17th Development Dialogue| Communicating research differently: how a comic strip is bringing the everyday struggles of Somaliland’s Uffo to life

17th Development Dialogue| Communicating research differently: how a comic strip is bringing the everyday struggles of Somaliland’s Uffo to life

Researchers and non-researchers alike can learn much about and draw inspiration from the everyday struggles of ordinary people in difficult contexts. Yet such stories that we hear when working with ...

17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

The chasm that separates the different scientific disciplines remains deep as ever despite the evident need to address pressing global problems through transdisciplinary collaboration. C. Sathyamala and Peter A.G. van ...

Development Dialogue 2018 | Social acceptance of oil activities in the Ecuadorian Amazon: a long way to go by Alberto Diantini

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.


Development Dialogue 2018 | Who decides who gets social protection? by Maria Klara Kuss

Development Dialogue 2018 | Who decides who gets social protection? by Maria Klara Kuss

Social protection interventions have recently been scaled up in sub-Saharan Africa. While international aid donors have invested much money, time and effort into the policy design phase, the real politics ...

Development Dialogue 2018 | Pan-African diasporas in the Brussels bubble: new actors, new business? by Valentina Brogna

Development Dialogue 2018 | Pan-African diasporas in the Brussels bubble: new actors, new business? by Valentina Brogna

Pan-African diasporic networks are emerging in Europe as new lobbying actors within EU-Africa relations under the prism of development cooperation. Who are they, and can they influence EU development policy? ...

Development Dialogue 2018 | Morocco’s ‘ninjas’: The hidden figures of agricultural growth by Lisa Bossenbroek and Margreet Zwarteveen

In Morocco’s Saïss region an agricultural boom is unfolding, premised on a process of labour hierarchisation shaped along gender lines. Female wageworkers find themselves at the lowest strata and take little pride in their work and are stigmatised. In such a context, how are rural women able to engage in agricultural wage work without losing their dignity and without being stigmatised? What can we learn from their daily working experiences?


While driving through Morocco’s agricultural plain of the Saïss in the early morning, the roads are crowded with vans and pickups that are packed with workers, the majority of whom are women. The way in which these women are dressed has earned them the nickname of ‘ninjas’: they have wrapped thick scarves around their faces, barely showing their eyes (see Picture 1). This outfit is symptomatic of their paradoxical situation: although they are indispensable for realizing Morocco’s ambitious agricultural modernization plans, their contributions tend to go or are made invisible, also by themselves. Female labourers may say that their dress is meant to protect themselves from the sun—“because we do not want to become black”—as well as from dust and pesticides. Yet, in addition to these practical considerations, many also admitted that their scarves conveniently serve the purpose of hiding their faces, allowing them to remain invisible and “anonymous”.


Their experiences are embedded in a new hierarchical labour order that is currently emerging (Bossenbroek 2016). Whereas most male labourers whom we interviewed take some pride in their work as they often get the better-paid jobs and could use it to model and perform a particular modern rural masculine identity, women find themselves at the lowest strata of this hierarchy. This newly emerging gendered labour hierarchy is grounded in, reproduces, but also slightly alters prevailing normative notions of femininity and masculinity in the study area. These prevailing norms divide various activities between the genders, while also narrowly circumscribing what is appropriate behaviour for men and women. Men are expected to be or become the breadwinner of the household, responsible for maintaining their families. A father, or husband, who falls short of financially supporting his wife or family is not well perceived in the society. In this regard, a woman working for wages automatically raises questions about her husband’s (if she has one) ability to provide. During various interviews, women stated for example that “a husband who accepts to let his wife work outside, is not a real man and can expect trouble, or as a young unmarried female wageworker once said when asking about her future husband: “It does not matter what kind of work he does. It is more important that he actually has a job.

Prevailing feminine socio-cultural gendered norms further circumscribe the various activities and identities of female wageworkers. This makes it difficult for rural women who engage in wage work to combine their remunerative activities with the identity of being a virtuous rural woman. Although women often engage in farm work, they take little pride in their activities as rural female identities rather rest on domestic tasks. They are in charge of the good functioning of their household and for raising the children. Their mobility is restricted and closely watched and controlled (see also Belarbi 1995). In addition, the activities rural women engage in as well as their mobility are deeply entangled with notions of honour and shame. These notions guide interactions in certain social contexts, specifically in public interactions between non-intimates (Abou-Lughod 1985, p. 247).

Such normative gender identities and norms are importantly (re-)produced and reinforced by gossip and rumours that circulate. There are for instance many negative stories about women working for wages in the agricultural sector. Male farmers and foremen may refer to female wageworkers as single young women with illicit behaviour, or as women “who make the farmer lose his mind”.

Hence, in order to continue with their wage work activities without losing their image of a respectable woman, female wageworkers develop different tactics. They for instance actively hide the fact that they work and perform as a good housewife in charge of her household, or present their work as a logical extension of their role as mother, as one female mother worker stated: “I have to work in order to keep my children out of the misery and provide them with a better future”. In the meantime, they fulfil the role of female breadwinner and trespass on the public domain, considered masculine, on a daily basis. In doing so, they negate on a daily basis hegemonic definitions of womanhood and come to explore new concepts of self, female status, and human worth (see Ong 1991).

Abou-Lughod, L. (1985) ‘Honor and sentiment of loss in Bedouin society’, American Ethnologist 12 (2): 245 – 261.
Belarbi, A. (Eds.) (1995) Femmes rurales. Casablanca: Editions Le Fennec.
Bossenbroek, L. 2016. ‘Behind the veil of agricultural modernization: Gendered dynamics of rural change in the Saïss, Morocco’. PhD Dissertation Wageningen University.
Ong, A. (1991) ‘The gender and labor politics of postmodernity’, Annual Review of Anthropology 20 : 279 – 309.

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 and here


About the authors:

LisaLisa Bossenbroek obtained her PhD in 2016 with the rural sociology group at the University of Wageningen (the Netherlands). As part of her research she studied the role of young people in agrarian dynamics and the interactions of processes of agrarian change and gender relations. Currently, she works as a post-doc at the Faculty of Governance, Economics and Social Sciences (EGE–RABAT), Morocco.

zwarteveen-margreet-Margreet Zwarteveen is Professor of Water Governance Education with the Integrated Water Systems and Governance Department at IHE Delft Institute for Water, and with the Governance and Inclusive Development group, University of Amsterdam. She is concerned both with looking at actual water distribution practices and with analysing the different ways in which water distributions can be regulated (through technologies, markets and institutions), justified (decision-making procedures) and understood (expertise and knowledge).