Reducing company-community conflict abroad

Photos courtesy of Luc Zandvliet.

Among Luc Zandvliet’s professional accomplishments last year, coaxing a burly mining engineer into a Bedouin tent to discuss the mysteries of camel lactation ranks among the most unusual.

Zandvliet is a community-relations consultant. Last spring found him in Saudi Arabia on behalf of Alcoa, one of the world’s largest aluminum producers and a minority partner in a joint venture that’s developing a bauxite mine there. Mine personnel heard rumours that Bedouins wandering through the area were upset; they believed vibrations from blasting caused their camels to stop producing milk. Zandvliet sought out the man responsible for blasting.

“He’s this big, buff Australian guy, a re­ally hardcore mining engineer,” Zandvliet recalls. “We said, okay, you have to go talk to these Bedouins and find a solution.” And so, coached by Zandvliet and accompanied by a local member of the mine’s community relations department, the engineer headed out to the desert.

Zandvliet loves that story. It represents a minor triumph for his philosophy on how corporations should interact with commu­nities. It’s also the philosophy that drives Triple R Alliance, the small consultancy he founded in 2008 to help multinational resource companies manage relationships with the communities they enter. Past cli­ents have included Barrick Gold, Newmont Mining, Statoil, Chevron and Total.

Since 2001, Zandvliet has visited more than 60 sites, mostly mining and oil and gas operations, in locations as far-flung as Sudan, Cameroon, Colombia, Suriname, Panama, Papua New Guinea, and the Dem­ocratic Republic of the Congo. Some com­munities were so remote they were reach­able only by dugout canoe. Some projects were so controversial that employees dared not venture beyond the gates wearing com­pany insignia.


As far as Zandvliet has strayed, he’s seen only a handful of sites where managers, in his view, know how to relate with surround­ing communities. “Despite thousands of Canadian companies and tens of thousands of sites, it is still very difficult to list a dozen or two good ones,” he says. “That’s tragic.”

That tragedy, he says, is explained by fundamental flaws in the traditional corpo­rate approach to engaging with communi­ties. Those flaws provoke unnecessary con­flicts and delay multibillion-dollar projects that fail to secure social licence to operate.

Managers tend to attribute such trou­bles to external factors such as pre-existing strife, corruption and poverty. Zandvliet, though, believes companies bring the vast majority of conflicts on themselves. “And the good news,” he adds, “is that companies have much more control over company-community conflict than they think.”

Zandvliet’s first corporate engagement – or rather, non-engagement – dates back 15 years. A Dutch citizen, Zandvliet worked for non-governmental organiza­tions (NGOs) such as the International Red Cross during the 1990s. The last years of that decade found him in what is now South Sudan, witnessing civil war and fam­ine while serving as a country director for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

There was considerable debate among NGOs and religious groups about whether to engage with Talisman Energy, a Calgary-based energy company then operating in the country. Among other things, Talisman had been accused of complicity in human rights abuses perpetrated by the Sudanese government against civilians living in oil ex­ploration and production areas.

“At the last moment MSF said no, we don’t want to be part of it,” Zandvliet re­calls, “because Talisman is tainted and we feel uncomfortable talking to corporate actors.” Zandvliet wasn’t sure that was the right decision. “There’s no general manager or CEO who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘How can I violate human rights?’” he says. Rather, when companies ran into trouble, it’s usually because they lacked the necessary tools.

Zandvliet has been trying to remedy that ever since. After leaving MSF he attended Tufts University to acquire a Masters in Humanitarian Assistance. Then he joined a non-profit based in Cambridge, Mass., called CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, where he spearheaded an effort among more than 40 companies to develop best practices for operating in conflict-plagued areas.

That led to his 2009 book, Getting It Right: Making Corporate-Community Rela­tions Work, co-authored with a CDA col­league. “His book, people still pull it out and refer to it,” says Deanna Kemp, an as­sociate professor at Australia’s University of Queensland and deputy director of its Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining. She’s known Zandvliet professionally for years. “A lot of knowledge in this area is an­ecdotal and comes from people like Luc. He has been very influential in this space, and I do respect his work a lot.”

