Mesas de Diálogo: can they do their important job?

10 June 2018

As the interest of international mining companies in investing in Peru grows once again, and conflict in the sector rises, it is worth reviewing the efficacy of the institutions handling such conflict.

One of the most interesting developments in Peru in this context has been the mesa de diálogo, or dialogue roundtable, employed regularly in recent years. The initiative can come from various sources, including the World Bank, through the CAO (Office of the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman), an independent post within the structure of the Bank.

A mesa is created by ministerial decree and includes participation by several ministries (as appropriate), plus representatives from regional and local government. The one imperative is that all relevant stake holders must be persuaded to take part, with the affected communities key players. Use of the mesa opens genuine possibilities of giving voice to the marginalised, usually indigenous populations whose livelihoods are often threatened by a project.

These mesas have made a significant contribution in bringing issues such as contamination and other environmental damage into public discussion. They have also provided important educational opportunities for communities. Individuals and groups have had to learn how to articulate their demands and fears. PSG researchers, observing the mesa in Espinar in the case of the Tintaya mine, were able to witness how indigenous women were empowered into taking the microphone to put their case.

But the case of Espinar was built on enormous support from outside agencies, from Oxfam Australia and from a group of Peruvian NGOs. It takes a mammoth (but entirely worthwhile) effort to give voice to the victims.

International corporations sometimes recognise the need to invest in capabilities. An interesting example is that of the South African firm Goldfields which has worked hard to have consultants encourage learning among communities, particularly in how to manage conflict. But typically mining companies are seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

Independent institutions are needed that can channel the goodwill of companies where it exists and build capacities to negotiate and debate. Imbalances of power have to be counteracted.

A 2016 study by Oxfam Perú and Cooperacción concluded that power asymmetries express themselves in multiple ways: (i) the lack of technical knowledge among local actors; (ii) the length of time which the mesas are allowed to take place, this being dictated more by the needs of the companies and central government than the needs of local people in addressing the issues involved; (iii) the inability of local actors to maintain their participation throughout negotiations whilst at the same time acquiring the technical expertise to defend their interests; and (iv) the lack of intercultural dialogue. 

Turning to outcomes, follow-up and public sector responsiveness are the weak points, closely inter-related. The system of mesas has grown 'naturally', but the channels of responsibility are not well defined. A good example is the Las Bambas mesa which successfully raised the need for dialogue over the vexed question of the road carrying copper to the port causing contamination and damage to livelihoods. As regards follow-up, this has been slow and there has been a lack of clarity over who is responsible for action: the OEFA (Organismo de Evaluación y Fiscalización Ambiental), the Ministry of Transport and Communications, or the regional or local governments. 

There has been some encouraging news last week on this mesa, which now looks likely to re-initiate sessions after a lengthy break. The vice-minister responsible for territorial governance, Raúl Molina, recently visited the Las Bambas region, talked to local people, and showed himself keen to pursue dialogue. This has been broken by many months in which a ‘state of emergency’ has been in place. 

Greater institutionality around follow-up on dialogue is thus urgently needed. Communities see themselves expending energy and even risking reprisals, resulting only in dialogue running into the sand. If confidence in mesas is to be restored, each should have a clear follow-up plan that is made public at its conclusion. It would be tragic if this effective forum for negotiation dwindled into neglect. The public sector needs to look urgently at how to increase their effectiveness.

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  • PSG Aims

    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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    Over the past century Peru has suffered a series of autocratic governments and a civil war in which nearly 70,000 people died. Many of the country's ongoing political and social problems are a legacy of its somewhat turbulent past. 

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