ISSUE 55: The Case for Engaging with Opposition

The character and complexities of communities are what makes them unique and vibrant – factors that attract both visitors and those who call those communities home. Often when companies begin to engage with a community, they are full of confidence in the virtue of their project, however, this confidence can rapidly change when engagement is met with opposition. The nature of the opposition can vary, and can arise out of fear, genuine concern, or a ‘not-in-my-backyard’ stance. Whatever the opposition is, it is often as categorized as parasitic mistletoe- unwanted, unwarranted, and dismissed with disdain by the company. This reaction is not surprising – conflict in everyday life is rarely greeted with a smile and a cup of tea. And this is only more true when that conflict is putting an already costly project in jeopardy, or on a longer and even more expensive timeline. While opposition may never fully be met with joy, it is critical that the concern that people have for their communities be understood and appreciated.

Employing the old adage of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer, working with the opposition should be normalized as it the best means of learning how to both develop and present a project, whatever it may be, that better suits the community. The effort that it takes to work with the opposition can be both significant and uncomfortable, but if these conversations don’t take place, misunderstanding, bitterness and failure that impacts both parties is, in our experience, inevitable.

One effective means of engaging with communities is via community panels. These panels are often established to provide an opportunity for companies and communities to engage in mutual exchanges. And while it would be easy to populate these panels with like-minded individuals that are happy to see the next mine, wind project, or development come to their area, this would be unwise. Whereas such a panel might serve the function of ticking a box and allowing the company to proclaim ‘we have a community panel’ in their next corporate media release or annual report, a fully supportive panel does not represent the meaningful engagement necessary to achieve community acceptance. Without including those community members who ask the tough questions and who have legitimate concerns, a company won’t learn the root causes of community opposition, or the remedies to turn resistance into acceptance and a true win-win scenario. True engagement takes time, and true engagement with opposition will take more time, effort, and a real commitment to resolve conflict.

The case for engagement with the opposition is a case for understanding the community in which a company is proposing to operate. The International Finance Corporation in its Stakeholder Engagement handbook, directs financed project developers to carefully consider: “Whose opposition could be detrimental to the success of the project?”

The Equator Principles paint a clearer picture of engagement as being a process, not a one-time event:

“(Lenders) will require the client to demonstrate effective Stakeholder Engagement, as an ongoing process in a structured and culturally appropriate manner, with Affected Communities, Workers and, where relevant, Other Stakeholders”

The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) provides this guidance:

“Conduct stakeholder engagement based upon an analysis of the local context and provide local stakeholders with access to appropriate and effective mechanisms for seeking resolution of grievances related to the company and its activities.”

Open-minded engagement with opposition can feel counter-intuitive and risky. However, experience has shown that it is the best means of creating true dialogue and mutual respect, without which it becomes impossible to understand the concerns of the community and what might be done to mitigate them. True engagement takes time, and true engagement with opposition will take more time, while delivering a desirable return on investment.

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