One of the most challenging relationships in the mining industry is the one that exists between mining companies and communities.
It is indisputable that mining can leave a devastating footprint if not managed properly.
Given the increased attention being given to the socio-economic and environmental impact of mining, a lot of work, initiatives and money is now being deployed to address and prevent the negative impacts of mining.
However, despite these efforts to improve oversight and ensure that the wealth of mining is shared with surrounding communities, we have seen increasing conflict and hostility towards mining enterprises in Africa.
It is not unusual to find news on artisanal miners invading large scale mining concessions, communities refusing to accept new mining projects in their areas or protesting operating mines.
In South Africa, this fight is embodied in the legal battle between the Xolobeni community in the Eastern Cape and the Government.
The community has been opposing the establishment of a titanium mine in their area since 2007.
Communities protesting mining projects and entities are being witnessed in many other mineral rich countries across the globe.
The common thread in these incidents of conflict is that communities affected and co-existing with mining entities desire an active role in issues that have traditionally been relegated to government policy and administration.
The growing pressure from communities signals the need to offer communities a solid seat at the table and not to approach their participation as an appendage to the discussions around mining projects.
The time is ripe to review the approach used in structuring community engagement protocols when establishing new projects and during the existence of mining projects.
While some communities have access to resources that enable them to take their grievances before the courts, many such affected communities in other mineral rich countries do not have resources to make their concerns headlines.
However, the growing sense of anti mining sentiments in many countries is an indictment on its own as to the growing frustration and alienation that exists.
The calls for a more influential role reflect the mistrust that mining communities harbor towards being a dependant ward of government in the negotiation and preservation of their rights in mining projects.
The responsibility of ensuring that adequate protective measures are provided for within the framework of mining project arrangements rests with governments.
In addition, government holds the function of ensuring that mining entities comply and adhere to the various laws regulating the operations of mining entities during the life of the project and at closure.
These two obligations also exist within the context of a greater over-arching role that government has towards spearheading national development initiatives, constructing infrastructure, services, the provision of utilities and the stewardship of driving sustainable development to its citizens.
The efficient execution of these duties or lack of it has a significant impact on the relationship between mining entities and communities.
If a government fails at its duty to spearhead national development initiatives, provide basic infrastructure and improving the functionality and diversity of rural sub-economies then the immediate result is that communities will transfer these expectations onto mining entities.
This gives birth to impracticable expectations in respect of the benefits due to them for hosting mining entities.
An additional failure to regulate mining entities efficiently also breeds hostility against mining projects because when communities are left to bear the cost of instituting self help and corrective measures from operational and legislative violations by mining entities their natural reaction will be to prevent mining projects in their jurisdictions with their best effort.
It is within this context that mineral rich governments have accept that their performance and approach to their custodial and fiduciary duties of oversight in the mining sector directly affects how the mining industry is perceived and whether communities are willing to embrace mining projects.
There are three critical points of interaction that mineral rich governments must be particularly mindful of when approaching the interests of communities affected by mining.
That is, at the negotiation of mining projects, during the life of the mine and at mine closure. At project inception there is a need to re-evaluate the strategies used to acquire free prior informed consent.
As the concept suggests, the consent of communities needs to be acquired prior to the inception of the project, it has to be acquired through liberal methods devoid of coercion and intimidation and the consent has to derive from a position of knowledge and understanding of the salient issues arising from the industry, project, the communities’ interests, rights and anticipated benefits.
The greatest problem with acquiring the consent of communities is that substantive engagement efforts only start at the point when an investor had lodged an application for mining rights or in other countries well after the investor has been issued the license.
This in my view is quite late.
All communities that abide in mineral rich areas should be educated, trained and given the platform to conceptualize and anticipate how they intend to approach the future interaction well before commercial interest sprouts.
The discussion around the consequences, compromises and alignment of expectations should happen when exploration and prospecting is being undertaken and well before any investor registers commercial interest.
Trying to cram information exchange when the license is about to be issued and when the investor is ready to establish the mine positions communities in a negative reactive stance and not in proactive positive standpoint.
The capacity of communities to effectively negotiate and communicate their interests is also compromised by lack of adequate information and knowledge regarding options, enforcement mechanisms and corresponding rights and obligations of companies and government.
Whilst it is useful to have pressure groups and non governmental agencies educating communities about these issues, it is time that governments take the reins of educating and communicating more candidly with citizens about mineral wealth, it’s potential to development, how the returns and wealth are distributed, consequences of extraction, expectations, safeguards and the roles and duties of players.
This sort of interaction will positively shape how citizens view mining and let their voices influence policies.
