Understanding the impact of COVID on community engagement in mining

By Prerna Mehrotra, Country Projects Manager, and Michael O. Erdiaw-Kwasie, Research & Policy Coordinator, Transparency International Accountable Mining Programme

2 December 2020

Several mineral resource-rich countries are looking to the mining sector for their economic recovery post-COVID. However, it is imperative that those who are impacted the most by mining – women and men in local communities – have a say in mining-related decisions.   

Despite the challenges of dealing with and recovering from the pandemic, governments and companies must ensure community engagement in mining approvals is meaningful. Civil society organisations have an important role to play in supporting communities to have their voices heard. 

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Amidst this pandemic, countries across the globe have made legal and policy changes designed to increase investment in mining.  

Authorities in some jurisdictions have taken advantage of this situation to fast-track mining projects and related policy decisions without adequate consultation and public debate. IIndonesia for example, legislation has been rushed through to incentivise mining despite its serious impacts on communities. 

Governments are fast-tracking mining projects through regulatory rollback, with limited due diligence on the environmental and social impacts of mining projects.  The government of Ontario, Canada has made amendments to the province’s Environmental Assessment Act, as a part of their COVID-19 economic recovery efforts. These amendments are aimed to fast-track major projects in the state, however, compromising on significant environmental protectionsIn Brazilprior to COVID-19social and environmental considerations protecting the Amazon were put on the back burner by the government, allowing illegal farming and mining to increase. This situation has worsened due to COVID-19 as the government tries “deregulatory simplification”, undermining the country’s environmental policy.  

Cuts to government funding and staff are also impacting community engagement. 

Some governments have decreased the allocation of financial and human resources across departments to focus on measures to mitigate the health and economic crises created by COVID. This has, in turn, reduced the capacity of relevant authorities to ensure transparency and accountability in community consultation processes. For instance, the Secretariat of Economy in Mexico announced the cancellation of the position of Undersecretary of Mining from September 2020. The Undersecretarwas known to be a proponent of responsible mining, and his removal may negatively impact good governance of the sector. 

Community consultation processes associated with mining projects have taken a hit.

Traditionally, community-decision making processes require local residents to convene, which may not always be possible or safe due to COVID-19. In some contexts where the pandemic situation has not been as severe, like in the case of Obuasi Goldfields in Ghana, consultations have been conducted with adherence to social distancing and hygiene protocols. In places where the virus is more widespread, this is not possible. Governments and companies need to prioritise the safety of the communities and accordingly consider when and how to meaningfully engage with them.   

A number of projects are transitioning from face-to-face interactions to virtual consultations due to COVID-19. Use of technology may appear to be a way out but it is not fool-proof. Access to the internet is a challenge in many remote locationsOnline consultation initiatives may undermine the effective participation of hard-to-reach and marginalised groups within communities.  In Latin America, for example, many communities called for consultations to be delayed, even if virtual, since such consultations will not be able to follow their cultural practices for decision-making. In the case of  Peru and Colombia (later revoked), despite resistance from Indigenous communities, governments allowed consultation with Indigenous groups to take place via virtual platforms in order not to delay mining projects. 

In these times, more than ever, civil society plays an extremely crucial role.

Civil society organisations can be the eyes and ears monitoring and understanding the quickly evolving situation on the ground. As part of Transparency International’s Accountable Mining Programme, we work with women and men in miningaffected communities through local civil society and community-based organisations to raise awareness about their rights and support them to protect their interests. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, we have been keeping a close eye on developments through our network of country offices as well as regional and global CSO partners.  

Civil Society Organisations can: 

  • Serve as an oversight entity in the consultation processThey can monitor and support local communities in their engagement with companies during pandemic times. This cooperation can also help communities call for economic measures by governments that are sustainable, respect human rights and Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC). For examplethe Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining (WACAM) in Ghana participated in a consultation process between the mining company Newmont Ghana and surrounding communities of Kenyasi to ensure meaningful engagement between the community and company.
  • Strengthen local networks and grassroot partnershipsThe COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the strength of local networks and the need for CSOs to partner with grassroot organisations. Several organisations have reported that any engagement with women and men from miningaffected communities has been a challenge in times of social distancing. Particularly in times of crisis like this, relationships with local groups can be helpful as important sources of information. The same networks can then help CSOs disseminate important resources and tools to the communitiesFor instance, TI-Kenya is part of the COVID-19 CSO working group of the Haki Madini Kenya CoalitionDespite direct engagement with communities being interrupted due to government measures to contain the pandemic, TI-Kenya, through this working group, has been able to monitor corruption risks in the mining sector, especially in relation to awarding mining rightsThis information, in turnsupports the organisation’s national level advocacy efforts for a more transparent mining approvals system.  
  • Increase impact through knowledge exchange. To have knowledge, and the ability to act on it, is power. Operating at the local level in countries around the world, Transparency International’s Accountable Mining Programme encourages organisations to leverage each other’s networks, share available information and raise awareness of mining sector governance issues at local, regional and global levels. This work is happening in a context where many countries have introduced emergency measures to tackle the pandemic that have had troubling impacts on human rights and the space for civil societyWith civic space being constrained by powerful interests, strong cooperation between civil society organisations is needed more than ever to overcome the impacts of the pandemic and ensure communities’ rights and interests remain protected.  

The Accountable Mining Programme will continue to monitor COVID’s impact on community consultation as the situation evolves, and will support communities as part of its efforts to ensure mining-related decisions are transparent, accountable and free of corruption.