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Engaging with ASM: Where to begin?

Engaging with ASM: Where to begin?

October 1, 2020, by Angela Jorns


Engagement with ASM stakeholders is a minimum requirement for large-scale mining companies (LSM) when dealing with ASM on or around their permit areas. But for many companies this is easier said than done. The often illegal or informal status of ASM activities, its highly dynamic nature, and the related safety, security or compliance concerns make it difficult even for experienced community engagement teams to find appropriate ways to engage with ASM stakeholders.

So how can LSM companies engage with ASM actors and stakeholders in a meaningful way? This blog discusses different options for concrete, practical ASM engagement, which can help companies include ASM stakeholders in their comprehensive stakeholder engagement plans. It also highlights some of the key issues companies need to consider when deciding which of these options are most suitable to their context.

Getting it right from the start

It is crucial that LSM companies get ASM engagement right from the beginning – including at the exploration and constructions stages – especially in cases where no such engagement or communication has occurred previously. As well as the messages they would like to convey to ASM actors, companies need to think through their strategy and the channels of communication they will use. Due to the nature of ASM and its associated challenges, these may need to be quite different from ‘normal’ community and stakeholder engagement. LSM companies should therefore consider tailored approaches that are rooted in an in-depth understanding of the local ASM context and include both direct and indirect engagement (see below).

Companies’ initial engagement with ASM stakeholders will become the foundation for trust and relationship building, and should therefore be carefully planned. Consideration should be given to those channels, means and methods that most effectively enhance trust between the company and ASM actors. Some methods may not be appropriate for building trust in certain contexts. For example, where a company decides to engage with ASM only indirectly via governmental authorities, the building of trust could be undermined if ASM actors are afraid to engage with government agents because of their informal/illegal status, or because the government has shown a heavy handed and repressive approach towards them in the past, or even because some government agents may be actively implicated in ASM themselves. Similarly, companies need to consider carefully any participation of company security guards in ASM engagement activities, where the safety of employees and the building of trust with ASM has to be carefully balanced.

Direct engagement

In some cases, it is possible and desirable for LSM companies to engage directly with ASM stakeholders and their representatives or leaders. This is often the case in contexts where ASM has existed for a relatively long time, is relatively well organised (as opposed to rush situations), and consists at least partially of ‘legitimate’, formal and/or legal activities. Especially where no previous engagement has occurred, a stepwise approach may be appropriate:

  1. As a first step, casual, informal conversations with ASM actors or their representatives can be useful to build a preliminary relationship. Some departments within the mining company may already have informal encounters or conversations with ASM anyway (e.g. Exploration, Security, Community, Production, etc), or some of the company’s local employees may be familiar with ASM actors and have social connections with them. These contacts could be built on for low-level conversations and building familiarity, paving the way for more formal meetings with ASM leaders.
  2. Initial meetings with ASM leaders: It may be beneficial to first engage a smaller group of ASM leaders or representatives, or conduct informal one-on-one meetings to establish a relationship with leaders, before meeting them as a group. These meetings can be used to jointly develop a more formal plan for engagement and meetings, including who should be meeting on which issues and when, and under which jointly agreed rules.
  3. Meetings with a bigger group of ASM representatives: In the initial stages of engagement it may also be beneficial to extend the engagement to a larger group of ASM representatives beyond the key leaders. This should enable the participation and engagement of commonly marginalised groups (e.g. women, migrants, youth, the elderly, certain ethnic groups, ex-combatants, and so on) and representatives of different roles in the ASM system. This helps ensure that a wide diversity of ASM stakeholders are represented and different perspectives are heard. For the LSM company, this offers the advantage of gaining a nuanced picture of the ASM dynamics and a sense of internal struggles, including over the representativeness of certain leaders, for example.
  4. Site visits: After initial relationships have been established and a certain level of trust has been built, site visits can be a complementary way to engage with ASM stakeholders. Such visits should be organised jointly with ASM leaders and representatives, ensuring that the purpose of the visit is clearly communicated. Site visits allow for an in-depth observation of the workings at the site, and conversations with different ASM workers (diggers, washers, transporters, etc) who may be unable to attend formal meetings. Site visits may also help to build common ground and understanding between the two parties (‘miners visiting miners’).
  5. Formalised engagement: Once a certain level of trust has been established through initial meetings, more regular and formalised mechanisms of engagement can be envisaged. LSM companies should hold discussions with ASM representatives about their preferred forms of engagement and what the jointly agreed rules should be. In some cases, it may be appropriate to include ASM stakeholders in the wider community engagement spaces that the company has set up. In other cases there may be a need for separation, if ASM and their leaders are distinct from the local resident community. In all cases, the mechanisms for engagement should be geared towards reflecting the diversity of views and perspectives within ASM and enable marginalised actors to participate as well.

Indirect engagement

Sometimes, such direct engagement with ASM may be difficult or problematic for LSM companies, especially at the outset. This can be the case where the ASM is mostly illegal or informal, and where there are already tensions or conflicts between the company and ASM stakeholders. On one side, ASM actors may be unwilling or afraid to engage due to the informal or illegal nature of their activities, and on the other, there can be safety and security risks involved for company employees.

Rather than seeking direct conversations, and thus potentially aggravating suspicions on both sides, in such cases it can be a better solution to work with and through a third party that already has contacts and has built trust with the ASM stakeholders – at least at the initial stages of engagement. Such third parties could, for example, be the government agency tasked with formalising the ASM sector, though, as noted above, ASM stakeholders acting illegally/informally may be equally hesitant to engage with government representatives. Other options for third party engagement could be local NGOs and civil society organisations, traditional authorities or religious leaders, or a multi-stakeholder initiative bringing together all these actors.

Relationships take time

Whether through direct or indirect engagement, building constructive relationships and trust with ASM stakeholders takes as much time and effort as ‘common’ community engagement. LSM companies should commit to a long-term process and accept that there will be no ‘quick fixes’ in a dynamically evolving ASM context. While engagement with ASM stakeholders is the minimum requirement for, and a crucial component of, managing LSM-ASM relationships, it needs to be embedded in a broader ASM management strategy. Ultimately, the formalisation and professionalisation of ASM can only be achieved if a broad coalition of actors, from LSM companies to governments, NGOs and international industry associations, collaborate.

In our next blog, we will discuss some of the most common misconceptions and pitfalls encountered by LSM companies in the process of engaging with ASM, and share tips for avoiding these. Stay tuned!

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