Barrick’s community relations team created a working group last year to share best practices and challenges that they face applying the company’s grievance mechanism. The group consists of grievance mechanism officers at various company sites and other team members who help manage grievances.
"It’s a really important initiative," said Katy Beltran, who served as Social Monitoring Coordinator at Barrick’s Pueblo Viejo mine in the Dominican Republic and participated in the group. "There are always opportunities to improve and this allows us to network and hear about what’s happening at other mines."
At its August meeting, the group was fortunate to be joined by John Ruggie, author of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and special advisor to Barrick’s Corporate Social Responsibility Advisory Board. Ruggie explained that, when a grievance mechanism works well, it serves as an antenna, helping companies flag and address potentially serious issues before they escalate. In a recent interview, Ruggie explained that it was this notion of preventing potential crises that sparked the idea for grievance mechanisms.
"I visited a mine in Peru in early 2006 not long after being named U.N. Special Representative (on Business and Human Rights)," he said. "The mine had just had a major confrontation with the local community. Access to the mine was completely blocked and the police had to intervene. I arranged to meet with the organizer of the blockade and I asked what led him to do this. He said, ‘They paid no attention to us when we came to them with small problems, so we had to create a big one.’
I realized from that conversation that, if companies set up a site-level grievance mechanism, they could deal with manageable problems that might otherwise escalate."
A grievance is a stakeholder complaint requesting compensation or corrective action for alleged damage caused by a company or one of its contractors. When it comes to mining, grievances can cover anything from complaints about excessive dust or noise to concerns about speeding vehicles to alleged human rights violations.
Barrick implemented grievance mechanisms at all of its sites in 2012. The company’s Community Relations Management Standard provided the template, setting out minimum requirements that all sites had to meet. Each site, for instance, must have a way to register and record a grievance, acknowledge receipt, and set a reasonable time frame to investigate and resolve a grievance.
However, as several members of the grievance mechanism working group made clear, each site operates in different cultural milieus and faces unique circumstances. As a result, their grievance mechanisms must be tailored to those distinct environments in order to gain local acceptance. "We have to adjust to the realities on the ground," said Beltran, who recently left Barrick.
A stark example of this is playing out at Barrick’s Veladero mine in Argentina. In mid-September, a processing solution leak occurred at the mine and some of the solution, which contained trace amounts of cyanide, exited the site, sparking fear and anger in the mine’s host communities.
Environmental monitoring and testing demonstrated that the incident posed no safety risk to communities, however local communities were clearly aggrieved. Despite this, not one grievance has been filed in connection with the incident. Constanza Fernandez Blanco, Grievance Officer at Veladero and a member of the grievance mechanism working group, said the lack of grievances reflects the fact that most residents of Veladero’s host communities are reluctant to document complaints. Indeed, in 2014, only five grievances were filed at Veladero. In 2013, just 15 grievances were registered.
"In Argentina, people tend to be inherently suspicious of authority, and prefer to complain publicly when they have a grievance rather than put it in black and white," she said.
The Veladero team is endeavoring to adjust its grievance mechanism to this reality. Instead of registering a complaint only when someone complains directly to Barrick, Blanco and her team have begun tracking complaints raised through alternative channels, such as local media or during the team’s regular door-to-door engagement program. In the wake of the September spill, Blanco and her team took the unusual step of proactively registering a community-wide grievance on behalf of the District of Jachal.
"There was and still is considerable anti-mining sentiment in Jachal as a result of this incident," Blanco said. "You hear it on the radio, on television and you read it in the newspaper. But no one filed a grievance."
The details of the complaint are based on information gathered from local media reports, and the company is working with community leaders to share and collect information in order to process the grievance. To be sure, many of the steps required to address the grievance — an investigation into the cause of the leak, a review of company processes, sampling of the local river system, close cooperation with government and regulatory authorities — were already underway as part of Barrick’s response to the incident. However, by proactively registering a grievance on behalf of the community, the Veladero team is not only endeavoring to adapt its grievance mechanism to local cultural mores, it is also trying to rebuild trust and credibility with the local community.
"It won’t be a simple or quick process, and we need to be transparent and maintain a dialogue with the community," Blanco said.
Blanco shared all of these experiences during recent grievance mechanism working group calls. One of the hard-earned lessons that she shared with the group was how quickly a long-standing community relationship can be damaged.
"You can spend 10 years establishing your credibility and building your license to operate, as we have at Veladero," she said. "You can lose it in one afternoon."
To be effective, a grievance mechanism procedure must have the support of every company department. When it comes to mining, this includes all operational areas of a mine, as well non-operational areas such as the human resources, financial services, legal, community relations, communications and environmental departments. Senior management buy-in is also critical.
At Barrick’s Pueblo Viejo mine in the Dominican Republic, the operation’s management team allots time during weekly meetings every week to discuss outstanding grievances with the mine’s Community Relations Manager, Faby Manzano. This extends to the mine’s most senior leaders, including General Manager, Ettiene Smuts, and Country Executive Director, Manuel Rocha.
By addressing grievances in this manner, Smuts and Rocha not only help to expedite the resolution of grievances, they make it clear through their actions that everyone at Pueblo Viejo needs to support the grievance mechanism procedure.
"People here understand that grievances don’t just belong to the community relations department, they belong to all departments," said Katy Beltran, who served as Social Monitoring Coordinator at Pueblo Viejo for two years before leaving the company in December.
Pueblo Viejo’s grievance management procedures were highlighted as a best practice in a review of Barrick’s grievance mechanism conducted last year by Luc Zandvliet, a community relations expert who helped the company develop its grievance mechanism. The review, which involved eight Barrick mines, was commissioned to ensure Barrick’s grievance mechanism was meeting the needs of the company, its mines and its host communities.
In his final report, Zandvliet listed a number of examples of best practices across the company along with areas for improvement.
On the improvement side, Zandvliet listed analysis and monitoring of grievance data as an area where Barrick can do better. "Most key performance indicators focus on the number of grievances opened and closed, average response times, etc.," he wrote in the report. "More robust indicators should be developed and used to understand stakeholder issues."
Zandvliet also found that most sites lack a so called second order mechanism. A second order mechanism comes into play when a stakeholder isn’t satisfied with the company’s response to a complaint. A stakeholder, for example, might take issue with the proposed compensation or remedy for a grievance in which case the grievance should be referred to an independent party for a second order review, according to Barrick’s Community Relations Management Standard.
While some Barrick sites have escalated grievances to a second order process, second order mechanisms are difficult to implement. "The challenge is to find an impartial person or entity that both parties agree on," Beltran said.
In an interview, Zandvliet said second order mechanisms are probably the biggest challenge that companies face with the grievance mechanism process. However, there are a number of ways that it can be done. For example, some countries have an independent ombudsman who can review grievances at no cost to the company. This is important because, if a company pays a third party to review a grievance, then the third party’s independence comes into question.
Another option is to refer a disputed grievance to a mixed panel of company representatives and external stakeholders, Zandvliet said. "There is no one size fits all," he said, adding that the main rationale for second order mechanisms is to build credibility by creating an appeals process in which the company is not the accused, judge and jury.
Zandvliet said he believes Barrick’s grievance mechanism procedure is maturing, highlighting the example of the weekly grievance mechanism review process at Pueblo Viejo. This process originated under the site’s previous general manger, Joe Dick, Zandvliet noted, but it has continued under his successor, Ettiene Smuts.
"I find that quite powerful," Zandvliet said. "Despite the change in general manager, the system at Pueblo Viejo is still working, so it’s clearly become part of the way they operate on a day-to-day basis. That’s really good stuff and it has to be acknowledged."