Preserving Best Practice in the Age of COVID19

Relatively recent advances in understanding the impacts of land and natural resource investments on women around the world are at risk if de-regulation takes hold in the post COVID19 world.

The economic fallout that comes with COVID19 is prompting companies to ask governments for help of all kinds – from loans to cheap credit, emergency funds to payroll subsidies, from tax relief to regulatory rollbacks.

While it’s in everyone’s interest to mitigate the effects of any economic downturn as successfully as possible, the prospect of regulatory waivers and rollbacks worries me. COVID19 is a perfect Trojan horse, with the potential to speedily undo the progress that’s taken decades to achieve.

In the U.S., almost immediately on assuming office, the Trump administration began dismantling environmental regulations that normally accompany infrastructure projects. It remains to be seen how effectively the U.S. systems of oversight will be able to combat this backsliding. However, it’s mainly developing economies I want to talk about in this blog post.

We know that when considering the social and environmental impacts of infrastructure or extractive developments, many states in the Global South face multiple pressures from internal and external actors. As the economic impacts of COVID19 begin to bite, a desire to protect the private sector, alongside a weakened capacity to enforce existing regulations, could result in worse outcomes for communities most affected by these developments. Or, to put it another way: when a country needs the economic stimulus that comes from external investment in major projects, the urgency of that need can easily result in social and environmental considerations being reduced to an afterthought.

And yet, there has never been a better time for governments to make positive environmental and social impacts the first principle of doing business.

Best practices for equitable, transparent and mutually beneficial investment deals are now more clearly established than any other time in history. International standards and guides for land and extractive resources investment are available, accessible, and useful, even if national governance frameworks are sometimes imperfect.

The FAO Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests have served as an influential land-related touchstone for almost 8 years. There are a variety of international principles, standards, and guidelines addressing mining and oil and gas investments and operations. And at the highest level, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have been with us for nearly a decade.

Broadly speaking, businesses and governments now know what “doing it right” should look like. In recent years we’ve made significant progress in increasing respect for human rights; in increasing respect for legitimate existing property and resource rights, and implementing good faith processes to ensure that meaningful, informed consent is sought from communities before business operations begin. And we’ve made some positive changes to ensure that communities are cared for in the long term after a resource-consuming business operation ends.

So there’s no credible excuse for not meeting these standards. If necessary, companies need to be reminded that adherence to best practices isn’t an optional add-on: it’s a fundamental requirement. A non-negotiable cost of doing the deal. And if the costs of best investment practices don’t pencil out? Well, the investment must be adjudged to be flawed.

For women, the prospect of regulatory rollbacks is particularly worrying. It took years to acknowledge that both the negative and positive impacts of land and extractive investments are experienced differently by women and men because of their distinct social and livelihood roles. For example, historically, women have not been given the same opportunities to benefit from the economic potential of mining, yet sometimes they are most at risk of being harmed. They are rarely directly employed by mining companies, and often they are not counted as landowners, so may not receive compensation for loss of their land. In many cases they don’t receive royalties from the mining that takes place in their communities, or have a say in how community benefits are distributed.

But some fragile progress has been made. A recent project by Resource Equity analyzed three mining projects in Peru, Papua New Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire (https://landwise.resourceequity.org/records/3126-women-land-and-mining-effective-strategies-for-improved-global-practice), showing what can be done when industry gets closer to best practices. Some strong results showed that when women are included in conversations about the project, and when they are made direct beneficiaries of project activities, they can not only avoid harm but can benefit from investments in mining.

When women are seen and heard, when their land and other rights are recognized, and when they are included in benefit streams, they can prosper and thrive along with men and communities as a whole.

So.

Internationally recognized guidelines accepted by both corporate and governmental actors. Advances in understanding the differing impacts of development on women and men. Research based advances in our understanding of the mechanics of how best practices can work most effectively for women and their communities.

It’s been slow progress, but it’s been progress.

Let’s not jeopardize it in the immediate emergency of COVID19.

David Bledsoe
 

David has been working on land rights for over 17 years. He is an attorney that has worked with governments, communities, companies, and civil society organizations in Africa and elsewhere on land tenure security, land conflicts, investments in land and extractives, and women’s land rights.