Trust, technology and expertise in mining conflicts

On March 19th, the Schultz Family Leadership in Humanitarian Engineering Speaker Series kicked off with Dr. Michael L. Dougherty, from Illinois State University. Funded by the CEO of Dauntless Energy, the series will continue twice a semester for the next two years, highlighting social and corporate responsibility.

Because mining has a great impact on both the land and the people who live there, locals must decide if they support mining or not. Dougherty’s talk was on the factors which influence this decision. The title of the talk, “We contradicted them because we know this land,” is a quote from Don Julio, a poor farmer who lives near the Cerro Blanco mine in Guatemala. Don Julio represents those locals who “valorize local knowledge” as “oppositional to technical expertise” – that is, those who are against mining because they believe they know better. Dona Elida, who lives just up the street, represents the opposite group. She is instead “ridiculing local knowledge” and “placing trust in the mining company” based on appearances of competence. Which of these two groups a person falls into depends on their “self-efficacy,” or their belief in their own capacity. If this is low, the person will tend to trust in institutions and support mining. If high, the person’s trust tends to be “relational” (in people), and they will be wary of mining.

The reason for a new interest in this topic is due to a shift in mining investment from developed countries to developing ones. The sudden influx of mining in nations whose inhabitants are not used to the industry has led to a sudden, correspondent increase in conflict over mining. This has led companies to place an increased focus on promoting local development, sustainability, and corporate responsibility, with the goal being the procurement of a social operating license – the implicit stamp of approval of the locals, as it were. Conflict arises when the locals perceive the arrival of mining interests as a threat to their resources, livelihood, territorial sovereignty, worldview, or self-determination. This a much more complex issue than it is often painted. The largest factor is trust: trust in abstract authorities (the banking system or the police, for instance) versus trust in people and individuals, which is personal and reciprocal. Emotionality and rationality are major competing influences on a person’s trust.

Dougherty did a survey of about five hundred Guatemalans from all walks of life who live near the Cerro Blanco mine. He wished to measure and correlate their trust, self-efficacy, and support for mining. The results of the survey showed a number of broad trends. Institutional trust and support for mining are strongly correlated, while relational trust correlates with opposition to mining, as does self-efficacy. In order to discover the “why” behind these results, qualitative data (ie. interviews) were collected to complement the quantitative data from the surveys. The interviews revealed a tension between individual and communal interests – an “us vs. them” way of framing things. Different community leaders had vastly different influences on their communities’ attitudes.

The opponents of mining whom Dougherty spoke with had started out willing to trust the mining company (as opposed to the stereotype of blind, closed-minded rejection), but were let down. These people had high expectations and were not afraid to make demands. After the company agreed to meet these demands and failed to, or appeared to fail to, the people rescinded the benefit of the doubt. This group wanted to be informed and became frustrated when they believed they were not getting enough information.

The other group, those who supported mining, tended to eschew personal responsibility. They linked faith in technology, in government, and in religion, and conflated credentials and education with expertise. They took things at surface value. For these people, appearances were the most important factor in their opinion. This group saw no leak in the tailings dam, for instance, and so took the dam’s continued effectiveness for granted, while the first group spoke of seasonal flooding and doubted the dam’s capacity to hold up, because the engineers who designed it might not have taken the floods into account; for the second group, the engineers were certified, and therefore infallible.

Dougherty summarized the results of his study in terms of the individual’s belief in his/herself. A dichotomy was clear: persons with low self-efficacy tend to place the interests of the individual over those of the collective, prefer to cede their responsibilities to others, and as a result have an uncritical faith in institutions. Persons with high self-efficacy, conversely, tend to value collective interests over individual, are critical of authority, and place an emphasis on relations between people and within communities.

In order to be successful from a social standpoint, Dougherty concluded, a company must understand the local microsociology before attempting to work in that area. Ironically, however, building a local capacity to act may undermine the corporation’s social license. No matter what, corporate responsibility requires a long-term commitment with organizers on the ground, but the benefits may prove far greater than the costs.

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