Exploration and early engagement

  • By Tony Kalma MAusIMM, Community Relations Regional Leader, Teck Australia Pty Ltd

Respectful and early engagement with communities that may be impacted by mining operations is crucial, even during the exploration phase

Mineral exploration presents many challenges and opportunities for building company value. In an increasingly complex world, different skills are needed to ensure exploration remains viable. While applying good geoscience is critical for targeting, it is also necessary that access to ground is maintained and that programs are executed efficiently. Attaining ‘good neighbour’ status can be achieved through a planned approach to early engagement that protects the project from unforeseen social disruption.

Early engagement with Communities of Interest (COIs) sets the tone for how the company is perceived and whether its operations will gain social acceptance. COIs are defined here as entities that may be impacted by, or have an influence on, project outcomes. This article explores how social acceptance might be achieved during the exploration phase. The approaches have relevance to COIs throughout the world, and can be adapted by companies to local social contexts. The discussion is relevant to junior, mid-size and major explorers, although approaches will vary based on business relevance and capacity.

Preparing for early engagement

For board members, managers, geoscientists and engineers, while the business necessity of gaining social acceptance may be well understood, the process to achieve it may be unclear. Developing capacity to ‘socially perform’ is critical, and this capacity can be built through the introduction of a practice framework, where roles and responsibilities surrounding the company’s social performance are defined and metrics to measure outcomes are established.

Social performance requires cooperation between all parts of the business and for company values to be aligned. Internal alignment towards social performance goals will impact external performance.
Crucially, attitudes and behaviours of company representatives during early engagement can impact company reputation. An investment in social performance has cost implications for companies and to be successful, must have its own place in the organisation.

During exploration, early engagement should involve a range of company and community focused activities, including:

  • social impact, risk and opportunity assessment
  • community engagement and agreement making
  • local employment
  • local procurement
  • indigenous relations and cultural heritage management
  • community sponsorship and community.

Social impact, risk and opportunity assessment

Early engagement begins in the office with project teams. Prior to project-scale targeting, understanding local land tenure, access, social risks and associated time and cost constraints contributes to the development of exploration ‘pipelines’ and variable risk profiles that take into account different scenarios. Sometimes this work is completed as ‘due diligence’ where technical and social risks and opportunities are assessed.

In conjunction with the development of a technical exploration program, a social assessment gives the opportunity to modify the project as necessary to minimise and mitigate potential social and environmental impacts. Data collected during early engagement through social assessment, when communities remain largely unaffected by the company’s presence, can also be critical in assessing rights and interests as projects move towards development. A simplified framework for exploration is described in Figure 1 (see over page), during which a number of social topics might be considered, such as: indigenous peoples and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC); water scarcity; biosecurity; gender equity; poverty; security; etc. The effort required to undertake social assessment will depend on the project location, unique social context and perceived risks and opportunities. The quality of data and confidence in decision making improves through engagement, where community feedback can be used to adapt technical work and operations to mitigate impacts and manage risks.

When captured, community feedback can be used to measure social performance and over time improve the quality of company-community relationships. Quantitative metrics can be used in setting internal targets, while qualitative metrics should focus on the quality of relationships and community perceptions. Community data can be contrasted with company perspectives, allowing gap assessments to be completed, unearthing valuable ‘reality checks’ on the project.

Community engagement and agreement-making

Engagement is not a stand-alone process. It is underpinned by all the activities needed to achieve good social performance. In early engagement, some unique challenges may exist, and depending on project context the following may need to be considered:

  • legacy issues of previous mining
  • COI connection to country and culture
  • issues of poverty, economic oppression and/or conflict over community resources.
Figure 1. A simplified process of social assessment illustrating the connection between the company and community work.
Figure 1. A simplified process of social assessment illustrating the connection between the company and community work.

Company workers undertaking exploration are often exposed to complex community situations. In these situations, the support of social specialists with relevant knowledge and skills may be required.

Managing community perceptions is usually important during early engagement and involves informing COIs of the likelihood of exploration success, impacts, possibility and timeframes of development, and significant benefits. The company may need to fund external resources to support effective community engagement, for example through Land Councils or independent legal or anthropological services.

Agreement-making can support good early engagement and provide a structured and efficient framework to recognise community rights and interests and realise benefits. Often through regulatory processes it is necessary to negotiate in order to mitigate impacts,provide compensation and secure landholder permission to access land. Agreement-making often provides the first point of contact between the company and a COI and presents an opportunity to start building respectful relationships and legitimacy.

An early focus on interest-based negotiation, where rights are recognised and outcomes of interest to both parties are sought, is more likely to deliver shared benefits that are practical. This in turn helps produce  meaningful outcomes and provide useful metrics of social performance. Depending on the scope and significance of negotiation, it may be necessary to clearly define company roles. For example, community relations (CR) staff are usually well placed to negotiate on behalf of the company where they have relevant skills and experience. At other times, these CR staff may be conflicted where they seek to support the company and community equally at the same time. This can be confusing to the community, resulting in a perceived breach of trust.

The longer-term focus for early engagement is to develop quality relationships that support mutual understanding and shared benefits. If engagement begins through a regulated process, a transition to a broader, interest-based engagement is needed. Geologists, geophysicists and field staff have important roles in having the most contact with community members who may not be part of local political structures. Developing broad and trustful relationships with COIs helps mitigate negative impacts that may arise through changes in community dynamics and project decisions. Engagement also helps to tap into the social capital of the community and helps the company assess and possibly access community resources to benefit the project.

