Developing a clear shared vision and defining what local rightsholders and stakeholders want for the future increases the likelihood of achieving sustained positive outcomes for local communities from extractive development.
However, more often than not, a long-term vision for the community relating to mining development is missing.
A vision for extractive development creates a road map for stakeholders to work together in partnership. It starts the conversation about how extractive development can leave communities better off and identifies how mining can fit into broader economic priorities and social development plans. A vision also enables communities, companies, and government to guide the changes that mining will inevitably bring to a community in a way that meets their objectives.
Communities must be at the centre of any vision for the future. To achieve that, government and project proponents need to treat communities as legitimate, equal partners in extractive development, whether they are formal rightsholders or not (and especially when they are). Too often, communities are left out of critical natural resource and development planning exercises or are brought in only as bystanders or commenters.
In Quebec, Plan Nord was developed in partnership with Indigenous Peoples in the region, including the Cree of Eeyou Istchee. In addition to being part of the Plan Nord discussions however, in 2011, the Cree also set out their own vision for Plan Nord in a separate document. In this vision they stressed that Plan Nord must respect Cree rights and that the Cree must be part of all land and resource planning exercises that affect their territory. These statements from the Cree reinforce that there is still work to be done to put communities at the centre of development planning.
A visioning process can create a platform for open discussion about community, company, and government interests and priorities. It can provide a space to talk about issues beyond jobs, contracts, or social investment and improve relationships between stakeholders. Company-community discussions about mining projects often focus on job and other financial numbers, without a long-term perspective about how that infusion of cash can contribute to the achievement of a community’s broader socio-economic goals. A clearly defined vision can enable resources to be allocated more efficiently. It encourages communities and companies to find more meaningful, synergistic social investment opportunities that are aligned with the community’s vision for the future. It also reduces dependency on any one mining project and increases accountability among all actors.
The process of developing a vision can, and often should, be part of broader regional planning. A community working with a project proponent could decide to start with a project-specific vision and build it into a larger regional plan about how mining will be managed in a region. Or government can work with communities to move from a larger regional plan towards community visions and even a vision for a specific mining project.
One of the biggest challenges to developing a vision, however, is that there is no clear starting point. Mining development is inherently uncertain, making it challenging or even impossible to have discussions about the future when the earliest work begins. Companies often do not know whether their work will progress and whether they will have a long-term presence in an area. As a result, there is a fear that including communities too early will create unsustainable expectations. However, waiting too long can leave communities out of decision making as momentum builds quickly around a project. Even in parts of Canada with a history of resource development, such as Quebec, there are many communities where mining is new. A community may not have much experience engaging with a project proponent or in understanding the potential impacts and opportunities of mining. As a result, starting a conversation about how a community can manage and leverage mining activities can be difficult, but should be started as early as possible so the community can build its understanding over time. At the same time, it is never too late for companies and communities to sit down together and discuss the future.
Creating a vision requires communities, government at all levels, and mining companies to actively participate in discussions and be prepared to make tangible commitments. It is often necessary to bring in other companies or civil society groups in the area that also have a stake in the future of an area, such as those working in agriculture, forestry, or tourism. Committing to a visioning process also means committing to the time it takes to talk about the future in sometimes slow ways – it is not usually just a checklist of questions and answers to get through.
The scope of the visioning process will affect the resources required to support it. Working with a community to develop a project-specific vision for the future does not necessarily need to happen separately from existing stakeholder engagement activities for example. However, for a community to participate in a more formal process, they may need support for hiring subject-matter experts or legal expertise (if there will be anything binding). It may also be helpful to hire a third-party facilitator to help guide the process.
The process of negotiating formal agreements between mining companies and communities, such as impact benefit agreements, can be a useful vehicle for a visioning process.
Agreements become stronger when there is an agreed-upon vision in place that can be worked towards. Many people point to agreement-making as an effective system for decision making about the future, and one that is increasingly used.
However, agreements should not be seen as a de-facto replacement for a common vision. When looking at examples of existing agreements in Canada, many agreements impose one party’s approach (more often the company’s) on the other, as opposed to taking a partnership or shared responsibility approach working towards a common vision. Furthermore, the process of developing an agreement, like the process for developing a vision, is just as important as the result.
CAROLYN BURNS is director of operations at NetPositive, a non-profit that works with diverse stakeholders to help local communities see sustained positive outcomes from mining. JANE CHURCH is a co-founder and director of collaboration with NetPositive.