To expect communities to meaningfully conceptualize and communicate their rights and interests and compensatory alternatives without a wider appreciation of mechanics of the industry, its players and available options is a self defeating exercise and hinders constructive discussions that could be vital to realizing the full potential of possessing mineral wealth.
The other issue that usually affects the process of acquiring community consent is the strategy utilized to acquire the consent.
How we organize the community to collect their views and the structures we utilize to administer the process are as important as when we start the process.
Whilst the default is to use traditional leadership structures for consultation and decision making, we should also reinforce these structures with innovative initiatives that compensate for the blind spots inherent traditional systems such as the limited influence and views of women and young adults.
For this reason, government should be able to enhance the effectiveness of traditional structures with the incorporation of diverse and adaptable digital data collection methods.
The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) has been promoting the use of digital technologies such as mobile phone surveys and census to enhance data collection and drive data driven policy making in mining impacted regions.
Such methods are gender and age neutral and can enhance the process of community engagement.
The concept of suggestion/opinion boxes can even be provided for on digital platforms thereby allowing community members to register their concerns or suggestions anonymously and without fear or undue influence.
When paired with traditional consultative and decision-making structures, digital solutions can improve the integrity, inclusiveness and independence of data collection.
It is also detrimental to assume that the process of engagement should merely result in a yes or no position.
The greater part of the process should also be invested in structuring and delivering a tripartite working framework which can deal with issues and concerns arising from the project for the entire duration of the project’s life.
Government needs to pull its provincial and district structures to form a working committee with companies and communities in every delimited mining locality.
This working group should have the power to pass enforceable resolutions and activate remedial action to issues raised.
Many communities feel that once they have been relocated, compensated or have rendered their consent they are abandoned by government structures and struggle to get audience or action to their concerns.
It is very important for mineral rich governments to maintain dialogue and interaction within a framework that can deliver and remedy solutions affecting the community.
Such a forum should be a legislated structure mandated in all areas affected by mining. It can play a significant role in diffusing the feeling of abandonment and hostility from communities.
Indigenous/rural communities have a significant relationship with the land under their possession and occupation. The land represents a source of livelihood and embodies their cultural and spiritual centre.
Whilst these issues may seem emotive in the face of a potential billion-dollar revenue project, they go to the heart of the communities’ context of identity.
Therefore, negotiating the disturbance of peaceful occupation of communal and indigenous lands requires an understanding of how to navigate and offer solutions that preserve, remedy and attempt to make up for the loss in a manner that is satisfactory to the community.
Australia recently revoked the protection status of over 1385 ha of Wangan and Jagalingou country in Queensland which is now earmarked for coal mining under the multinational firm Adani.
The move has been met with great consternation by the indigenous tribes who use part of the area as traditional ceremonial grounds.
There have been numerous protests since the project was first headlined in 2011 and the recent move has only ignited fierce frustrations. It is not an easy feat to find compromises to issues that violate the sanctity of identity and existence, however it is not impossible to broker a position that can be acceptable to the parties.
Both parties must be ready to offer compromises which include forfeiting and excluding part of the targeted project reserves directly around the sensitive areas if this is physically possible.
Once consent has been properly acquired the next point of interaction concerns the administration and oversight of regulatory rules relating to mining operations.
Governments need to invest more time, manpower, tools, money and effort into ensuring regulatory compliance.
This also includes ensuring that regulatory standards in respect of passive environmental and social impacts are closely monitored throughout the project life and kept in check.
The turn of events in the Minetail West Rand mine closure matter is a good example of how relaxed monitoring of regulatory issues can leave serious adverse effects for communities who eventually bear the consequences of environmental degradation, safety and health problems and ultimately remain with the consequences of mining.
The enforcement of operational standards, environmental compliance and environmental liability should be non-negotiable to mineral rich governments.
Governments should be ready to revoke mining rights and take all necessary measures to recover enough funds for environmental liability and rehabilitation should a mining entity keep violating its legislative and regulatory mandates.
Once governments show an unwavering efficiency on oversight and compliance issues this will ultimately allay the fears that communities have regarding violations from mining entities.
How the key parties in the mining sector approach the negotiation table with communities’ matters.
Communities are partners in the industry and the discussion regarding their interests needs to go beyond allocating compensation to creating an opportunity for sustainable development through government and corporate support.
Community engagement is not ancillary to the mining industry; it is the heart of the industry because ultimately if it cannot positively impact, influence or co-exist with those beside it, how can it then drive positive global social impacts?
Minerals are an asset when exploitation, mineral development chains and wealth distribution and relationships are effectively managed.
Once mineral rich countries manage to balance the equation between mining and community interests correctly the attitude towards mining will change and the fruits of the industry will begin to drive broad based sustainable development.