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26 April 2024

What’s the issue?

Companies do not operate in a vacuum. Their actions (and inactions) have impacts, both positive and negative, on the communities in which they operate. As a result, companies have a responsibility to build good community relations in the regions where they operate, acting as good corporate citizens. This goes beyond project-specific commitments or meeting legal and regulatory requirements. True engagement focuses on building and maintaining good relationships over the long-term.  

Benefits of good community relations: Why do it?

Good community relations send a signal to those impacted by a company’s operations that the company is open to share insights on its operations, willing to listen to communities’ concerns, and is interested in the long-term well-being of affected communities. As well as ensuring respect for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities’ rights, the establishment and maintenance of good community relations:  

  • strengthens the companies’ social license to operate 
  • improves the sustainability of its operations 
  • aids risk mitigation 
  • improves of the companies’ reputation and efficiency 
  • supports regulatory compliance and, of course, conformance with the ASI Performance Standard. 

How to engage in good community relations: Key elements and requirements

The first step to building a good foundation for community relations with Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) is respecting and upholding Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC)*. In order to determine how FPIC should be applied, there should be a shared understanding between companies and IPLCs of the process and its importance, as well as agreed guidelines for implementation between parties.  

Ensuring that all parts of the IPLC have an opportunity to contribute is essential for the successful implementation of FPIC. This includes understanding all potential impacts, both positive and negative, considering cumulative impacts and ensuring protection measures are in place for cultural or sacred sites, environmentally significant places and livelihoods, both social and economic. 

Adopting a community relations strategy that follows a rights-based and gender sensitive approach demonstrates recognition and respect for the fundamental rights of the communities affected by the company’s operations. Companies need to get a deep understanding of the social issues and the impacts of development on the local communities and/or Indigenous peoples, their culture, livelihoods, and the cumulative impacts on the way they live. This can only be done through ongoing conversations.  

Like any relationship, the creation of avenues for mutual understanding with the community is built upon continuous, long-term dialogue that, over time, builds trust between the parties. This creates spaces for open, honest communication and establishes the means for communities to give feedback and provide inputs and guidance for a project. Therefore, it is preferred to have a specific, consistent company representative who can build an understanding of the history and culture of the communities they engage with, in order to reach a shared understanding of how best to collaborate in the interests of both parties. This representative should also have the authority to make decisions in the field and be able to communicate with IPLCs in their local language(s) 

An illustrative example: the case of a bauxite mine expansion

In some jurisdictions, development approvals require the company to establish an agreement with the IPLCs that documents the development impacts*, mitigation measures, compensation details, environmental management and cultural protection measures, development benefits (usually in the form of jobs) and the process for operations. Even though these agreements are legal documents, they are relationship agreements and often include measures that uphold international standards like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and principles (FPIC), meaningful dialogue and consultation with Indigenous communities, including respect of cultural protocols, fostering transparency and accountability, and capacity building/ empowerment.  

The following elements of community engagement might be undertaken by the company and IPLC in a case where good community relations exist: 

The company 
  • Build up an understanding of the context and culture of the IPLC by seeking contact with Indigenous representatives and engage with organisations who act as knowledge mediators 
  • Company representatives establish a mutual understanding and agreement with the IPLC on the FPIC process, including robust dispute resolution mechanisms 
  • Community relations staff consistently engage with IPLCs in a culturally appropriate and transparent manner, to share the proposed expansion with the whole community  
  • Company representatives implement monitoring, evaluation and learning processes to ensure that project implementation follows the agreed upon plan by both parties 
  • Community relations staff continue to engage with IPLC’s beyond the consent-granting, to ensure concerns are heard and addressed 
  • The IPLC confirm their representatives concerning who will participate in company information meetings  
  • The IPLC requests that the company participates in community information sessions, field visits and other IPLC identified processes to seek inputs from all parts of the community 
  • The IPLC confirms with the company regarding their process and timeframes for internal engagement, identifying if they require additional information prior to providing the company with considered feedback and, as required, negotiated options for the proposed development. 
  • The IPLC make an informed decision on whether to grant consent and communicate this clearly to the company 

Broadening the lines of communication: What else can be adopted?

Looking beyond direct community engagement, a company’s complaints or grievance mechanism is an additional communication channel through which issues can be raised and addressed using a structured and transparent process. The mechanism needs to be accessible and easy to understand (including relevant language translations), with clearly defined processes for lodging issues of concerns or complaints that are addressed systematically, with clear timeframes, record keeping and mutually agreed closure of issues raised.  

A well-designed, properly functioning complaints mechanism can promote positive relations, help to foster good will and prevent distrust, dissatisfaction and potential legal issues that may arise when the community feels that their rights have been eroded by the company’s actions.  

The bottom line: Be a good neighbour

It’s important to understand that community relations is a process – and not an end in itself. It helps to think about community relations in the context of being a good neighbour, who talks, listens and respects the views and positions of other neighbours. It is often a matter of good communication and engagement, clarifying a situation or providing information that resolve many issues. 

For more information on Community Relations, please review the ASI Performance Standard Guidance on Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) as well as ASI’s online training on the subject and reach out to IPAF for more information  


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