Civil Society’s Overlooked role in Natural Resource Governance

By Gabrielle Rawlins, CSO Liaison and Communications Officer, TTEITI Secretariat

Often times, the average citizens of a country are not aware of the amount of power they possess in the creation of policy beyond the right to vote in either a local or general election. But, in fact, civil society is one of the major catalysts for change, and their voice, although not the loudest in every arena, carries considerable weight. But who or what is civil society and how does it differ from the general public?

According to Political Sociologist Larry Diamond, Civil Society is distinct from society in general in that it involves citizens acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, passions and ideas, exchange information, achieve mutual goals, make demands on the state and hold state officials accountable. So, from the smallest child to members of a  religious organization, these individuals have the power to influence policy. However, how can this group change the extractive sectors (oil, gas and mining) natural resource governance? How can the metaphorical David sway Goliath?

There are four influential factors that can foster civil society’s interaction with the extractive sectors to promote good governance inclusive of staying informed, educating and enlightening one another, monitoring environmental conditions and compliance and, to some extent, advocating environmental justice. Does that mean that the civil society needs to join forces and start policing the country, or even take justice into their own hands?

In order to identify the often overlooked role of civil society in natural resource governance, citizens firstly need to understand and accept that the resources of the country belong to them; it is the people’s patrimony. They must see the government’s role only as that of a trustee, managing the resources on behalf of the people. They must recognize that the extractive companies are investors in the sector that may be in the country today but gone tomorrow if better opportunities arise. It is only then that, in these tough economic times, citizens would demand transparency and hold those in charge accountable for exploiting their inheritance. However, when citizens work together, there is strength in numbers and in order to exact greater influence in the country, citizens must first be informed of the role they can play and how they can bring about change.

The first step in becoming the spokespersons for natural resource governance, is to ensure that civil society stays informed about the working of the industries in the extractive sectors. At this level of leadership, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are key as they can mobilize public opinion. These organizations work at the ground level and can inform the citizenry of developments in industry, good and bad. This ground level work can also lead to the mobilization of the public to voice their opinion or take an active interest in an issue. If not for the international news, the effects of oil spills would not be an issue leading to debate over safety and prevention protocols and environamental negative impact. Additionally, these organizations also can provide a voice for those in civil society that may be side-lined for one reason or the other

It can be contended that existing structures within the extractive sectors do not enable NGOs and CSOs to fulfill their roles effectively, but does that mean the exclusion of their voices? No, in fact, it means redefining the role and using unconventional mediums and platforms to encourage discussion among the general public. This can be done by ensuring that public education and enlightenment occur on a wide scale. The country’s NGOs and CSOs should be continuously engaged in outreach programmes or workshops for them to stay informed and also inform the wider public of issues arising within the extractive sectors.  Historically, there has been no civil society umbrella organisation to encourage dialogue among citizens. However, today, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) provides such a platform and, as a result, civil society is finding its voice at least in respect of the extractive sectors.

Since joining this initiative, the TTEITI Steering Committee has made efforts to continuously engage with NGOs and CSOs through capacity building workshops, road shows, Town Hall meetings, visits to schools and other outreach programs. The aim of this type of engagement, through the EITI, is to keep the citizenry informed of progress in and issues engaging the extractive sectors and to show them how the revenues generated from exploiting their natural resources is accumulated and spent to their benefit. This is part of the movement to create transparency and accountability amongst the extractive sectors and empower citizens to hold those in charge accountable for what they do with the people’s resources.

Another important role that civil society plays in natural resource governance is promoting the  monitoring of environmental impacts. In many developing countries, it is important to note that proper mechanisms for this do not exist. The inadequacy of the ad hoc structures put in place to assess and monitor the environmental impact of the extractive sectors is heavily criticized by civil society.  It is because of these structures that assessing and monitoring environmental conditions is not left to the government and extractive companies alone because the information collected and generated from civil society contributes to filling gaps in data, increases interest and contributes to policy making. Being the watchdog for the people’s patrimony and our children’s inheritance, the TTEITI Steering Committee has been extending its mandate by taking steps to incorporate environmental reporting in its annual EITI Reports. This is  in response to calls from civil society and the published data further equips them with the understanding of their role and responsibility to the environment.

Civil society’s active role in the affairs of their country gives them the power to question policy makers, processes and impacts, and helps enact changes in policy formulation and implementation. The information gathered from assessing and monitoring environmental conditions provides civil society with information of the implications for the environment and environmental injustice. What happens to the land and sea after resources are extracted? This information should stimulate these conversations among civil society.  The TTEITI Steering Committee undertook a study to discover what members of the general public felt about quarry lands rehabilitation.  This survey revealed that the main concerns of citizens were the negative impacts on the environment and structural integrity of roads, pollution and danger to health. The citizens also voiced their opinions on what type of projects could be done as a form of rehabilitation. Citizens felt as if companies could best give back to the communities by revegetation and reforestation.

The TTEITI Steering committee acts a conduit to share valuable information to the public on extractive sector issues. At the TTEITI Steering Committee and Secretariat levels, the primary goal is to provide the reconciliation of revenue payments by companies to government in a manner that can be understood by the average citizen. Through this process, it is the responsibility of the EITI to analyse the state of the sectors and connect the citizens with the country’s natural resources. The onus is also on the TTEITI Steering Committee to have greater engagement with citizens and fence line communities to inform them of their rights, roles and responsibilities.

The citizens of Trinidad and Tobago have demonstrated that they have opinions, institutional knowledge and a care for issues surrounding the extractive sectors but they are appear not to be aware of the role they have in the sectors beyond the exploitation of the resources. The process of staying informed is just one step in facilitating change. Through this step, civil society can continue educating one another on issues affecting the sectors. In order for citizens to make meaningful contributions, be it policies or environmental advocacy, they must first understand the workings of the sectors and the industries. The job of the TTEITI Steering Committee is to bring the three stakeholders involved in the extractive sectors (government, companies and civil society) together to exploit the people’s natural resources to the benefit of the people. One of the roles of the civil society representatives that sit on the TTEITI Steering Committee is to ensure that issues of public interest that are central to the EITI process are kept in the forefront. This will encourage members of the public to engage in constructive debate on key issues such as extractive sectors revenue projections, collection and spending and to make available to citizens data on oil, gas and mining licences, the regulatory framework and environmental sustainability.

(Business Guardian Article, Thursday 15th June, 2017)