Danger, opportunity, and a new path for community asset management
Contrary to popular belief, the Mandarin character for “crisis” is not composed of the characters meaning “danger” and “opportunity.” Yet, in the crises many local and global communities face right now, danger and opportunity are gliding within a razor’s edge of each other.
“The razor’s edge between danger and opportunity” is an apt way to describe what the GFCF team has discovered researching community management of large-scale assets. Although most Indigenous and rural communities are surrounded by valuable natural resources (from minerals to rivers to old growth forests), these assets are usually managed by corporations and/or governments, and many communities don’t see long-term or commensurate economic benefit when the resources are used.
This reality is a source of enormous strife. However, if all stakeholders decided to take a different, transformative approach to asset management – prioritizing long-term relationship building, recognizing patterns and opportunities across sectors, and focusing dialogue on needs and values – would a new way forward be possible? Our research suggests that the answer might be yes.
What We Discovered
The GFCF team, with First Peoples Worldwide, began two years ago with the question of whether corporations could help support community self-determination and communities’ capacity to govern their assets, especially in regions of oil, gas, and mineral extraction. How could communities be empowered to exercise their right to free, prior, and informed consent for such projects? How could communities define their long-term development goals and negotiate with corporations and governments on equitable agreements to serve those goals? Could corporate shareholders be convinced that supporting community self-determination would benefit their bottom line? And would corporate investment in community-led foundations be a viable mechanism to support communities’ long-term asset management?
The research has revealed a few key points so far:
1. There are big barriers to building trust on all sides. The explanations for the mistrust are numerous: structural inequality, poor track records of upholding agreements, in-fighting and divisive tactics by outsiders, weak or non-existent government regulations and enforcement, market pressures, weak institutions, and more. The financial costs are significant: for example, between 2005 and 2008 Nigerian petroleum production dropped by 18% due to local protests and work disruptions. The cost to human life is even worse. In 2015 185 environmental activists were killed worldwide, a 59% increase over 2014. Since 2010 123 activists in Honduras have been murdered, including Goldman Prize winner Berta Cáceras, an Indigenous leader protesting a mega-dam project.
2. The fundamental barriers to trust can be addressed directly. At a more basic level, the root causes of conflict include lack of transparency about needs and goals, lack of follow up and follow through, lack of communication around cultural norms and expectations, focus on short-term gain for the minority rather than long-term benefit for the majority, and a lack of capacity to hear others’ concerns and address them productively.
These represent a failure to create the social capital that enables people to identify and work through differences. Putting much more effort into helping people build relationships with each other, as individuals and representatives of institutions, can establish the trust and transparency necessary to bring about more positive results.
3. These issues apply to most large-scale industries, not just extractives, and not just in the Global South. A new, major revenue stream (or monetary value assigned to an “asset” that was previously recognized for its spiritual, cultural, or ecological importance) always has the potential to damage community relationships and change the community’s culture for the worse – if there is no mechanism for people to achieve informed consensus on how to invest resources.
In the U.S. many Native American tribes have grappled with the danger and opportunity of managing gaming revenue. The Cherokee Preservation Foundation, created by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and financed with income from Harrah’s Hotel and Casino, developed a successful grantmaking model that proved that collective investment generates tangible benefits for everyone.
First Nations and non-Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island, Canada, created a UNESCO biosphere reserve and community foundation to protect the natural resources of Clayoquot Sound. This unique approach is helping communities reduce dependency on extractive logging and fishing and create more sustainable local economies.
These institutions have succeeded because people concluded that old methods weren’t working and they committed to the arduous task of creating something new together. In the case of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, tribal leaders and the North Carolina governor agreed that conventional payments to individuals would not create the kind of shared wealth or impact on long-term well-being that a collective grantmaking fund would. Following intensified conflict over diminishing natural resources, Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders in Clayoquot Sound “started seeking better and alternative ways of doing things,” which resulted in creation of the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust.
How Can Civil Society Help Move the Needle?
Civil society organizations can be a force for transformational change when it comes to community management of assets, but it requires a commitment to helping build effective, transparent collaboration between communities and corporations/governments. That may be an unreasonable proposition for organizations threatened with state or corporate violence and repression. By the same token, a stance that is heavy on opposition and light on support for a viable, unifying alternative often fails. The question is how to ground ourselves firmly in our values of respect, honesty, and shared benefit and discover ways to build bridges from there.
We must also aim to contribute to more holistic results and directly integrate our work with partners. For example, a community capacity-building organization might collaborate with a participatory environmental monitoring organization to help a community make an informed decision about a proposed mine and represent its interests to government and company stakeholders. The outcome would not simply be stronger self-governance mechanisms or environmental data but a community that can advocate for its development vision in part because it has these tools.
It’s clear that the status quo will lead to more suffering and violence as resources become scarcer. Civil society organizations have a responsibility to help create new possibilities for people’s well-being. We can begin by creating an atmosphere in which new solutions can emerge. This means challenging our preconceived notions, articulating and staying connected to our values, and broadening our vision for what a new reality could look like. None of this is easy work, but given the severe threats we face as a human society, we have little alternative but to seize the opportunity to chart a new path.
Mary Fifield, is a writer, community development practitioner, and principal of Kaleidoscope Consulting. She has been working with the GFCF on the topic of community management of (natural) resources since 2014.
 “Shared Value in Extractives,” presentation by FSG at Next-Gen CSR and Shared Value Forum, Calgary, Alberta, 2014.
 See Cherokee Preservation Foundation case study, http://www.globalfundcommunityfoundations.org/information/an-untapped-resource-the-extractives-industry-and-community.html