In considering interest-based approaches, ‘Community Dialogue’ is important. Community Dialogue is a technical social discipline based largely on community work by non-governmental organisations in developing nations (refer Tony Kelly et al). When used in exploration, Community Dialogue helps build rapport between the company and COIs. Good relationships allow issues to be explored in a connected and caring way that builds trust and legitimacy. Community Dialogue can help move parties from acting only from ‘positions of power’ to ‘positions of interest’. This can also help to avoid or resolve disputes or impediments to access land. Social specialists will usually be trained in Community Dialogue, can support others in its application and have responsibility for resolving difficult company-community issues. A workforce skilled in Community Dialogue is likely to work more collaboratively, with care and compassion for coworkers; therefore, investing in Community Dialogue practice also makes good sense from an organisational perspective.

Local employment

Opportunities to employ local community members should always be considered during exploration as a way to provide benefits, promote transparency and build relationships with local communities.

Honesty is essential when discussing opportunities with the community, as the company may not have the necessary expertise or systems to support community members seeking work. An understanding of the local social context is vital. In some contexts, the company may need to identify ways to mitigate issues or behaviours that may disrupt operations or negatively impact relationships. Decisions on the scale and type of employment offered need to be based on assessments that consider the site needs, local social context, opportunity for community benefit and financial cost.

Integrating contractors might also be relevant, and this may require site inductions tailored specifically for the local community context, and these inductions may include formal COI representation.

Local procurement

Local procurement provides opportunities for members of COIs to directly participate in economic benefits through starting or expanding local business, employing others and generally increasing community wealth. Services may include transport, food supply, mechanical services, earthworks, fuel and equipment hire.

Engagement around economic participation may also allow a company to develop relationships beyond locally impacted COIs. Operational planning should involve mapping company needs to community resources. Identifying community resources early can have significant cost-saving advantages, especially in remote areas where transport costs are high. This approach may be further enhanced where spending is channeled through local co-ops, resulting in a greater spread of benefits.

The company’s approach may be influenced by a regional strategy, where multiple tenement holdings exist in an area rather than a single operation. Companies should consider working alongside business owners to develop their offerings, possibly leveraging other community resources and government funding. In doing so, special arrangements may be needed to allow a more responsive approach to supporting local business cash flow and capacity building.

Local landholders can often provide local earthworks, water services and information on local ground conditions, site risks and climate predictions. Knowledge of groundwater can be particularly important in locating bores that support drilling and exploration camps. Local landholders may also play an important role in developing and executing emergency response plans in remote areas and in rehabilitating sites. While not all local landholders approve of mining activities, most will seek to engage respectfully given a similar approach by the company. For some, exploration funding can provide a significant financial boost during times of need, resulting in quantifiable benefits for the landholder and measurable inputs to social performance.

Indigenous community relations and cultural heritage management

Whether regulated or not, cultural heritage protection is important to both indigenous communities (in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; as a general term around the world this refers to those who identify as the first inhabitants of lands impacted by colonisation) and companies. In remote and undeveloped areas, company staff undertaking exploration may be the first to impact the land in non-traditional ways.

Valuing culture is an important step towards building positive and respectful company-community relationships. This may be demonstrated in company attitudes towards support for heritage surveys, in appreciation of different world views and seeking to value and exchange cultural knowledge on an equal footing. This may involve capturing local knowledge on the use of plants and animals and understanding the importance of landscapes and cultural traditions. Local knowledge can also be integrated in early stage environmental baseline data and in support of rehabilitation. The demonstration of ‘care’ – not just the legal form of ‘duty of care’ – supports relations that contribute to community acceptance.

Developing good relationships with indigenous communities can also provide competitive advantage.

Company efforts in one area can quickly take effect in other nearby areas, and have a positive regional benefit for the company. This often translates to greater flexibility in operations and improved certainty in project development.

From an industry perspective, good relations with indigenous communities can contribute to more positive societal views of the mining industry and can positively influence shareholder sentiment and investment.

Community sponsorship and community investment

Both community sponsorship and investment are relevant during exploration. Sponsorship, for example of local institutions, events or groups, is important in meeting community expectations, even during very early stage exploration. Company presence at community events may improve company visibility but not necessarily reputation. An understanding of local mining legacies and prevailing community attitudes towards mining are important in deciding the appropriate approach.

Community investment (CI) typically becomes more relevant as project value increases and exploration advances beyond drill target testing. CI initiatives are more likely to focus on the developmental needs of local COIs. Benefits to the company can be numerous, and may include: improving the company’s visibility and reputation; providing access to other community voices to improve understanding of the local social context; helping to sustain relationships as project budgets wax and wane; and providing opportunities to engage all members of the community. Budgets supporting CI should be multi-year and independent of project budgets, and it is likely external expertise will be required and a framework developed to promote consistency, transparency and equity.

Even the smallest gains in community empowerment can have profound impacts and benefits to both the community and company. Effective planning and use of Community Dialogue are essential in identifying the right mix of internal capacity and external support needed to encourage good outcomes. While financial support may be the initial focus of discussion, responsible approaches typically seek to identify local community resources that promote ownership and sustainable outcomes. Beneficiaries can become important supporters of the company and its operations and extend support beyond local COIs.


Early engagement in seeking community acceptance and demonstrating social performance requires a ‘whole of business’ approach. The importance of early engagement necessitates that it has high visibility within the company and that it becomes embedded in business culture and process. Responsibility for the work should be shared and access to social specialists who are equipped to engage at all levels of business and with communities is critical. In exploration, geoscience and field staff provide ongoing ‘on the ground’ support and feedback that can help improve social performance. Good early engagement and demonstrated community support not only builds company value, but increasingly supports regulatory requirements for community engagement. Nothing speaks louder than the community’s voice of support.

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