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From Rocks To Relationships: 3 Ways To Align Communities With Mining Operations

From Rocks To Relationships: 3 Ways To Align Communities With Mining Operations

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By Robert Simpson, President & CEO, PRA Communications -a firm specializing in strategic communications & community engagement for the mining industry. Originally published on Forbes Agency Council.


Every business relies on budgets. Miners have a certain affinity for numbers, however, and it’s not hard to see why. The ability to accurately assess mineral grade and ore quantity per tonne of rock drives the risky construction or investment decisions that miners make daily. Precise data separates the relatively few success stories from the many who fail.

Those who win in the brutally difficult mining industry do so because they know how to navigate risk, think long-term and make careful, fact-based decisions. So it’s surprising that so many of these same companies take a more haphazard approach to forging relationships with local communities. For professionals so skilled at seeing what’s buried deep in rocks, they too often miss—or perhaps prefer to ignore—the troubling reputation trends staring them in the face.

They do so at their peril. Without a community strategy founded in research with clear, measurable objectives, mining companies risk failing themselves, their investors and, most critically, Indigenous communities. Across the world, lands being targeted for exploration and extraction are also homes to Indigenous peoples. Without their direct engagement, involvement and ultimately consent, it’s difficult for a mining project to succeed.

As president and CEO of a firm that specializes in strategic communications and community engagement for the mining industry, I’d like to share some insight.

Jobs and economic development only start the conversation.

There’s been a growing emphasis on what’s known as “shared values” in interactions with Indigenous communities. This concept suggests an approach toward collaboration focused on identifying and pursuing areas of mutual benefit—an excellent proposition in theory. But as the old saying goes, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” For miners, that means these shared values more often end up reflecting the priorities of mining companies more than those of Indigenous communities. They tend to focus on jobs and contracting opportunities, or funding community activities. These are all important factors, but they shouldn’t be viewed as end goals themselves, but rather a means to an even greater outcome.

An effective community relations program prioritizes Indigenous people’s needs and desires. It requires mining companies to undertake baseline surveys, thoroughly research community essentials, and develop plans to address and manage those needs. Research involves data analysis to understand current circumstances, as well as direct communication with community members to ascertain their priorities. This approach facilitates mutual understanding and information sharing between the mining company and Indigenous communities.

Communication baseline studies and research should be undertaken at the start of a project to provide a greater understanding of local communities, including their social and economic environments, priorities and needs. For example, in many small communities where net-out migration has resulted in hollowing out communities, bringing people’s families back home by providing subsidized housing, educational and business opportunities, and better social, health and recreational facilities, may go much further to contributing to social and economic development, while at the same time rebuilding family units.

Initiating a communication baseline survey starts with reaching out to community municipal, regional and Indigenous governments, and accepting a degree of community input and control of the research process, recognizing the obligation of researchers to give something back to the community.

Implementing such a program is a lengthy process that requires consistent, authentic face-to-face meetings. Here, the shared values approach can serve as a starting point by initiating smaller projects beneficial to all parties. As relationships deepen, discussions should shift to the community’s priorities, with Indigenous communities leading the conversation. The mining company must then provide solutions aligned with these goals and commit to measurable outcomes.

Make sure ‘shared values’ are truly shared.

One example of this is Skeena Resources Limited, a Canadian mining exploration and development company focused on revitalizing the Eskay Creek and Snip Projects, two past-producing mines located in Tahltan Territory in Northwest British Columbia. Mount Edziza lies within the traditional territory of the Tahltan people and is considered sacred by the Tahltan, who traditionally used obsidian from the mountain to make tools and weapons. For a time, Mount Edziza’s eastern slopes were included as part of Skeena’s exploration plans. After years of trust-building and collaboration on smaller projects, not only did Skeena relinquish claims on Mount Edziza, but they also established a nature conservancy on Tahltan territory to protect the environment and wildlife.

Recognizing that the Tahltan were seeking more than nature protection, Skeena and Tahltan, along with several other partners, also established the Tahltan Stewardship Initiative (TSI), a multiyear endeavor that fosters stewardship efforts across Tahltan Territory. Over time, this spirit of mutual investment and partnership led to the approval of permits for Skeena to redevelop the Eskay Creek mine, showcasing a successful integration of Indigenous priorities with mining operations.

Understanding that each Indigenous community has unique needs, mining companies must be prepared to collect the data. That likely includes a traditional survey, face-to-face meetings and community or open-house meetings.

Data gathering requires more than meetings and surveys.

But it can’t stop there. People are not always willing to share their views in a group setting, nor is it safe to assume that a public meeting will be attended by everyone whose opinion matters. Ensure that there is a mechanism for 1-to-1 conversations, conducted on their terms and at a place and time of their choosing.

Furthermore, miners must also:

  • Commit to solutions that are tangible, measurable and mutually beneficial.
  • Dig deeper than surface solutions, and use data collections and one-on-one conversations to reveal the challenges they need addressing, such as housing shortages, infrastructure development or access to medical services.
  • Be accountable. Set goals and stick to them.

Gaining social license to operate depends on identifying and creating shared and meaningful values. Geologists, engineers and financiers are uniquely skilled at finding solutions to what would appear to an outsider to be unsolvable problems. They have the skills and tenacity required to build successful community and Indigenous relationships. All they need to give it is the time and attention it deserves and requires.

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