Our mining project brings the solution! So then what’s the(ir) problem?
Building trust through understanding and respect starting with the Problem Formulation
Do you ever question why conflict is encountered when a resource extraction project is on the doorstep and ready to go? After all, it brings prosperity in the form of jobs, revenue, spinoffs and new economic growth. It’s a chance to participate in the economy, develop partnerships, build and upgrade infrastructure, build careers. Similarly, in environmental remediation, where the project is to clean up contamination of the past, and the objectives are shared by all, there can still be conflict. Why? Struggling with ESG? Reconciliation?
There is no substitute for the development of long-term relationships where issues of access, resources, employment and reconciliation – laying the groundwork as early as possible can be the key to success of any initiative. Subsequently, once a project has been identified, the problem of building trust may be in its very formulation. Whether it be resource extraction or environmental remediation or anything else with multiple complexities, various stakeholders bring different backgrounds, perspectives and values to the table. They also bring different needs that may be misunderstood or not known at all. Should “they” care about your project because you do? Should they care about your perspective of their “needs”?
Acknowledging and understanding the key problems of a community or group during the Problem Formulation stage of a project is critical for the formation of a solid trust relationship and bridging the gap between cognitive and technical “languages”. This is because understanding is required for respect, respect is required for trust, and trust is required to achieving the objectives.
A sawmill cleanup project currently being conducted in a northern Ontario (Canada) indigenous (First Nation) community illustrates the importance of effective Problem Formulation. Site contaminants are fuels, metals, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and dioxins/furans in soil originating from the burner – the contaminants occupy precious waterfront land in the heart of the community and has been derelict and dormant for several decades. The community was in conflict with government for over a decade before fulsome remediation planning began taking shape. Trust was at a low point when the current phase began.
Concept mapping, a tool used in health studies including in the community, was the tool selected by the community and facilitated by Dr. (George) Haas (at University of Ottawa) to compare the community cognitive perception of the problem, and the technical concept of the problem, as a starting point to build project objectives. The Central Concept of the project was determined independently by both the community and technical groups to be cleanup of the soil and water for safe reuse by the community. Once the Central Concept was established, a cross-section of five (5) different groups within the community were identified by the community for consultation. Concept maps were made based on the input from each group session. Maps were developed to illustrate each group’s findings. A technical concept map was developed. Concepts were compared, and key features identified by the community were compared to the key features of the technical map. Through the process, key take-aways of understanding, respect and trust were learned.
Understanding: Concept mapping identified areas of confluence and divergence. Areas of confluence were related to the maximization of economic opportunities within the community, cleanup to health guidelines to standards appropriate to residential land use, and implementation of remedial options that would preserve some valued ecological components. Key areas of departure between the community and technical approach were related to potential long-term generational effects to health resulting from the sawmill, and that the project did not conceive the removal of logs from the water to facilitate construction of a marina.
Respect: Understanding the different “languages” through mapping led to increased respect on many fronts, as the act of dialogue itself was invaluable. However, challenges were also encountered with the site engineer using questionable methods (bad science) to develop management objectives rather than be impartial, and at times excluding the community input gathered during the Problem Formulation – these issues served to prevent achieving trust, and thereby added risk as they endangered the successful achievement of the objectives. Ultimately, the project overcame these challenges by deferring to local experts for the management of the key elements at issue, and the technical experts only for support and guidance on details.
Trust: Taking the time to understand the problems and ideas of a community from various perspectives allowed for some contextualization of the project. Making some efforts to ‘bring in’ acknowledge historical health issues and land claims, while not making these part of the ‘project’, went a long way to increase trust. Chief and Council were able to lean on the gathered information to better serve their community, further increasing trust. Remediation at the former sawmill is underway again in 2023 after being stalled by covid and is expected to be completed by about 2025 when the project enters a monitoring phase.
On the project level there is no one solution that fits all, which is why project risk is best managed iteratively, by listening and learning, repeating back, asking questions, checking in regularly with the community, and be prepared to deal with different concepts and perspectives in order to minimize the risk to achieving the project objectives. It should be mentioned that while this approach works on the project/community scale there is nothing preventing scaling-up of this approach to include considerations of sustainability, circular economy or climate considerations by involving wider groups, NGOs/interest groups, industry associations, government and advocacies.
Paul Hubley is a Professional Geoscientist (P.Geo.) located in Ottawa, Canada. He has over 30 years experience on 1,000 projects in environmental consulting, in Canada and some in the United States. He is recognized in Canadian court as an expert in geology, hydrogeology, site assessment and remediation. Projects include assessments and remediation of sites contaminated with hydrocarbons, chlorinated solvents, metals, dioxans/furans, PAHs, PCBs, PFOS. He has led teams of peer reviewers for some of the largest remedial projects in Ontario. He is a certified Canadian Risk Manager (CRM) and Environmental Professional (EP). He is Past President of Professional Geoscientists Ontario, and currently Co-Coordinator for the International Association for Promoting Geoethics and volunteer coordinator for Geology For Global Development. In 2022 Paul was inducted as a Fellow of Geoscientists Canada (FGC). He also enjoys creating blog content to communicate geoscience to socially-relevant contexts.
Dr. George Haas designed and conducted consultation projects involving both the professional and community stakeholders, involving implementation of conservation, land management, water management and environmental protection projects with communities. Based at the University of Ottawa, Ontario, George has coordinated the introduction of highly effective Concept Mapping methodology into communities’ consultation processes, with over 20 successful applications across the country completed, focusing on the pollution clean-up, environmental, health and social issues. He has designed and implemented water management and watershed conservation projects involving Indigenous communities; he has also designed and implemented the community-based environmental protection project involving satellite photography analysis. George directed multidisciplinary teams that successfully completed projects in Indigenous communities in 9 Canadian provinces and in Central and South America. He has designed and coordinated projects involving focus groups and other consultation methods.