Pitching in to defend green areas
“How are you?,” I asked him. “Well to tell you the truth, this year we are up against some environmental conflicts with NGOs. Our lawyers are dealing with that problem, while we are showing our project to the community once again. Sometimes I think that it is necessary to set other kinds of strategies…but, oh well, such is life.”
This e-mail exchange with my friend working at a mining company reflects not only a lack of sustainable strategies but also the need to build up trust with those environmental NGOs.
“Some level of engagement with the non-profit sector is essential no matter how frustrating initially it can be for executives. Mining managers must consider this cost of doing business,” pointed out Saleem Ali, assistant professor of environmental policy and planning at University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt.
Nevertheless, even when a mining company has attempted to identify the most appropriate form of engagement, it is not unusual for relations with stakeholders to fail or not to start up at all, for any number of reasons. There may be a history of conflict among key interests, the engagement process may lack a clear purpose, participants may have unrealistic goals and be inflexible and unwilling to compromise, or there may be differences in philosophies and ways of working, among other reasons.
Building a trustful relationship is not an impossible task. This was the case in the Bushmanland Conservation Initiative. According to the International Council on Mining Metals (ICMM), Anglo American launched the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme (SKEP) in January 2002. SKEP included more than 60 scientific experts and 400 local stakeholders representing government, academia, NGOs, private sector interests and local communities in a groundbreaking approach to conservation planning.
During the SKEP planning process, the dialogue between biodiversity groups and Anglo continued, and an agreement was reached to establish a partnership project: the Bushmanland Conservation Initiative. This partnership between the company, conservation NGOs and the local communities aims to establish a multi-owned protected area through a variety of innovative interventions and mechanisms that draw in local landowners. The process determined a multi-use landscape with areas under high protection, areas managed for extensive grazing and areas set aside for more intensive activities, including mining.
What had begun as a confrontation between mining and conservation gradually changed into a collaborative approach that included systematic conservation planning.
As a result, the project determined the impacts of the Gamsberg mine, suggested meaningful mitigating measures, built credibility of biodiversity goals and provided a way for the mining sector to contribute directly to efforts to meet biodiversity conservation targets.
Despite the fact that every single relationship between a mining company and an NGO is unique, there are some aspects to consider in order to build healthy relationships.
First, engage key leaders. In other words engage those with the most power, influence and interest in your business and its activities. Select the participants carefully but, as John Elkington of SustainAbility suggests, don’t be afraid to invite at least some difficult voice.
Second, be flexible and build trust. This attitude implies devoting adequate time to the process.
Third, be open and realistic. These tips include being prepared to appreciate the fact that stakeholders will tend to withdraw from the process.
Finally, share your agenda. Encourage NGOs to play a role in co-evolving the agenda. But the company itself must be clear about its own strategy and direction, otherwise the dialogue will be very ineffectual.
Building a good relationship with an environmental organization is not something that can or should be left to “happen”. It is a crucial process of management to be handled with thought and care. I do believe that training in NGO engagement will become a core management competence since those involved in stakeholder engagment will need to be able to analyze the characteristics of effective and not-so-effective engagement.
Jaquelina Jimena is a business journalist and advisor on corporate social responsibility (CSR) issues, based in Mendosa, Argentina. She can be reached at [email protected].