I’m often asked if conflicts and disputes between mining companies and surrounding communities can be resolved through dialogue, or non-confrontational avenues. It seems that many people believe the only avenues that exist are confrontational – either go to court, or stage a protest of some sort.
In the course of the last few years of our work, we’ve certainly come across many instances where dialogue doesn’t just work, it works better than the alternatives. But the PDAC Convention this year brought a whole new depth of this reality to light – people in Latin America are actually creating organizations just with this approach in mind.
At PDAC, these individuals had an opportunity to present this type of approach. They were in Toronto as representatives from the Latin American Group of Dialogue "Mining, Democracy and Sustainable Development" (GDL as per its Spanish acronym). The GDL gathers multi-stakeholder dialogue initiatives on mining from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, fostering increased understanding and dialogue among stakeholders in the very region where Canadian mining companies are most active. According to Natural Resources Canada, Canadian mining investments in South America and the Caribbean totaled about $70 Billion in 2011.
The GDL group had a three-hour presentation window at PDAC, designed to introduce the GDL to the industry and other key mining stakeholders, to share its vision and objectives. A facilitated dialogue format was used to encourage productive, informal sharing of knowledge, perspectives and expertise across a mix of stakeholders. More than 200 people came out to hear the speakers.
Peru’s initiative has been active for more than a decade and has convened over 300 workshops with issue experts. José Luis López Follegatti, representative from the Peruvian Group of Dialogue, began the GDL outreach session with an introduction to the importance of multi-stakeholder dialogue initiatives in a context of high uncertainty.
One area where I often see disconnects between industry and communities is around objectives – what is the "dialogue" actually for? For companies, it’s often about the outcome – reach an agreement of some sort, or move on to the next stage in the process. But the GDL speakers that day highlighted something else – dialogue as a process - a way to reduce polarization, and at the same time improve capacity within communities. The aim of dialogue then is not just about reaching agreements, but also about exchanging information and building relationships based on trust and empathy. That’s why, in GDL’s experience, it is important to have a dialogue, for example, about the pressures of permitting. It is not designed to achieve any specific outcome, but rather to share information and to hear concerns and issues. It often meets a company’s needs as well – we often hear that companies are pretty frustrated that the information they provide does not get attention. The very act of the dialogue builds trust, and many disputes begin because trust is very low. This tends to be exacerbated when improvements in the quality of life don’t seem to be happening.
I had the privilege of serving as a "commentator" to the GDL panel, along with Tony Hodge, President, ICMM, Ian Thomson of On Common Ground Consultants and Ricardo Labo of Rio Tinto. The audience asked engaged, sometimes pointed, questions. "What do you do about anti-mining activists?" "How to bring governments into the dialogue mix?" "What are the key resistance points for industry engagement?"
Not everyone wants dialogue, that is clear. But what GDL does show is that we need an increasing number of legitimate places to accommodate those that don’t want to litigate or engage in social protest.