Transparency, Engagement, Science: Beyond Conflict

BC Mining Review, June 2003

The international markets campaign has posed new challenges for BC’s resource sectors. From banking to electronics, from fashion to sporting goods, from software to entertainment, most high-profile global players will do whatever they can to protect the value of their corporate brand.

Transparency, engagement, science: Beyond ENGO conflict in the 21st Century
By Tom Tevlin, President, ConsensusWorks Consultants Inc.

Stop and think about the similarities between two long-standing BC industries – mining and forestry. Some are obvious: just like mining, BC forestry occurs primarily on Crown land, and so both sectors operate at the pleasure of government and, by extension, of BC voters.

And just like mining, forestry takes abundant resources and transforms them into valuable commodities primarily for export to global markets, providing local employment and significant tax revenues along the way.

Finally, just like forestry, mining has come under sustained environmental attack over land use issues – most recently in the South Chilcotin. In spite of enhanced government regulation over relatively plentiful resources, resolution of land use issues remains difficult.

Perhaps less obvious is this similarity: the resolution to these challenges will lead companies in both sectors to the idea of increased transparency, better engagement with communities, workers, environmentalists and the public, and the sharing with stakeholders of improved science – or as articulated by Pierre Lassonde elsewhere in this issue of Mining Review, the building of social license.

Some Durable Truths

Where did the energy and the emotion on these issues come from in the first place? Why do British Columbians care so much? I’d propose a few answers:

· BC is largely publicly owned – true, it’s vast and resource-rich. But public ownership can bring an intense level of popular scrutiny to the issue of development.

· BC is almost entirely an export province in which industry relies heavily on global markets. That sets up an additional sustainability test in export countries – a test that can be influenced by activist forces well outside our own provincial boundaries.

· Of course, in BC we’re no strangers to the environmental movement – Vancouver was the birthplace of Greenpeace and the testing grounds for environmentalist campaign innovations such as the global markets approach to activism.

It’s this last point that has had the greatest impact on environmental non-governmental organization (ENGO) campaigns in the BC forest sector over the last decade.

That sector – and indeed any other resource sector that comes up for ENGO action – faces a new approach to campaigning where greens take the energies they once spent on blockading development projects or Vancouver office towers and instead train them on international markets, customers, the investment community and public and private product procurement agencies in the US and overseas.

For the resource sectors, the new approach presents the challenges of remoteness to markets, and of the need to take back a measure of control of the agenda in order to move from a reactive to a proactive state.

Lessons of History

Recall the forest sector had quite a PR fight on its hands in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Public confidence in industry practices was low (less than 40 percent of British Columbians polled expressed confidence in the practices of forest companies in 1989). For a sector that operated at the pleasure of government and its voting public, this was indeed a harsh reality.

Through the next decade, communications was ramped up considerably through initiatives like the Forest Alliance communication program and greater engagement from companies, and through necessity as the government of the day convened multi-stakeholder zoning tables across the province to establish boundaries for land-use and for protected areas.

To be sure, those early days were marked by extreme conflict as one side in the battle would deploy at the other a missile in the form of a heat-seeking news release and then run for cover to await the return fire.

A new code of practices, although excessively bureaucratic and therefore killing to the sector, was an attempt to ‘get ahead’ of the green agenda. Third-party certification of products and practices as sustainable was an additional attempt at proactivity, but one with better prospects in that it was to be implemented by companies voluntarily rather than legislated into effect by governments. The result was a doubling of public confidence in industry practices from less than 40 percent in the early 1990s to just under 80 percent toward the end of the decade.

Transparency, Engagement, Science

A sense of déjà vu should be setting in right about now: When it comes to environmental communications, a dozen years of campaigning on behalf of the BC forest sector can go a long way toward highlighting for mining industry advocates a few more truisms. Each of these truths can be placed under the notion of social license.

First, British Columbians care a great deal about the issues around sustainability – including their ecological, social and economic aspects. Maintaining those issues in balance is both the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity for the resource sector.