Zandvliet, who today lives in Wiarton, Ontario, left CDA in 2010 to focus fully on Triple R Alliance, where he continues ap­plying those lessons.


Lesson 1: You can’t buy peace

Many resource companies adopt commu­nity-development projects – new schools, hospitals, etc. – as a favoured means of making nice with local communities. That’s understandable: when asked, communities can draw shopping lists of things they’d like a company to provide. Poorly implemented, however, such projects do more harm than good.

For example, Zandvliet visited many oil and gas sites in Nigeria during the mid-2000s. Sometimes his job involves seeking out criminals, corrupt politicians, disaf­fected youths, artisanal miners, and other local parties that companies themselves, for a variety of reasons, prefer to avoid. It’s dangerous work. So as not to draw unwel­come attention, in Nigeria he declined use of company helicopters. Instead, he trav­elled in the same boats favoured by locals, and he hoped to be rained on so he would get as drenched as everyone else. He asked questions his clients couldn’t: Why are you kidnapping people? Why are you blowing up pipelines? Who is paying you?

During one tense encounter, Zandvliet persuaded some youths not to feed him “pepper soup” – a local euphemism for kidnapping, named after the unpleasant dish fed to those unfortunate enough to ex­perience it. But they still vowed, given the right opportunity, to kidnap oil company employees. Zandvliet pointed out recent improvements in local infrastructure pro­vided by the companies, and asked why they were unhappy. “They said it's because the companies don't care,” he recalls. “Elec­tricity poles are there, but there are no wires between the poles. The hospital is there but they never asked the government to provide doctors and nurses. So it is basically a stor­age shed.”

Failure to deliver promised community projects can be devastating to a company’s reputation, and the cause is often shoddy or uncoordinated work by subcontrac­tors. Zandvliet notes that during the last five years some of his clients have begun to supervise subcontractors more closely. “Companies have slowly woken up to the fact that they cannot say, 'Well, it wasn’t me,’” he says. “You can build schools and clinics until the cows come home. But if you're still seen as arrogant and uncaring, all the goodwill you think you’ve created by building these projects is just evaporat­ing immediately.”


Lesson 2: Hire locally

Ill-considered hiring practices are even more dangerous, Zandvliet believes. Nige­ria is an intensely tribal country, and Zan­dvliet’s clients wanted to remain detached from it. They attempted to maintain neu­trality by hiring on merit. But many in the Niger Delta, Zandvliet found, didn’t re­gard that practice as neutral in the slight­est. Whereas members of certain tribes are more likely to have university education, others from the Niger Delta haven’t com­pleted high school. “Community folk say, no, hiring based on merit means you are reinforcing the status quo,” says Zandvliet, “which they see as oppression.”

Companies need to appreciate such re­alities before devising hiring policies, Zand­vliet says. Whatever approach they choose, it needs to be fair and transparent. Com­panies can’t always source skilled workers from the local community, but they should source locally whenever possible. “If you're bringing in unskilled labourers from the capital, you will have an issue. That's true wherever you go.”


Lesson 3: Drive carefully

Here’s one thing Zandvliet sees compa­nies doing right, at least half the time. Seeking to maintain a good safety record, most companies insist employees buckle up and drive responsibly. They install sig­nage and speed bumps to help enforce it. Whether intended or not, companies do­ing this also enjoy a community relations dividend, he says, because locals are con­cerned about the safety of their children and livestock.

Where companies have poor relations with surrounding communities, he’s seen vehicles outfitted with mesh screens to defend against rock attacks. Others have tinted windows. “Driving 30 kilometres an hour with your windows rolled down, smil­ing to people, sends a completely different message than going 80 kilometres with tint­ed windows up,” he says. “It’s more powerful than we understand.”


Lesson 4: Pay your bills on time

The bean counters in accounts payable might not come to mind in discussions about community relations. But in Zandv­liet’s view, they’re on the front lines. “If you pay local contractors six months late, you will have a social problem on your hands,” he says. “Because those people typically need to borrow money from loan sharks. And these loan sharks are not going to wait until the company pays, right?”

