways of obtaining information from the communities, turn it into data and establish quick decision making systems,” says Vera Morales.
The end result of V&C’s services is the lowering of risk and a faster development of mining projects. These factors, along with the diminished probability of facing court action, dramatically lower expenses for mining companies. “We have a very good litigation area, but we use it as a support and not as our core business,” explains Vera Morales. The company also helps mining companies better allocate their spending in social responsibility programs. While mining companies spend a lot of money in this area, there is sometimes a lack of focus in the way these resources are spent. “The single most important thing is people’s perception. Companies must use their resources in very specific ways, and should not think that the strategy can be the same for every community. Companies have to invest in the programs that will create the most benefits for both parties,” Vera Morales highlights.
The company’s focus on scientific methods and technical expertise enables the design of sustainable projects that meet the needs of both clients and communities. “In order to understand reality you need people that have studied reality. Unlike lawyers, biologists and engineers know how reality works and that helps us to put strategies on the table that work in reality,” says Vera Morales. “What we do is shielding. We create cases where it is reasonable to say yes to a project. It is very unlikely that a judge will say no because we have delivered not only the legal arguments, but also the social and technical arguments. We have not had a single case where a mining project was stopped,” Vera Morales adds.