Managing the distance between mining projects and the general public

Ian Thomson
Principal, On Common Ground Consultants Inc
Vancouver, September, 2006

“Why don’t they understand us?” is a common lament among explorers and mine developers when the proposal to open a new mine, or even to explore for one, is met by a seemingly irrational negative responses from local citizens. “It doesn’t seem to matter what we say, they just won’t accept that modern mining is environmentally sound and socially responsible”. That potential physical impacts are measurable, predictable and manageable is logical and accurate to industry insiders, but there are frequently powerful social factors driving the apparent refusal to recognize the real nature of the risks that come with mineral extraction, particularly when it comes to gold mining. What many engineers and scientists find difficult to accept is that globally, there continues to be a profound readjustment around societal perceptions of risk and risk management.

Since the early 1990s ongoing discussion among academics and in the popular press has explored the idea of a social progression from ‘modernity’ to ‘post-modernity’, a shift onwards from the industrial society created during the 19th and 20th centuries. One element of this discussion has focused on the emergence of a risk society (Goldman, 2000).

The concept of a risk society rests on the distinction between danger arising from natural forces, which is seen as characteristic of pre-modern society, and manufactured risk characteristic of post-modern society. In his 1999 Reith lectures (BBC Radio archives), Giddens provided a succinct explanation of the situation.

In all traditional cultures, one could say, and in industrial society right to the threshold of the present day, human beings worry about the risks coming from external nature – from bad harvests, floods, plagues and famines. At a certain point, however – very recently in historical times – we started to worry less about what nature can do to us and more about what we can do to nature. This marks the transition from the predominance of external risk to that of manufactured risk. (Giddens, 1999)

Further analysis of this phenomena shows that in many counties a transition has taken place from an industrial society in which the central issue was how produced wealth can be distributed socially, to a risk society focused on risks and uncertainties arising from the very actions of modern wealth creation – the industrial processes. Paradoxically, one consequence of this transition has been that as science becomes more and more necessary, it becomes less and less significant for socially binding definitions of truth. In practice, while science and the experts who practice it are important in identifying and finding solutions to risk, they are seen increasingly as loosing legitimacy. Giddens (1999), once again, is particularly able to articulate this ‘limitation to expertise’.

Widespread lay knowledge of modern risk environments leads to an awareness of the limits of expertise and forms one of the ‘public relations’ problems that has to be faced by those who seek to sustain lay trust in expert systems. The faith that supports lay trust in expert systems involves blocking off the ignorance of the lay person when faced with the claims of expertise; but …. Experts often take risks ‘on behalf’ of lay clients while concealing, or fudging over, the true nature of those risks or even the fact that there are risks at all. More damaging than lay discovery of this kind of concealment is the circumstance where the full extent of a particular set of dangers and risks associated with them is not realized by experts. For in this case what is in question is not only the limits of, or gaps in, expert knowledge, but an inadequacy which compromises the very idea of expertise. (Giddens, 1999)

Substitute the terms ‘general public’ for lay person, ‘geoscientist or engineer’ for expert, and ‘mining company’ for expert systems in the above discourse and the relevance to many of the conflictive situations encountered around mineral exploration and mine development projects becomes apparent. Very obviously, the strongest antidote to this problem is direct engagement with the community, transparency about the activities of the corporation, and inclusion of the general public in a participatory process of monitoring, evaluation, planning and decision making around those aspects that directly affect their lives. However, things are not necessarily so simple.

The social construction of risk is central to the ongoing controversy over chemicals in the environment, and by extension the use of cyanide in gold mining, which Liebow (2000) considers to be rooted in the distinct notions of ‘hazard’ and ‘stigma’.

It is well documented that popular concerns about potential hazards to personal health and safety are often inconsistent with scientific evidence regarding the probability (or risk) that such hazards will actually happen (Liebow, 2000). A related concern is that even if potential hazards are never realized, the very presence of the hazard can stigmatize a location, affecting the reputation of the area and in turn the market for local goods and real estate, limiting future economic opportunities, and creating ‘victims’ out of the local population. Thus while the notion of ‘hazard’ is associated with a risk to health, ‘stigma’ is associated with social and economic harm or impairment (Liebow, 2000), and while ‘hazard’ represents a potential for a temporary of transient event, ‘stigma’ is socially permanent.

Non-specialists are said to be ‘intuitive’ when judging risks and hazards, as opposed to the analytical approach normally used by experts (Starr and Whipple, 1980). The intuitive approach relies on images of risk and hazard drawn from news accounts, popular literature and the media. These are often dramatic scenes of horror and devastation, which tend to focus on the controllability of hazards – could this catastrophe be prevented? Non-specialists are influenced not only by the way they receive information but also from whom it is received – information is accepted and believed if it comes from sources that are perceived as trustworthy, credible, understandable, or supportive of the position of the individual.

