In Their Own Words
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2019 IFC Sustainability Exchange
Indigenous sovereign wealth fund trustee Mark Podlasly helps communities benefit from mining and infrastructure projects. He spoke with Merrick Hoben from the Consensus Building Institute at the 2018 IFC Sustainability Exchange about the importance of meaningful dialogue between communities and industry leaders in challenging situations.
Mark Podlasly: I’m from an indigenous community in south-central British Columbia, and we are the N’laka’pamux. Our traditional territory extends into Washington State, so we are on both sides of the border. A lot of the work I do right now is with communities grappling with resource development, extraction industries and mining or pipelines, hydro-electric facilities. And in our communities we have had situations that a lot of indigenous communities worldwide have had. We have been under colonial rule, and a lot of the decisions that have been made on our land have been made elsewhere, usually in capitals or in business centers around the world. And as we move to the 21st century and we have this new understanding of what people are expecting from development from their communities, the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has come into effect, so there’s a question now about what do we want to do as indigenous peoples, as partners, no longer as subjects of governments and companies. A lot of the questions that come up are a blend of ancient traditions and of understanding what community means and of world views that are sometimes in conflict with a modern society. So tell me, what do you do?
Environmental Assessment Revitalization Workshop, Kitselas First Nation Terrace, BC, Canada; Courtesy of Mark Podlasly
Dene First Nation Dechenla, Nothwest Territories, Canada; Courtesy of Mark Podlasly
Merrick Hoben: What I do is help diverse parties to have more constructive conversations, dialogues, in ways that help address their underlying concerns and differences. And those concerns and differences for my work are often taking place in the context of very challenging development projects. For example a project in Honduras where there were accusations of deep and difficult human rights violation, lack of security, impacts on the environment, and I got asked to come into a very lawless place and try and figure out what’s going on, is there a space for constructive conversation between this company that had been accused and the communities that felt impacted.
Mark: So when you go into these situations they’re generally overseas, you’re finding yourself in a situation going into a potentially hostile environment, how do you open up a conversation at that point?
– Merrick Hoben
Merrick: So the work is a lot within Latin America because I speak Spanish fluently, I’m married to a Costa Rican, we met in Costa Rica in the early ‘90s, and that in many ways sort of sensitized me to cultural differences, if you will. In fact I should just say as a quick anecdote, my wife asked me, when we were dating early, to go to her house for Christmas Day in Costa Rica, I said ‘terrific I’ll be there,’ never thinking to ask what day she meant. Because as it turns out, in Latin America, when you say come spend Christmas with me, La Navidad, it means the evening or the day of the 24th. So what happened was, the day went by, she was waiting for me to show up at her house, and I never show up, because I’m thinking it’s tomorrow. I get a phone call that night from her, she’s like, “que le pasa? what’s happening?” And I’m like ‘what do you mean? I’m coming tomorrow.’ And she’s like, ‘it’s frickin’ Christmas in Latin America, conquistador que no sabe nada, how could it be that you don’t know this? You are so culturally insensitive.’ There really is no way for me to explain how I could get that wrong. I’m living in her country. And I think oftentimes that happens in these contexts where we come into new places and whether you’re a company or you’re some other key actor and you’re asking for something of a community or you’ve had an impact and you don’t demonstrate deep acknowledgement, understanding, simply that you’ve done your homework so to speak, that you know when Christmas is.
You ask me what happens when I come into communities and the key is that a) I’ve done my due diligence, I know something about where they are and what they care about, and I begin there. I begin by telling them that I don’t necessarily have the answers, but I do have a deep bias, and that bias is for fair, informed, and hopefully wise conversations. And I want to help them do that, I want to help them to be heard, I want to help translate those core issues and concerns, and I want to help them find a place of agency in problem solving. I may not be able to it, I am not a magician, but I am there, and I am trying to name that, and I’m trying to do it with them not for them. Having thought about the practicalities, if you will, of dealing with impact, positive or negative, if I were in their shoes I wouldn’t want this being solved like a math problem, I would want this being solved through a conversation. Give me the right information, make it credible, but don’t talk to me like this is a formula, because it’s not.
Intimidation and Violence Prevent Training Sayaxche Guatemala; Courtesy of Merrick Hoben
Meeting with Plantation and Security Personnel, Bajo Aguan, Honduras; Courtesy of Merrick Hoben
Merrick: Any lesson you take away from your own work so far?
Mark: I do see hope in this. The work that I’m doing at the moment is at the crossroads between where I think a lot of the world challenges are going. The big issues on this planet on climate change or in terms of water shortages are going to take a lot of creative listening and attempts to find some way to meet all parties somewhere.
I have the same question for you.
Merrick: You have to learn. You have to be thoughtful. I think you have to be wise about where you put your energy and your effort. It’s like where do you plant, where do you put the sun, the soil, the water, that’s going to help a seed of engagement grow in a constructive way. Not all conditions are appropriate. And particularly as the years wear on I guess for both of us, right, I have a couple gray hairs coming at this point for sure, I don’t have limitless energy, I need to think wisely about that and then translate that wisdom in some way shape or form to others.
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