Working collaboratively with indigenous communities

By Maria Ana Rubinstein

4 min read

Over the past few decades, governments and mining companies around the world have committed themselves to finding a better way to work in collaboration with the indigenous communities on whose traditional lands they often operate.

The foundation of that better way is communication. Ausenco is working in collaboration with indigenous communities in Argentina to develop a protocol for open, transparent, and respectful communications between mining companies and the people on whose traditional lands they operate.

Following the global lead

In 1989, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted Convention 169 – recognizing the aspirations of indigenous and tribal peoples for control over their own institutions and way of life. When ILO 169 was ratified by the Argentinian government in July 2000, it meant indigenous communities in the vicinity of any future project must be informed and consulted.

In 2021, Posco SAU, approached us to help with what was, at the time, the first Free, Prior and Informed Consultation Process to be undertaken since the ratification of IlO 169 into Argentinian law in Salta. The work was carried out at Posco's new lithium carbonate project which shares territory with the indigenous community of Estación Salar de Pocitos, located in the province of Salta in northern Argentina. This year, Posco trusted us with the consultation process around the extension of Posco’s upstream site.

Our scientist sociologist and Social Lead Maria Ana Rubinstein accompanied Posco in their consultations, drawing on her decades of anthropology experience to create a protocol for open and honest communications between community members and the owner.

“Before a project develops in a given territory,” Rubinstein says, “the indigenous nations have the right to know what is going to happen and how it's going to affect them.”

While the consultation process is not binding under current law, respectful and transparent communications go a long way to promoting intercultural understanding – as well as protecting companies from possible future conflicts – through a rigorous process of discussion and documentation.

An intercultural focus

The protocol focuses on intercultural understanding, taking into account the multiplicity and complexity of the factors that interfere in any intercultural encounter.

The guiding idea is to consider all the intervening voices, so as to ensure that the concerns and perceptions of the communities are considered, taking into account their cosmovision and culture.

Critical to the process is a meticulous note-taking approach that Rubinstein calls “ethnographic minutes.” It is a system of recording specifically what is said by the participating communities and responding carefully to those exact concerns.

“You try to focus on both the words and the ways ideas are expressed,” Rubinstein says. “We document exactly the way participants have expressed their comment, respectful to their ways, to their times, and to their culture.”

It allows us to integrate the respectful work with the communities and the detail with the documentary processes. Its objective is to take the voices of the subjects in a respectful way. generating intercultural mechanisms that are aligned with ESG criteria. Thinking beyond the immediate, working to develop sustainable relationships in the medium and long term.

From a business standpoint, these consultations are also important in protecting companies from disagreements that may arise in the future, demonstrating that open and transparent discussions took place before any work in the area began.

Documentation is critical. Meetings are recorded on video, and copies of the minutes are distributed afterwards to everyone who attended.

Relationships that thrive

Rubinstein believes companies need to see the process as ongoing, not a simple consultation that can be completed and then put behind them. “The social license is not a photograph,” she explains. “It’s not static, it is dynamic. This is something you must continue to work on, from the exploration phase to the closing phase.”

Rubinstein is seeing the results of companies working to build more positive relationships with communities. Where companies and authorities may have previously had little experience working constructively with indigenous nations, the parties involved are already seeing improvements in their discussions and the process.

“Years ago, the social aspects of a project were not the main focus for companies,” Rubinstein admits. “But that is clearly changing. They have realized that investing in social relationships and working together with communities is how you avoid conflict and obtain the social license to operate.”

The ethnographic approach taken in consultation with the community of Estación Salar de Pocitos has shown encouraging results, with fewer meetings required to discuss the proposed expansion of the project.

Ausenco proposes to work from the perspective of knowledge exchange, promoting a horizontal and permanent exchange of knowledge with the communities with which it relates, this is the only way to build enriching and sustainable relationships with the communities that ancestrally inhabit the lands where we operate.

Better relationships from finding a better way.

For more information on how we can assist you, contact Maria Ana Rubinstein.