Exploration and mining companies are better known for enormous holes in the ground and environmental disasters than their social and environmental efforts, but the industry is leading the way when it comes to increased corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Unfortunately they still have an image problem!
Many companies are struggling to communicate the social and environmental progress they have made as they carry out the necessary business of resource extraction. And they are confusing the very people they are trying to impress in the process – local communities.
Safety is so last season
If you flipped open a mining company annual report 5 or 10 years ago, the emphasis would likely have been on safety. Sure, there’s always the standard stuff: drill results, volumes extracted and dry financial reports. But taking prime position would be numbers and graphs demonstrating injury reductions and a long list of health and safety efforts, illustrated with glossy images of smiling people in hard hats and fluorescent vests being ‘safe’.
Safety is still a priority in exploration and mining but today those same reports are more likely to be dominated by images of beautifully-restored wetlands, smiling indigenous workers and cute children in remote towns, overflowing with terms like corporate social responsibility, environmental legacy, social licence to operate and community engagement.
These terms were unheard of until a few years ago.
Hopefully 30 years from today, the way we extract essential metals and materials will be unrecognizable too; cleaner, safer and more efficient, with an ever-shrinking footprint.
Beyond the greenwash
Mining companies are expanding their responsibilities beyond the mine and into the communities where they work. The fact that companies are taking their social and environmental responsibilities more seriously than ever isn’t just my observation, it’s supported by peer-reviewed research.
Dr Sara Bice of the University of Melbourne is one researcher looking into the language mining companies are using to document and demonstrate their behaviour outside their core business of finding and extracting metals and materials for energy, like coal, oil and gas.
She trolled through well over 1000 pages of sustainability reports produced over a four year period by five major mining players in Australia – BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Xtrata, Newmont and Oxiana.
Although she found the companies are actively promoting their social and environmental efforts through sustainability reports, the language and terms they use implies that an actual licence has been granted by a regulator. And this can be confusing – intentionally or not – for the local communities where they work.
(Listen to Sara explain how greater clarity would help to quell vocal minorities who are against particular projects, as well as protect local communities.)
One social licence please!
Companies need to understand that it is the communities they work in who grant the licences. It is not possible to buy a social licence, or pay for one, but companies who invest time and money and listen to communities can keep a delicate social licence balloon inflated.
The rules are different for each and every project, the goal posts move constantly during ongoing engagement and relationship-building. A social licence to operate can be removed as swiftly as it’s issued. But, as demonstrated by recent protests and hold-ups to oil pipeline projects in western Canada, sometimes social licence is the only thing that counts.
Dating vs marriage
Visiting a community for the first time is like a first date. Neither side should assume on that first date that this relationship is leading to marriage, children, a big house and car and then retirement to the country. The company cannot assume that the project will progress on their time frame, but the community should not assume the company will provide jobs and economic benefits right away either.
Each side must take it slow and get to know each other before the community allows the company to develop the project, and the benefits of the project return to the community.
This is a scary situation for exploration and mining companies who need to keep shareholders happy. Neat numbers cannot be placed on how much building a relationship will cost and how long it will take.
But a number can certainly be placed on how much they will loose if the elusive social licence isn’t granted.
It’s a delicate, uncertain process for both sides. No future mining project will proceed without a social licence, yet our need for the materials mined is ever-increasing.
Navigating the SLO minefield can be a slow and costly process for exploration and mining companies. Tread carefully.
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