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The discussion goes down to the mine

The discussion goes down to the mine

Posted by Juan Gavasa on March 18, 2014

For the past few yers, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the mining sector has been installed to its fullest as a priority. It was initially assumed by the great extractive companies as a public purge for the sins commited in their past, a public way to clean the image of an industry in permanent conflict with the communities where it operates and which, with almost no exception, has burdened with the stigma of malpractices.

The processes of transformation in sectors very little inclined to changes, such as in mining, are as slow as the heavy machinery used for open pit excavations but incisive to the point of altering its physiognomy. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is now valued as another element in a company's architecture, being able to ensure the profitability of an exploitation if it encourages the dialogue with the community or dooming its failure if its implementation is done with sloth and little willingness. 

In the recent convention of the PDAC (Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada), held in Toronto, the issue was in a significant number of conferences, meetings and statements. As it was noted by Elena Mayer, lawyer and expert in the field, ''great companies understood long ago that there was an urgent need to improve their image and to base their business on three pillars of sustainability: economical, social and environmental''

In this line of action, one of the most innovative events held in the framework of PDAC was the discussion table organized by the Group of Latinamerican Dialogue (GDL, in Spanish), a platform that under the name of ''Mining, democracy and sustainable development'' has been working for years in the building of bridges between the main actors of the industry: governments, companies and communities. 

Toronto's event replicated on a latinamerican scale what discreetly has been happening in small areas in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador for fifteen years, where the approach to a new mining project triggers expectations and concern among the inhabitants. 

This experience held for second year in a row in a Toronto downtown hotel. Consciously, and with the paraphernalia of a group therapy, the routines of interaction were assimilated as an exercise of approach to each part. It is what the sociologist and educator José Luis López Follegatti called 'ecology of dialogue, indispensable to overcome a scenario where each member puts into question the real intention of their counterpart.

''It was very difficult because whenever the companies and the community's representatives were in the same table, they were both convinced that the other part wanted nothing but to harm them. That atmosphere is hard to dilute'' remembers López Follegatti, coordinator of the Group of Dialogue of Peru, promoter of these initiatives for fifteen years and renowned advisor who now dedicates his time to share his experiences with leaders of different communities.

His was the most vibrating moment in the discussion table when he, with the verb of a demiurge, challenged the companies related to the industry, the mining experts, the policy-makers and social agents to clearly express their problems and discrepancies. He did it with the smartness of those who know the ground they step on, closer this time to a minefield. ''The essence of the dialogue is to shut up'' he blurted no sooner he started, with the solvency of strong idea.

A more fluid and vertiginous dialogue had begun, where opinions were expressed with the freedom that anonymity offers and the solvency of experience. Bernarda Elizalde, promoter of the event in Toronto, had previously warned that this is ''a process of constant learning that will never end since there is always something else to learn and information has to be given to and by both parts''.

This is a very well known concept to López Follegatti, who can tell his exciting experiences as a mediator where he had to turn to the advice of Mayan spiritual masters, yoga or group therapy; anything but accepting failure in a table of dialogue. Anecdotes are useful, above all, to express the magnitude of this challenge.

The word dialogue became a kind of mantra, an abstract formula vindicated by everyone as the keystone of problem. Then some shades appeared, and they were determining to understand not only the context in which the mining activity is carried out  in Latin America but also the puns of the language. Because although everyone seemed to say the same, the order of the concepts was operating in the opposite direction. Bruno Gomes, coordinator of the Group of Dialogue, assured that ''there will only be sustainable development if a consensus in solutions is reached'' but he immediately denounced that the level of information varies between the three parts. A new term was then incorporated to the debate: 'transparency'; or what Mitzy Canessa, also from the GDL, called 'open space of trust'.

Sometimes the dialogue comes ''once the conflict has been caused'', as one of the speakers admitted. Another intervener left a terrible doubt: ''mining creates wealth but that doesn't mean development, since development is created by distribution''. Philosophical arguments to defend the purely human essence of mining ''which must and can contribute to the development of the society''. And unanswered questions in the air: ''Mining brings us development but, at what cost?''

The challenges of dialogue as a powerful weapon for understanding was discussed, but sometimes seen as an immense store for frustration. The responsibilities of the mining industry in the territories where they take action fostered reflections that delve directly in the core of the sector: ''sometimes the mining companies operate in places with enormous inequalities and they oftentime have to lead with responsibilities that belong to the State''.

This was one of the most intense moments in the dialogue, since arguments inherent to the anthropology of the mining industry were mixed with those that come from the daily praxis. When the spaces of the companies' obligations and the role of the states as guarantors of dialogue were determined, a struggle to draw the territorial boundaries for good-practices was established. ''The area of influence of a mine - said a speaker - is the world itself because minerals help the making of our world. Whatever is produced, is for the benefit of the society, thus it is not advisable to speak only about an immediate influence''

But a way to clearly define responsibility is what companies are willing to do in order to give back to communities a part of what they have extracted from their lands, and in this debate there is no insinuation of theoretical nature. Those affected by mining are looking for jobs, services, schools, infrastructures, security… tangible things that are in risk of fading in the statements of deep philosophical contents.

''Mining has to invigorate local economy'' uttered someone. ''And there has to be an equal distribution of the benefits, and it is here where the State's role is indispensable'', said another participant. ''Mining's benefits reach Humanity as a whole, but we do have to distribute its wealth better'' admitted the spokeperson of one of the companies.

The dialogue became a narration of concentric circles. Reasonings came and went, but on all of them the same idea was overflying, persistent and strong: dialogue is the only way, as long as it is sincere and real. ''Dialogue with consciousness'' they said: ''without consciousness there is a risk of production's independence from the community, but with consciousness, investments may last long after a mine closure''

That was the final key, to prepare communities for the arrival of exploitation, but more importantly, to prepare them until the mine's closure day. How? Working in such a way that CSR contributes for the diversification of the economies of each community, so that they never become mining-dependent. Those dialogues that started fifteen years ago are still running; the dialogue between great mining companies and communities step on quicksand. In all this time the willingness for a pact has been successful, but sometimes it is reflected only in a statement of intentions. The feeling of an unequal battle is insistent when the relationship between the two parts is observed, an impossible dialogue unless the rules of the games are clear for both parts, and it is here where states have to play the so necessary middleman role.

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