Second, British Columbians are tired of land-use conflict as much as they are vehemently opposed to the notion of international boycotts of BC product. They want the issues solved and, equally important, they want them solved at home – not on some international stage in Europe, Asia or the US.

Third, British Columbians support partnerships among former adversaries. Establishing a dialogue with a key ENGO such as World Wildlife Fund can be an important first step to a useful research partnership.

We refer to these notions of building social license in terms of establishing a program of transparency, engagement and science. Transparency is the first crucial ingredient in trust-building, and refers to openness beyond corporate legal requirements. Engagement is the critical outreach step to establishing a useful ENGO partnership. Science (ideally, shared science) is the substance of the partnership, and it can only be introduced after mutual trust and engagement have been established.

We’ve Been Here Before

Coming back to the idea of déjà vu referred to above, a quick survey of the state of play on the ENGO side in the BC mining sector shows a few striking similarities to forests. The Environmental Mining Council of BC, with a number of its management and board having come direct from the forest issue, has established the web site. The web site kicks off with the following introductory statement:

As “ordinary” citizens, we can feel pretty cut off from the boardrooms, private meetings, and government departments where decisions are made. We can also feel shut out by the fancy, technical language of so-called experts. Irresponsible mining developments can have devastating effects on ecologies and local communities. But what can we do about it? The answer is, a lot…

Starting to take action on mining issues can be as simple as writing a letter, visiting and examining a mine site, or going to a meeting.
The site goes on to include a “Mining and Environment Primer” with modules on everything from acid drainage and exploration to labour and finance to roads and water. More important, the primer ends on the subject of “taking action,” and states:

Working in different parts of the world, environmental mining activists have developed a common set of effective approaches. The steps you need to take will vary, of course, depending on what particular issue you’re looking at. However, the following checklist is a good place to begin planning an action campaign.

The checklist instructs future activists in the finer arts of research, documentation, networking, strategy, education, advocacy, publicity monitoring and celebration (“Don’t be all doom and gloom. Acknowledge positive changes. Thank the people in your community doing good work. Celebrate successes, small and large.”)

Other parallels exist – not least of which is the continuing discussion of the prospects of an ENGO-supported ‘mining stewardship council’ which has its roots in both the Forest and the Marine Stewardship Councils of the WWF. While there may not be many new ideas in any of this, there are some powerful forces at play here.

Given the light coordination model of the Environmental Mining Council with its multi-ENGO board of directors and its many approaches as laid out in the above campaign checklist, a solution for the mining sector continues to be the concept of social license and connecting with the values that comprise it.

Moving Forward

The international markets campaign has posed new challenges for BC’s resource sectors. From banking to electronics, from fashion to sporting goods, from software to entertainment, most high-profile global players will do whatever they can to protect the value of their corporate brand.

In other words, it’s in the interests of Fortune 500s that controversy be avoided at all cost. It’s not surprising, then, to find many of these global players are themselves joining green think-tanks (World Resources Institute, Business for Social Responsibility) and partnering with ENGOs, an indication that the global marketplace as a whole is taking up the notion of social license.

That’s not to say providing opinion leaders with credible information on sustainability is any less important, or that inoculating marketplace influencers against future campaigns isn’t any less crucial.

But in the context of global brands and their collective aversion to controversy, ENGO global market campaigns are challenging the old approaches to sustainability communications. Moving forward, the goal will increasingly be the building of a corporation’s social license to operate in a given region, and the key concepts for its achievement will continue to be transparency, engagement and science.


Tom Tevlin is President of ConsensusWorks Consultants Inc., where he draws on the experience of more than a decade of domestic and international engagement in communications programming on forests and sustainability in British Columbia. Most recently ConsensusWorks Consultants Inc. has assisted organizations in sustainability-related market communications and stakeholder engagement campaigns in North America, Asia and Europe.

Tevlin can be reached at (604) 929-4108 or

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>