By Mike Saint
The Saint Consulting Group
Contentious political battles over land uses are becoming an international phenomenon, one that brings together government, corporations, public interest groups and local people trying to work out often opposing agendas. It is a form of confrontation we at Saint Consulting know well from having been involved in more than 1,700 land use battles on two continents over 30 years. But it seems we may be also needed now in the rest of the world.
The developing world in Asia, Africa and Latin America is confronting major challenges as countries embrace great new opportunities in mining, energy, forestry and agriculture. But, as new projects are proposed, new opposition arises from environmentalists, NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard), NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations, like Greenpeace) and other stakeholders. This is not unlike projects that are opposed in North America or Europe. And like here, the land use political battles are contentious and expensive for industry, local economies and all concerned.
The World Bank and its International Finance Corporation (IFC) that invests in the extraction industries — mining, oil and gas drilling — and in forests and agriculture and hydroelectric projects, is trying to use its status as investor to raise people out of poverty by encouraging growth in those developing countries, while at the same time encouraging development that is sustainable, environmentally friendly, and responsive to all stakeholders, including the indigenous peoples in the country being developed.
With these joint goals in mind, the IFC last week invited almost 300 experts from NGOs, extraction companies, consulting firms and the World Bank to discuss the challenges ahead and exchange methodologies to get sustainable development projects approved and operating for the benefit of all. Its fifth annual IFC Sustainability Summit ran four days, attracted participants from more than 25 countries and covered topics ranging from palm oil to water scarcities, to extreme weather to engaging with local stakeholders.
I was invited to attend and participate on a panel whose title was “Building Constituencies and Understanding Their Priorities.” Also on the panel with me was David Bonbright, CEO of ConVox in London, and Antoine Heuty, a New York City-based Frenchman who is in the process of starting a new company that will use social media to crowd source community engagement for new developing world projects in oil, gas and mining.
Rather than lecture, David, Antoine and I decided to ask those attending our 90-minute session to ask questions they would like us to answer or present cases where they needed help in overcoming opposition related to their developments.
One of those present was a top official from a mining company in Peru that has been brought to a standstill by citizen opposition, angry politicians and a hostile media. It was certainly one of the bigger challenges we could tackle, especially in a short time, since it has been going on for years, involves significant environmental issues including a perceived detrimental effect by the mine on already scarce water resources, and a bitter political struggle between the country’s president and the region’s governor.
We covered: Identify, empower, engage and mobilize local stakeholders. I reviewed our Advocacy Pyramid Approach that calls on us to identify, educate, harness and mobilize supporters.
The land use approval process is inherently political. To succeed one must understand that government officials look at the project’s political ramifications on them and whether their constituents and key stakeholders have been included in the process and satisfied by the results.
David and Antoine also suggested approaches from their experiences at their current firms and at NGOs where they worked in the past.
One of my additional suggestions was for the mining company and its IFC investors to spend time arranging for third parties to meet with all the opponent groups and listen to their issues. Too often, I said, project proponents fail to really meet and listen to opponents and take their opinions into account. Sometimes they will find opponents are steadfast and intractable in their opposition, but more often than not, the opponents have come to feel the developer has not made an effort to listen to them or give them power over influencing projects that will have a profound impact on their lives. Giving opponents an ear and a way to participate in the process can often go a long way to limiting their opposition.
This kind of communication failure is common on large projects, which are often managed by engineers or geologists. As one mining company said during the program, “geologists care about rocks. Their project site maps don’t even notate the existences of villages and homes.”
Another miner told the story of a mining company that asked people what they wanted and then built a running water system the village did not use. When they asked why, the villagers responded that the mining company had failed to understand that village women preferred a central water system — where they could congregate, socialize and watch each other’s children — to a decentralized system that isolated the families from each other.
Understanding the political, social and cultural conditions on the ground is a key element in what we call a political scope. Often, the engineers go into a potential project location and drill into the land to see if the site is appropriate for mining, but fail to spend any time understanding the human and political conditions that will become equally crucial if their project is to succeed.
The IFC Sustainability Summit was a major step toward bringing many disparate and oft times opposing groups together to explore issues, common ground and possible areas of mutual agreement. I was honored to be asked to attend and participate.
Mike Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email firstname.lastname@example.org