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ESG Insights: Tackling social and resettlement challenges

Marco da Cunha Associate Social Consultant
Marco da Cunha

Marco has over 14 years of experience in the field of environmental and social management. This includes specialisation in undertaking Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs), Social Impact Assessments (SIAs) and Resettlement Action Plans (RAPs) for a range of industry sectors throughout sub-Saharan Africa and globally. Specific industry sector experience includes mining, oil and gas, transport infrastructure, dams and hydropower, forestry, agriculture, and public infrastructure.

The social component of ESG is often the most complex aspect to address on any project. That complexity comes about because social issues are invariably rooted in personal ethics, morals, emotions, and politics, rather than any hard science. Nowhere is this more apparent than with compulsory land acquisition and resettlement.

SLR has extensive experience in social management and resettlement planning. Consultants are typically asked to prepare Resettlement Action Plans (RAP), with the client or project sponsor then building its own internal resources for the implementation of the RAP. It is at this juncture that the greatest challenges become apparent. The reality of engaging with communities, securing agreements, building new homes, and paying compensation does not always (in fact rarely) run to script as prepared in the RAP. It is becoming increasingly common for clients to return to their preferred consultants to assist with implementation in order to address these immediate challenges.

The following are some of the insights we have gained from both planning and implementing major resettlement programmes for large natural resource projects:

  • Financiers are very risk adverse to any form of eviction/displacement/expropriation or resettlement. This often means the full ESG obligations of a client project are placed under a higher level of scrutiny.
  • While there are many resettlement standards (WB ESS 5 and IFC PS5) there are also many different interpretations of these standards by funders and clients. No single rulebook applies.
  • ESIAs and RAPs do not play well with each other, as they work under different legislation, standards, and timelines. Wherever possible, it is best to split the RAP from the ESIA process.
  • Resettlement needs to be planned, implemented, and concluded before any construction can commence, therefore it will always be on the critical path.
  • Resettlement planning is expensive and time-consuming, and preparing a RAP may take between 9 to 18 months depending on the scale of resettlement.
  • Resettlement is governed by country-by-country expropriation law, as such it is often government led, time consuming, expensive, and procedurally complex. Expect a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Resettlement is both a legal and moral process. A project owner may prefer minimum legal requirements, whereas funders may focus more on moral and ethical considerations as well as reputational risk.
  • Resettlement needs the right people in the right positions. Resettlement is a specific technical skill and generalist social, stakeholder engagement or community relations personnel generally find it difficult to successfully implement a resettlement process.
  • While resettlement policy and plans are good, practice is better. Successful resettlement stands or falls on proper implementation and real action.
  • Resettlement is not a science or an art, but a political process. In any resettlement process there will be a range of very personal hopes, desires, agendas, and politics that need to be carefully navigated.
  • If resettlement is not planned and executed properly it opens the project up to human rights abuse allegation. Financiers, civil society, and government tend to apply significant pressure on projects to address such allegations.

At the most fundamental level any resettlement plan needs to take into consideration that it is deeply personal to affected stakeholders. The lives of individuals, families, and even entire communities are often irrevocably, and at times dramatically, changed during the resettlement process. In an ideal world this change should be for the better. 

This is a principle that can get lost in legal procedure, management planning, budgeting, and schedules. Enlightened clients acknowledge this principle and work with their preferred consultants to provide long-term support and ensure that this personal principle is met.

If you’d like to learn more, or discuss a project, please get in touch.

Written by Marco da Cunha (Associate Social Consultant) and Greg Huggins (Technical Director - Social Science)


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