Anyone involved with infrastructure development knows all too well the effects that projects have on local communities. These effects can be positive or negative, but experience tells us that social and political conflict seems to be an inevitable part of the development process. In places with existing social, political, and economic turmoil, the risk of conflict is high and begins at the earliest stages of exploration and planning.
This article can be found in the July/August 2014 digital edition of Renewable Energy World. You can preview the issue at this link.
In corporate lingo, companies speak of “risk mitigation” when preparing to go into such regions. They calculate costs and benefits and develop risk mitigation strategies as they would for any sort of calculable risk whether it be social, environmental, or economic.
However, when it comes to geothermal projects, this strategy is inherently flawed. The geothermal industry needs to take greater steps both to address conflict and place a greater emphasis on social responsibility and sustainability.
There are two strategies that have been developed and widely used in other industries, including mining, hydroelectric and oil and natural gas, to address conflict with local populations. The first is the implementation of social impact assessment (SIA). The regulation of SIA is uneven, but it is undertaken voluntarily for the vast majority of infrastructure projects.
SIAs, conducted during the early planning stage as part of feasibility studies, are meant to provide developers with an assessment of how the local community will be affected. Often, the process begins with baseline data on the socio-economic characteristics of the community being gathered through surveys and interviews. The SIA practitioner makes recommendations on how negative impacts can be mitigated. Most commonly, infrastructure projects displace homes and people and so restitution plans are outlined. Negative environmental impacts and other impacts such as noise and increased traffic can also cause harm to people’s health and overall quality of life.
Geothermal projects, especially those in developing countries, commonly integrate SIA into an environmental impact assessment. These environmental and social impact assessments (ESIA) tend to downplay the potential for social harm or conflict to local people. Geothermal projects would benefit from having experienced practitioners providing more comprehensive and standalone SIAs that fully explore social, cultural, political, and economic changes that might occur before, during, and after the implementation of the project. Most projects outline an environmental management plan (EMP), and in some cases an environmental and social management plan (ESMP), which again suffers from a lack of attention paid to the social component.
SIA can help mitigate the direct negative human impact of the project, but often political resistance to the project is a much larger problem that can be costly and even derail a project before it begins. A well-organized resistance movement can receive national attention, and attract international NGOs and human rights groups, especially where indigenous populations are involved.
In order to address these problems, other industries have developed participatory development strategies to directly involve local people in the planning process. Participatory development is an umbrella term that includes a wide variety of strategies such as public involvement, community relations, and stakeholder engagement. Sometimes such efforts may also fall under corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies. These are highly coordinated efforts that involve dialogue and ongoing communication with community members and local stakeholders.
Geothermal project developers should be aware, however that even in the best of cases, participatory development strategies may still result in conflict and resistance. There are countless examples where despite negotiations, resistance to large infrastructure projects has escalated into violence and organized protest.
Protests can result in severe financial losses to companies when projects are delayed, or financing organizations find projects too risky to fund. A study from The University of Queensland, the Harvard Kennedy School, and Clark University estimated that conflicts with community are costing mining, oil and natural gas industries billions of dollars. The study found, for example, that a delay for a mining project could cost up to US $5 billion a week and result in a loss in share prices.
The concept of a “social license to operate” (SLO) has been created by the mining industry to define the social acceptance from the community needed to successfully implement a project and is used by local governments and financing organizations as well to evaluate the feasibility of the project. While not regulated, it is widely recognized in the industry and by international organizations as helping to maintain a higher standard of both environmental and social responsibility.
The geothermal industry should take lessons from other industries, especially because there are vast amounts of geothermal resources in Latin America and Africa, two regions with a history of conflict surrounding infrastructure development.
Geothermal Development in Colombia
Dewhurst is currently involved with the exploration of the first geothermal project in Colombia and is in the process of conducting an SIA at the site in the Nevado del Ruiz. The SIA involves working closely with local community members and stakeholders who will potentially be affected. Using rural rapid appraisal (RRA) methods, baseline data on demographic variables such as age, gender, number of people in each household, health status, and level of education has been gathered. The local partner, CHEC, has also been involved in ongoing efforts to provide social support to the community and education on issues such as environmental conservation.
An aerial view of Volcan Nevado del Ruiz and surrounding areas. Credit: Dewhurst.
This project is unique in many aspects. The affected community is an isolated, non-indigenous population living in the valley of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano. The population consists largely of tenant farmers who earn a living through small-scale dairy production or cultivation of onions and other high altitude crops. There is one main road leading from the city of Manizales up the mountain. The poor condition of this road and the constant threat of landslides make access to the mountain difficult. For the population on the mountain, access to the city for food, supplies and services was cited as one of the major needs of the community. There is little health care available, and education is only offered through primary school. The population is also highly dispersed and fluid, making it difficult to take an accurate census of the area. The population is estimated to be several hundred people at any given time.
The road leading to the Nereidas Valley is often full of hazards and prone to landslides. Credit: Dewhurst.
Other infrastructure projects in Colombia have faced the type of conflict and resistance one would expect to see. This project is unique in the public support it has gained from the impacted community. The two companies involved in the planning and implementation have attempted to incorporate participatory strategies into the planning process by conducting an independent SIA and through outreach programs. Geothermal also has the added benefit of not only being a renewable, indigenous source of energy, but also having a smaller environmental footprint compared to other infrastructure projects.
In summary, geothermal has the potential to also have a reduced impact on people if developers use participatory strategies as part of the planning process. The development community should not always assume that renewable energy is better for everyone involved in its development. All projects do have the potential to cause harm to people but with proper planning, geothermal can avoid the negative reputation that other industries have earned through years of destruction to communities and livelihoods throughout the developing world.