Ever read something in the media about public outrage when a big, bad mining company steamrolled local community needs? Chances are, if you’ve touched a newspaper or clicked in social media in the past decade, the answer is yes.
Mining can be an issue of great contention and conflict. While an important source of economic revenue, mining can also bring costly social, economic, and environmental impacts to the local areas in which mines are developed.
Calls have frequently been made to make the voices of community members and other relevant stakeholders heard in the processes of mining development. This is done in an effort to mine in a socially sustainable way – with benefits for both companies and local communities.
Social licence to operate
In recent years, the concept of ‘Social Licence to Operate’ (SLO) has gained popularity. SLO aims to ensure social accountability for mining companies in the view of the communities and other stakeholders who are impacted by mining.
The social accountability and social acceptance of mining created by SLO requires engagement and relationship-building efforts by companies with their stakeholders. One form of engagement that is important is two-way dialogue. While a lot discussions around the importance of two dialogue have taken place, less research has examined exactly what that dialogue looks like, and what it can achieve – in the context of social licence.
Understanding meaningful engagement: Dialogue
Recent research by our team proposes two main ways in which dialogue – as a reciprocal process involving diverse stakeholders – is implemented in SLO.
The first is a free-form process of two-way engagement that focusses on both sides learning: this is the ‘learning model of dialogue’. The second is a more structured process of dialogue that has a predetermined goal to serve a specific purpose: this is the ‘strategic model of dialogue’.
Each model comes with its own pros and cons but both are likely to be useful in developing the kind of opportunities that are important for social licence: that is, for community members and other stakeholders to make their voices heard in shaping mining development processes. So what can dialogue actually achieve?
Outcomes of dialogue in mining
Follow up research explored exactly that question by interviewing expert stakeholder engagement professionals in the mining context. Findings indicate that there are two main types of dialogue: informal and formal dialogue – each with different kinds of outcomes.
Informal dialogue – the kind of conversations had over a cup of tea or glass of beer – was seen to result in relational outcomes. These included, for example, the building of meaningful relationships, trust, an understanding of one another, or learning from others’ diverse experiences. This is the kind of dialogue that might best fit under the learning model of dialogue.
Formal dialogue – taking place, for example, in consultations or committee meetings – was seen to have a lot of structure and specific purpose. This resulted in more ‘concrete’ outcomes such as shared decision-making, consensus, or solving problems. This is the kind of dialogue that might best fit under the strategic model of dialogue.
These two types of dialogue are both important and ultimately, best practice would include one to support the other. There is a lot of complexity in this research, but one useful way to apply this information is to ask whether any meaningful dialogue is occurring at all, for a particular community and mining company! If there is no dialogue, how could it start? And if there is a sense of ongoing dialogue being fruitless or stale, leaders and community members can ask whether the balance needs to be adjusted to allow more openness, informal talks, and mutual learning, on the one hand, or to give more structured, formal processes that aim to achieve concrete outcomes, on the other.
It is important for researchers and those involved in mining development to understanding the complex nature of achieving meaningful engagement and social acceptance around mining to ensure that multiple stakeholders groups can make their voices heard – to shape the mining processes that impact their livelihoods.
- Lucy Mercer-Mapstone
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.