Community Relations Make or Break a Mining ProjectMon, 10/21/2013 - 16:25
“Communities have the ability to accelerate or bring to a halt any project, depending on the relationship that the company establishes with them,” says Fernanda Romero, Director General of DS Dinámica, a social consulting firm based in Hermosillo, Sonora. Romero has been working in social consulting services since 1994. She emphasizes that the relations between mining companies and communities have greatly evolved, and this has driven the shift in the way mining activities are perceived. Additionally, community members have access to more information – positive and negative – triggering more questions about the benefits and concerns of possible impacts on the communities. The strategy has also changed; nowadays many mining companies have specialists in community relations working with them from very early in the projects. Similarly, the social handouts focus has changed to a more sustainable approach, and a social responsibility criterion is being applied. Now the challenge is to communicate the benefits that mining activities bring, not only to the communities surrounding the projects but also to society in general.
“Companies should always arrive to the communities and speak truthfully, and each procedure must be explained,” Romero highlights. “When reality is misrepresented, problems arise. The best strategy for designing a successful negotiation is based on giving communities all the necessary information. It is critical to give people clear messages so they know what will happen to the place they live in. This includes the company complying with what was agreed.”
“Often mining companies go to communities offering things, without really knowing what the community’s priorities are,” says Romero. She remembers one of her earlier experiences in the Sierra Tarahumara: “During the first 15 days of my stay, five children died of malnutrition; therefore, I focused the efforts on bringing general medical services to the community. The doctor spent four months there and during that time very few people went to get a medical consultation. When I realized this was happening, I decided to spend more time with the inhabitants to be able to understand their real issues. I realized that health was not their main concern because such a high mortality rate in young children was normal for them. Their true worry was a lack of education and shelter for the children. Nevertheless, common thinking will lead anyone to make the same assumption I did.” Logical assumptions do not always hold true, thus the importance of taking the time to carry out social baseline studies that enable companies to make a social impact assessment and accurately grasp the social reality of the community, as well as the expectations and concerns of its members. “Once you have a thorough understanding of these things, a successful community strategy can be designed,” Romero adds.
DS Dinámica uses World Bank and other international guidelines on social sustainability to offer all services related to community relations processes and, from community analysis and planning strategies and programs, to implementation, measurement and monitoring. Monitoring is particularly essential since it is very difficult to measure social issues. “We offer services that, from the social aspect, are part of the due diligence process,” explains Romero. “We visit the projects and evaluate the challenges that could arise during the negotiation stage, and we evaluate the social impact that could be generated during the mining operations; with that we are able to monitor the social impact indicators.” DS Dinámica favors education and the development of local talent, over money. The firm believes in the importance of leaving a legacy in the local communities that goes beyond the economic factor, since knowledge will guarantee prosperity once the mining operation is gone. It is common that companies that need to obtain the required permits will want to rush the process, but it is in those situations that mistakes are made. “Many times these mistakes are difficult and costly to repair,” Romero says. “It is our job to convince the management team to take the necessary time to perform the social analysis, negotiation, and come to an agreement. Getting the social license required to operate is a process that takes time, while the relationship is built.” Romero acknowledges that the complexity of community relations also depends on the region where the community is located. “Sonora is the quintessential mining state,” she says. “As a result, most communities accept foreign investment without major complications. But that is not the case everywhere.”
Developing the industry’s positive image continues to be a challenge. “In the communities where mining projects are located, the perception of the industry is good, mainly because of the development programs that the companies have implemented. People trust them. However, the sector is reprimanded, often being associated with pollution, and we are failing to communicate to broader society the good side of mining. DS Dinámica’s aim is to continue being part of the mechanism of change for communities, and to continue playing a part in the sector’s growth,” Romero concludes.