Oil companies are coming to realise that they need a ‘Social Licence to Operate’—the acceptance of locals—to reduce social risk associated with their activities. But how do they achieve this community acceptance, especially in areas of the Amazon forest inhabited by indigenous peoples?
Extractive companies are usually unpopular and mistrusted. For them, it is increasingly evident that a legal, formal licence of operation from governments is not enough. To avoid costly protests, they need a Social Licence to Operate (SLO), generally defined as the acceptance of local communities of their activities. It is a kind of social, unwritten contract that ensures an enterprise’s social risk is reduced as long as priorities and expectations of the local communities are satisfied: the higher the SLO, the lower the risk (Prno & Slocombe, 2012).
Although the SLO concept was developed in Western contexts, it has been increasingly adopted in developing regions as well. In Latin America, for example, in the case of projects affecting indigenous peoples, the main common issues are power imbalances, conflicting worldviews, and informed consent, but these SLO key elements are largely overlooked (Ehrnström-Fuentes & Kröger, 2017).
As a contribution to filling this gap, my research aims to critically analyse the usability of the SLO concept as indicator of community acceptability in Latin America. In particular, I am focusing on the oil context of Block 10, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, managed by the Italian company Eni-Agip. The area is inhabited by indigenous groups, which are mostly Kichwa. Eni-Agip’s good reputation at the national level, its community investments (medical assistance and education programmes), and the apparent low level of conflicts in the block could suggest that the company has obtained an SLO from the locals. But is this the case?
To answer this question, I went to Ecuador and got in touch with researchers from the local university, the Estatal Amazónica of Puyo. Together, we planned a household survey in the villages of the affected area, examining people’s perceptions of positive and negative effects related to Eni-Agip’s operations. We also investigated whether locals perceive that the ‘Free, Prior, Informed Consent’ (FPIC) principle has been applied in this context. FPIC establishes that indigenous communities have the right to participate in the decision-making process pertaining to the activities that affect their territories. Before beginning oil operations, communities should have a full understanding of project’s risks and benefits and freely give informed consent (Hanna & Vanclay, 2013).
In order to facilitate interactions with the community members who don’t speak Spanish at all, a group of Kichwa students attending the university was included in our research team. This enabled me to be more easily accepted inside the communities: since I am Italian, people initially saw me as a potential spy of the Italian government or of the enterprise.
A total number of 346 questionnaires were completed and all villages of the influence area were surveyed. Preliminary results show that most respondents think the presence of the company is compromising the environment and irreversibly changing their culture. On the other hand, people rely on the social programmes previously offered by the oil company which Eni-Agip now claims are the duty of the State.
In effect, the most recent national oil contract stipulates that the government shall now provide these social services, but the State has been unable to meet this responsibility, in part due to the remoteness of these communities.
Almost 87% of the population doesn’t know what FPIC is. In addition, some of the interviewees reported cases in which they have been forced to accept the decisions of the company, with attempts of coercion.
It is noteworthy that during the survey, many people told us they fear that if they criticise Eni-Agip in any way, the company would cut social programs altogether.
In conclusion, despite the low level of conflicts and the good reputation of the company, interviewees reported the same impacts found in many other oil contexts of Ecuador and Latin America, such as cultural changes, dependence on the company, and lack of respect of FPIC procedures. Overall, the evidence of Eni-Agip’s high control of community consent, the absence of the State, and the vulnerability of indigenous communities are elements that seem to limit the genuine achievement of balanced power relationships, the core elements of a social licence. Therefore, caution is necessary prior to claim that a company has achieved an SLO in such a complex and conflicted territory. Much has to be done by the State to meet its responsibilities and by the company for a full respect of indigenous populations’ rights.
Ehrnström-Fuentes, M., & Kröger, M. (2017). In the shadows of social licence to operate: untold investment grievances in latin America. Journal of Cleaner Production, 141, 346–358.
Hanna, P., & Vanclay, F. (2013). Human rights, Indigenous peoples and the concept of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 31(2), 146–157.
Prno, J., & Slocombe, D. (2012). Exploring the origins of “social license to operate” in the mining sector: Perspectives from governance and sustainability theories. Resources Policy, 37(3), 346–357.
This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS. Other articles forming part of the series can be read here, here , here, here here, and here.
About the author:
Alberto Diantini is a PhD researcher in Geographical Studies at the University of Padua, Italy, supervised by prof. Massimo De Marchi, coordinator of the “Territories of ecological and cultural diversity” research group. The main objective of Diantini’s research is investigating the usability of the concept of Social Licence to Operate in the oil contexts of the Ecuadorian Amazon.