Skip navigation

How to secure community engagement with the natural resources sector

Banner image

Maja Jakobsen, Mark Essex

When a stable country is rich in natural resources it will inevitably attract investors and often be a priority for the national and local governments. Equally assured is that local communities will have significant concerns and deep interests in it too – due to both the potential for benefit and the risk of being adversely affected. As a result, it’s vital to get community engagement right.

Challenges around oil in Turkana, Kenya

In the recent past, oil, gas, mining, and geothermal reserves have been discovered in Kenya. This discovery, and specifically the planned extraction of oil from Turkana in the north of the country, has created serious concerns in local communities. These concerns are about the impact this will have on their rights to access, own, and benefit from land, water, and other natural resources, and the benefits they will receive (oil revenues and access to jobs and business opportunities).

In July 2018, barely a month after Kenya’s President officially ‘flagged off’ the first four trucks transporting crude oil from the handful of exploration fields in Turkana, to holding tanks in Mombasa, they were grounded due to local opposition. Tensions in Turkana became heated and Tullow Oil, the operator, was forced to temporarily halt operations. In spite of spending close to $2 billion on exploration and appraisal work, the scenes were uncannily reminiscent of five and a half years earlier, when protesting locals closed down their operations citing the lack of jobs amongst other issues. These protests resonated with a UK government committed to supporting UK commercial interests abroad, and ultimately led to DFID Kenya’s backing for an extractives programme for Kenya. OPM has implemented the resulting project, K-EXPRO, since 2016.

Delivering community engagement throuh the Catholic Church in Trocaire

In spite of some efforts by the government and oil exploration companies, adjacent communities remain deeply concerned they are inadequately informed and worry they will not be sufficiently compensated or see any benefits. Improving community engagement, to lessen tensions between communities and oil companies, is very challenging. This challenge is heightened by the lack of government capacity and general service delivery on the ground.

K-EXPRO looked at innovative ways around these obstacles and, recognising the importance, trust, and position that the Catholic Church has long held in Turkana, funded Trocaire to develop a grass-roots approach. This was with the aim of making communities in Turkana better prepared for challenges and opportunities that arise with oil investments. This intervention highlights four useful approaches to bear in mind when trying to secure community engagement in similar situations. These are:

  • An ecosystem approach

Communities are likely to be primarily focused on oil, once it has become the mainstay of the conversation. This is understandable. An ecosystem approach to understanding natural resources, however, can help broaden understanding and bring nuance to the conversation. Trocaire and its local partners used an ecosystem approach to develop their intervention – explicitly not limiting discussions to just oil, emphasising the interdependence of natural resources, and asking communities to reflect on all natural resources in connection to the livelihoods.

Broadening the discussion out beyond oil is also tactically important, as it can prevent limiting discussions to individual cases of historical grievance. This sets the wrong tone for a collaborative conversation about the future, and can also exclude those who weren’t previously involved.

  • Community-oriented civic education

One of the earliest and most likely causes of mistrust and suspicion between different stakeholders is a lack of information. By increasing the accessibility of information (especially as it relates to how land is used for pasture, potential displacement and compensation plans, and the sharing of future oil revenues), Trocaire supported initiatives to prevent community interests being easily captured by private interests. Issues of exclusion were addressed through innovative and creative forms of civic education, not least community theatre, on topical issues. Trocaire and its partners raised awareness in communities on natural resource rights, so that communities are better prepared to engage on legal and technical aspects of natural resource management.

  • Community empowerment in decision making

The agency of communities is always important, and often feels very vulnerable or at threat of being forgotten. Community engagement can be used as a stepping stone to the creation of collective decision-making processes to access, own, control, and benefit from natural resources. Promoting public participation, in this way, gives agency back to those whose voices haven’t always been heard in the discussions around natural resource management and livelihoods.

  • Conflict mitigation within the community

In recognising the history of conflict in the area, it’s important to build the capacity of communities to mitigate violent conflict and build more constructive responses. Through strengthening the capacity of communities to continuously assess, identify, and analyse their conflict risk factors, and engage with critical stakeholders, this intervention helped reduce the risk of a return to violent conflict.

By focusing on these four pathways to change attitudes and behaviours, it naturally leads to the brokering and fostering of relationships between stakeholders and the creation and strengthening of platforms. In turn, this gives the community agency to pursue advocacy, accountability, or mobilising objectives, as the case may be, and ultimately can lead to better engagement with local and national government and industry around the challenges and opportunities from oil. Throughout, it is important not to allow a narrative of the community being seen as the problem. By following a gradual and well-formulated process of engagement, communities quickly demonstrate their value as key stakeholders in working constructively.