Using the intuitive approach, individuals are relatively accurate in ranking the seriousness of hazards, but are inaccurate in estimating the probability of occurrence and calculated magnitude (Liebow, 2000) - they overestimate significantly. Unlike the specialists, the general public uses mental reference points based on personal perceptions when faced with making decisions surrounded by uncertainty, as in the case of unusual events that may or may not take place at an unknown time somewhere in the future. As a consequence, individuals and communities, when faced with a risk that is perceived as a hazard related to an industrial process, will tend to see it as a threat to personal health and safety and will reject it - saying no to the mine.

The general public is often told that a product or industry is ‘state of the art’ or using ‘best practice’, only to see it malfunction or fail (contamination at Summitville, tailings failures at Marcopper and Omai, and the mercury spill at Choropampa are mining examples). As a result, many people have become skeptical or even cynical at such claims, and providing information about the safety of a proposed development will not, by itself, remove concern (or fear) that the development is a source of possible health hazards. In these circumstances, the public needs information that will help evaluate the proponent’s credibility, trustworthiness and hence ability to reliably manage the development in the public good. The public wants to know that it is being dealt with honestly and fairly, that benefits and risks are being distributed equitably. This is particularly true of gold mining and cyanide, where the very word cyanide creates an instant ‘stigma’ in the eyes of many people.

The public discourse that takes place around industrial development projects creates a situation in which potential risks and hazards are evaluated in a social context where ‘social amplification of risk’ (Kasperson, et al, 1988) may take place. In this, the interaction between the potential hazard and its social setting may increase the relative negative influence of technology as a factor in creating an image within the collective mind of the general public. As information about the possible hazard is exchanged, either through word of mouth between individuals or through the mass media, a population may come to perceive the risk of impact as a threat that is many times grater than that calculated by informed experts.

For example, during the confrontation between Meridian and the community of Esquel, Argentina, over development of the El Desquite gold mine, the company brought in a technical specialist to explain the safe use of cyanide. The initiative backfired badly when it emerged that the specialist worked for the cyanide manufacturer, at which point this ‘expert’ information was seen as coming from a source with a clear conflict of interest, lacking objectivity and hence credibility, and was rejected by a many in the local community. At the same time, information disseminated by non-governmental organizations was accepted as valid and helped create a heightened awareness of potential hazards associated with cyanide. Public concern grew in the community, spread to the region and entered the political process. The net result was a ban on the use of cyanide throughout the Province of Chubut.

Factors contributing to ‘social amplification of a risk or hazard’ include (Liebow, 2000):

  1. Selective, sensational, and/or inaccurate media reporting of risks and regulatory actions to control them;
  2. The use of technical language;
  3. Limits in the ability of non-specialists to understand technical information;
  4. Intolerance for scientific uncertainties or the way in which risk is described as an abstract percentage or frequency relative to some (seemingly irrelevant) standard; and
  5. Failure to address the concerns of the public directly.

Social amplification is often the precursor to stigmatization of a hazard or indeed the project itself.

Again, transparency, dialog with the community and full participation of all stakeholders are powerful antidotes to these challenges for any new industrial development, and mining in particular. However in engaging with the public and becoming involved in a dialog process as a means of managing the potential for social risk, it is worth remembering the following points of advice from Yankelovich (1991).

  1. On any given issue it is reasonable to assume that the public and the experts will be out of phase. To bridge the gap, the company must learn what the public’s starting point is and how to address it.
  2. Do not depend on experts to present issues.
  3. Learn what the public’s pet preoccupation is and address it before discussing any other aspect of an issue.
  4. Give the public the incentive of knowing that someone is listening ….and cares.
  5. Limit the number of issues to which people must pay attention to at any one time to two or three at most.
  6. ‘Working through’ is best accomplished when people have choices to consider.
  7. Company representatives and facilitators must take the initiative in highlighting the value component of alternatives.
  8. To move beyond the ‘say-yes-to-everything’ or ‘say-no-to-everything’ form of procrastination, the public needs help.
  9. When two conflicting values are important to the public, resolution should be sought by developing alternatives that preserve some elements of each.

Given the speed and power with which social processes can operate, it falls to the explorer or developer to be proactive in understanding the local community, its hopes, fears and social structure, and develop a process of communication, consultation and sharing that brings the various players together rather than polarizing positions and driving them apart.

Further reading:
Giddens, A., 1999, Risk: 1999 BBC Radio Reith Lectures. Available on line at www.news.bbc.uk
Goldman, L.R., 2000, Social Impact Assessment. Berg, Oxford England
Kasperson, R., Renn, O., Slovic, P., Brown, H., Emel, J., Goble, R., Kasperson, J. and Ratide, S., 1988, The Social Amplification of Risk. Risk Analysis, 6(2): 177-182
Liebow, E., 2000, Environmental Health. In ‘Social Impact Assessment’, L.R. Goldman, editor. Berg, Oxford, England.
Starr, C. and Whipple, C., 1980, The Risk of Risk Decisions. Science, 208:1114-19
Yankelovich, D., 1991, Coming to Public Judgment. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY.