Members of the Vallecillo Rio Seco community in Chile celebrate the inauguration of an irrigation system provided by Barrick near the Company’s Alturas gold project.
Before a geologist ever sets foot in an area with exploration potential, Barrick sends in an Exploration Community Relations (XCR) team to establish relationships with local stakeholders. The team explains the Company’s objectives and begins a dialogue with local communities and authorities to understand their expectations.
“The first contact with interest groups begins to paint a picture of the Company,” says Cesar Neira, Barrick’s Regional Manager of Exploration Community Relations. “And first impressions count and go a long way towards securing our license to operate, an intangible that is crucial to us in the exploration phase of a prospective project.”
Barrick’s Alturas project in Chile was the first Barrick project to implement the XCR approach. Exploration work began in 2010 and the project has enjoyed substantial levels of support from the outset. The Company’s approach calls for XCR teams to conduct baseline studies and contextualize a geographical area of interest. As part of this, XCR teams identify interest groups in the region and exploration requirements such as access to roads, water, and prospective drilling sites. A community relations plan is then developed that is tailored to each host community.
Cesar Neira (third from right), Barrick’s Regional Manager of Exploration Community Relations, visits with members of the Vallecillo Rio Seco community in Chile near the Company’s Alturas gold project. Exploration community relations teams identify interest groups and exploration requirements in a given region and then create community relations plans tailored to each host community.
XCR teams go door-to-door, and arrange community gatherings to facilitate dialogue and share information. By taking this approach, the Company is better able to mitigate social risks of exploration projects and add a dimension of sustainability to them. And so far, it’s working.
For example, a community member from one Alturas host community filed a grievance with the Company asserting that Barrick had allowed dust to cover a protected plant species during road cleaning. The XCR team’s investigation confirmed that the plant in question, while accounted for in environmental protection plans, was not the protected species. The team cleaned the plants, followed up with site teams to ensure they prevent this from happening again, and they are now supporting training in the community to help identify protected plant species.
“Complaints are an opportunity to improve things,” Neira says. “It can also help the community to better understand our environmental practices.”
Often, Neira says, the biggest challenge in the exploration phase is overcoming mining’s legacy from decades past. That’s because many new projects are located in regions that have had negative experiences with mining. The region around Alturas, however, has had relatively little exposure to mining and, while there are some concerns in the communities, Barrick’s XCR team worked tirelessly to build trust and assure local leaders that the Company adheres to strict environmental standards and complies with all local laws and regulations. The Company’s actions on the ground over the past seven years have borne that out.
“One of the things that we appreciated about the Alturas project is that the relationship for this project essentially began from zero,” says Jessica Cuellar, Barrick’s Senior Supervisor for Exploration in Chile, who had previously established first contact with host communities near Alturas. “We do sometimes come across places that have had sad or negative experiences with mining, where we’re met with distrust or hostility, but we see those places as areas of opportunity to change the industry’s reputation.”
Not every exploration project becomes a mine. When a project doesn’t proceed, the XCR team must nevertheless fulfill the Company’s commitments to stakeholders. If there has been any drilling work, the exit can take 2-3 months while environmental remediation activities are implemented in accordance with regulator specifications.
“I should stress that the exit is as important as entering a community because—if done responsibly, transparently, and collaboratively—it leaves the door open for us to return in the future,” Neira says.