Kemp concurs. Companies often seek to externalize risk, and one way of lowering fi­nancial risk is to pay bills only when they’re due—or even later, if possible. “They might be minimizing financial risk, but they’re exacerbating social risk,” she says. “Some of the simplest economic transactions have huge social consequences.”

Distilled, Zandvliet’s message is that few communities fundamentally oppose re­source extraction. Rather, they react nega­tively when it’s done poorly—and there are straightforward, prescriptive strategies to avoid that. That message receives warm wel­come in many corners of industry and gov­ernment. But it is not universally accepted, even among Zandvliet’s admirers. “It's prob­ably the only point that I disagree with Luc on,” says Kemp. “He’s saying we need to sim­plify this for people. But these are complex issues. And the industry needs to get its head around that. It can’t go around thinking, there's just a few simple things we need to get right and everything will be fine.”

Catherine Coumans is research coordi­nator at MiningWatch Canada, an activist group formed in 1999 that campaigns on public health, water and air quality, and other mining-related issues. She’s visited many of the same sites Zandvliet has, and has heard similar concerns about dust, driving practices, and delayed payments. “These are all irritants, for sure,” she ac­knowledges. “These things can lead to lo­cal demonstrations and attempts to shut down the mine. We've certainly seen that with communities we’re working with.”

Yet they’re not the issues of gravest con­cern, Coumans says, nor the ones derailing resource projects. She points to recent ef­forts by communities in the Philippines and Latin America seeking long-term bans on mining in their areas. “There are always texts associated with them, and they’re not about the sort of stuff he’s talking about,” she says. “They’re about really fundamental issues. It’s about not wanting to be relocated, not wanting to have rivers diverted, not wanting to have mines in mountainous areas where waste is unlikely to be contained in perpe­tuity.” Such issues lack simple remedies, she says, and are consequently often downplayed or avoided by consultants.

Less controversial is Zandvliet’s asser­tion that the prevailing approach to com­munity relations isn’t working well, which brings us to his final lesson.


Lesson 5: Broaden relations

Community relations are too important, he says, to be left just to the community relations department of a company. Kemp and a colleague published a paper last year examining the community relations depart­ment at a large mine in West Africa. They interviewed 30 department employees, many of whom said their role was to act as an intermediary between the company and the community. The department’s influence rose somewhat during times when it was able to manage conflicts that threatened to interrupt mine operations, but gener­ally it was not consulted on decisions such as building new roads or dams that were likely to affect community relations. Rather, Kemp observed “fire-fighter type patterns within and out­side the fence whereby the company identifies a sudden crisis and [the community rela­tions department] is rapidly de­ployed to de-escalate and limit the spread of the crisis.”

That’s entirely consistent with Zandvliet’s observations. “Within many companies, the community relations people are expected to keep people happy outside the fence so that the company can keep doing its work inside the fence,” he says. The problem is that virtually all company employees active in the country interact with local communities, whether they rec­ognize it or not. Just like profit and safety, social performance needs to be recognized as an objective for which all workers are responsible.

“If there's dust in the air because of blasting, that's a mining issue,” he says. “If the state security forces are heavy handed, that's an issue for the security department. If there's a lack of transparency and fair­ness in hiring, that's an HR issue.” Com­panies failing to recognize this condemn themselves to making the same mistakes he keeps seeing around the world.

That brings us back to the camels.

When Triple-R accepted Alcoa’s request that it set up a community relations depart­ment at its Saudi joint venture, Zandvliet insisted it adopt his integrated approach. The mine’s manager endorsed the idea, and that buy-in by senior management is one reason the burly mining engineer readily agreed to venture outside the gates to speak with Bedouins. As a result, Alcoa erected signs along main desert tracks to warn pass­ersby about pending blasting. This spring it will monitor its human networks in the Saudi desert to learn whether Bedouins in the area are satisfied, or whether further measures are required.

As for whether blasting actually influenc­es lactation in camels, “the jury is still out,” Zandvliet chuckles. He confesses many en­gineers have difficulty taking such concerns seriously without empirical evidence.

But therein lies a final lesson. “If you work in the field between companies and communities, it does not matter what the facts are,” he says. “Perceptions determine people’s behaviour. If they believe blasting affects camels, from a company perspec­tive, that’s all you care about.”

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