Recent SRK experiences with stakeholder engagement processes

Stakeholder consultations are generally considered an essential part of the impact assessment process, as the environmental policies in many countries have been influenced by internationally-accepted best practice, particularly the standards of the World Bank Group. Nevertheless, in practice, implementing the stakeholder consultation process can vary significantly from country to country. Some selected experiences are presented here. While the first three cases illustrate the constraints affecting the consultation process, the last one shows a constructive approach to improve the quality of stakeholder involvement.

Kazakhstan is characterised by bureaucratic controls and a society caught between the communist standards of the Soviet era and the choices presented by a free economy. When SRK began consulting with community groups there in 2006, the community showed lack of interest and faith in the consultation process. SRK was informed that this was the first time a sponsor of a mining project had asked stakeholders for their opinions. Hence, SRK’s first challenge was to convince the community that they had a right to information about the project and that the sponsor would fully address their concerns about the project. The response changed from thinly-attended meetings in the scoping phase to well-attended meetings in the final round of consultations, reflecting the gradual social change occurring in the community. 

In Saudi Arabia, SRK’s experience showed how government requirements might diverge from widely accepted consultation practices. In 2007, accompanied by a representative of the project, SRK consulted with the Saudi Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of an environmental scoping phase for a new mining project. The meeting was held to learn about Saudi national EIA requirements, the licensing process, and to seek permission to consult with the potential project stakeholders for the study. SRK was informed that the government’s Mining Department, responsible for issuing the licence, would require clearances from other relevant governmental departments, such as land, agriculture, water and forestry. SRK was further informed that the Land Department itself would meet with affected communities to get their consent, before providing a ‘no objection’ to the Mining Department. Thereafter, the Land Department would be involved in any negotiations with the community. SRK was asked not to engage directly with community-based stakeholders until the government process was completed, as it might jeopardise potential negotiations. The project sponsor accepted the EPA’s recommendation, and SRK was not able to engage community stakeholders early, or to ensure independent and informed consultation in line with best practice.

SRK’s experience in Brazil shows how the EPA can enhance stakeholder participation in the ESIA process. During 2008, SRK was invited by the client to monitor the scoping phase consultations that local consultants were holding. Potential project stakeholders were invited to attend a day-long workshop. Three workshops were held at different locations, each attended by up to 40 people. A four-member team of consultation experts from the Brazilian EPA facilitated the workshops. In the morning session, participants were given a preliminary project description and asked to identify potential issues. In the afternoon session, the participants were divided into sub-groups to review the terms of reference for the EIA and prepare their recommendations. The workshop format prescribed by the EPA is now standard in the Bahia State of Brazil. Although it requires a day-long commitment from stakeholders, the emphasis is on quality feedback and building a relationship between the project sponsors and the stakeholders. A relatively strong and forthcoming civil society in Brazil contributes to the demand for such extensive procedures. 

The first two experiences illustrate how a country’s social and political situation can pose challenges to stakeholder consultation principles, not just in terms of international practice, but possibly also in the context of host-country laws. On the other hand, the Brazil experience shows how strong stakeholders and regulatory authorities can raise the standard of consultations by working together.

SRK seeks to optimise consultation, even with constraints. Where constraining factors can be overcome, SRK has seen that the effectiveness of the consultation process depends on three key factors – the project sponsor’s willingness to disclose information, the stakeholders’ capacity to understand the process, and the government’s ability to enforce its own policy. As an independent consultant, SRK continues to make efforts to influence participants and promote internationally-accepted stakeholder engagement practices. 

Lalit Kumar:

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