Photo "Palmas del Cesar" by Solidarity Center is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sometimes designing a legitimate dispute resolution process requires examining both company responsibilities as well as deeper structural problems given the country and operational context. No easy thread to tie.

Recently I’ve been involved with two vexing corporate-community-government engagements that embody this dilemma. The first is with a Honduran palm oil company that had fallen short of IFC’s social and environmental performance requirements while operating in a region marked by violence and social instability. The second is in the Sayaxché area of northern Guatemala where international palm oil buyers seek to drive major shifts in producer sustainability policies amid deep tensions over land, labor, human rights and agricultural development patterns.

The complexity of both cases meant that meaningfully addressing community concerns required much more than course-corrections on corporate policies and procedures. Rather, in both, I’ve found need to acknowledge and deal with underlying structural problems as well: longstanding disputes over land rights and access, pervasive regional crime, impunity, and polarized views regarding what sustainable socio-economic development should look like in troubled regions, just to name a few.

Any one of these issues alone can be daunting. Together, they can feel insurmountable. Yet intense international pressure and shifting market demands can sometimes create moments of opportunity to bring parties together on the toughest issues. The potential is greater when many parties are dissatisfied with the status quo, and when they recognize that some form of cooperation and collective action may be the only way to achieve desired outcomes.

There are at least three threshold questions that anyone seeking to resolve disputes in this context should be asking at the outset:

  • How to define core issues and their scope in ways that stakeholders jointly view as legitimate?
  • How to sequence engagement steps, given the conflicts at hand, in ways that maximize opportunity for initial successes through joint action, and thus avoid failing early?
  • How to address informal influences – such as narco-trafficking, impunity, and endemic corruption that are unmanageable by any one actor –yet a source of constant risk to agreement-seeking and sustainable implementation?

Of course there’s no simple recipe for addressing any of these questions, but a few crosscutting ingredients seem to be key.

1) Naming structural issues outright. When corporate-community conflict intersects with national-level structural issues, ignore those deeper issues at your peril. A key move in meaningful stakeholder engagement is the naming of issues and problems that are perceived to be significant, even if they seem to be beyond the scope of what the core group of local community and corporate stakeholders themselves can address. A further challenge is framing these as opportunities for shared value creation, not just pitfalls too big to approach. In both the Honduras and Guatemala cases, it’s meant an ongoing effort to clarify and navigate differentiated responsibilities among the state, multi-laterals, the private sector and communities. A persistent core tension is whether and how the private sector can better support and encourage constructive governmental leadership on sovereign issues (esp. impunity, human rights and land disputes). In this sense, the Honduras case was further complicated by the limits of IFC’s institutional mandate and unprecedented requirements of collaboration within the World Bank Group when engaging the government. This challenge is often further vexed by reputational questions: does a “pariah” company have sufficient credibility and legitimacy to help convene dialogue in light of its connection to past harms? If it can’t convene alone, then the question is whether other actors could constructively play co-convener roles, and whether they are willing to do so.

2) Recognizing informal influences. When assessing conflict in contexts of weak governance, understand that insidious influences on stakeholder agendas are real, serious, and often profoundly polarizing – especially the warping pressures of corruption and crime that skew economic and social interests as well as motivations, both within government and sometimes within civil society itself. Acknowledging and navigating issues that cannot be directly controlled is difficult, but the risk of ignoring them and leaving them untended is very high. Indeed, there are forces at work in these kinds of disputes that don’t benefit from consensus building, thus the probabilities of success should be discounted in such contexts unless other ways can be found to address those influences.

3) Leveraging international frameworks and protocols. Addressing core issues (e.g. land access, human rights, impunity) using principles that will be perceived by all the stakeholders as fair and legitimate is an enormous challenge. Voluntary international social and environmental frameworks can become a mutually credible means for addressing the most prickly corporate-community issues. In the Honduras case, the company, to its credit, became the first in Central America to implement the Voluntary Principles on Business and Human Rights, with independent third party verification of its security force disarmament. Similarly, in the Guatemala case it appears that significant international market pressure and interdependence among several companies operating in the same watershed may lead them to collectively adopt “best in class” security and human rights protocols as an exercise in pre-competitive joint action. Such an effort, if designed and executed well, may actively contribute to transforming an entire region, enhancing both the business environment and social well-being.

4) Sequencing Issue Engagement and Emphasizing Joint Learning. No surprise, in extremely polarized disputes with major power imbalances, there are competing priorities and big confidence gaps to cross. The burning question often is: what, if any, are common ties that bind? In the Guatemala-Sayaxché context, building agreement on immediate water quality monitoring, security, labor and human rights protections (for both civil society and private operations) appears to be a starting point for creating initial constructive engagement and small successes. They also happen to be the issues with the most company control, and thus a chance at demarcating measurable progress.

Organizing joint learning among stakeholders (including but not limited to ‘fact-finding’) can also provide initial scaffolding for strengthening relationships. Though pervasive distrust will understandably continue for some time (if not indefinitely), side-by-side learning on critical issues of shared interest can help build mutual understanding of issues, options, interests and values at stake. In this sense, it’s sometimes helpful to think of trust building (in all its nuance) as a function of the number of authentic and repeated joint actions among stakeholders, divided by the perceived risk of failure or lack of follow-through.

5) Being patient, transparent, and iterative. It’s natural for stakeholders to carry a constant sense of anxiety and frustration in disputes such as these. Nobody wants wasted time or effort, especially where confidence is low. Many companies are still more adept at problem-hiding than problem-solving; and similarly, many civil society groups, by their nature, remain better at problem-naming, and less adept at constructive problem-framing. Both might do well to take a step toward the other. Therefore, striking a balance between active listening and validation of both concerns and progress made, yet also respectfully naming uncomfortable truths about what it will take to make further progress (i.e. via good faith actions on all sides) becomes a dialogue art in itself.

6) Envisioning the roadmap. Finally, powerful and practical metaphors are often fundamental for issue exploration and alignment-building. A solid, graphical narrative reflecting how the stakeholders might ultimately work collectively toward a better place (i.e. a roadmap) is often the most powerful engagement tool in the box. Yet, the experience of building shared narrative and vision is inherently hard – resulting only from legitimate and incremental exchange of stakeholder viewpoints, accompanied by joint refinements that co-create the path ahead, ideally superseding polarized and competing visions of both process and outcome.

Indeed, we’re in deep on challenging land and human rights conflicts along complex palm oil supply chains, and the issues at hand in Honduras and Guatemala will surely remain vexing for some time. Yet with thoughtful design, and perhaps a little suerte (luck), we can find ways forward.