III. Politics, Environment and Sustainability
The Contentious Politics of Impact and Benefit Agreements: A "Sons of the Soil" Conflict Perspective
The growing international recognition of the environmental and social impacts associated with mining has led to important reforms in regulatory frameworks and measures to try to improve corporate-stakeholder relations. In response, there has been an upsurge of interest and debate surrounding the notion of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as a framework for guiding mineral resource development.1 According to Crowther, “[t]he broadest definition of corporate social responsibility ... is concerned with what is—or should be—the relationship between global corporations, governments of countries and individual citizens,” whereas on a more localized level CSR concerns “the relationship between a corporation and the local society in which it resides or operates.”2
The global push to improve relationships between proponents of natural resource extraction and local communities—notably, Indigenous peoples—has contributed to the development of a range of formal private contracts often termed “community development agreements” (CDAs) or “impact and benefit agreements” (IBAs). While such agreements are increasingly common in the Global South, IBAs in particular continue to play a much more prominent role in settler-state societies such as Canada, the United States, and Australia, where they have risen exponentially in recent decades.3
In concrete terms, IBAs can be defined as “confidential bilateral agreements, negotiated between mining corporations and aboriginal communities to address a multitude of adverse socio-economic and biophysical impacts that can arise from mining development.”4 Caine and Krogman echo the above in stating that “[d]espite the lack of a singular IBA definition, due in part to their context specificity and continually evolving nature ... they are commonly viewed as agreements that establish formal relationships between signatories, mitigate negative development impacts, and enhance positive development outcomes for Aboriginal communities.”5 Yet they critically note that although IBAs are contractual arrangements, they do not “fall under the purview of the state and thus fall within a historically uncontested, gray area of legality” sometimes referred to as “quasi-legal.”6
The ambiguity and quasi-legal nature of IBAs highlights a fundamental feature of these agreements: they are a contested and often controversial form of governance. As such, while IBAs are heralded by some as a progressive tool for improving stakeholder relations in the extractive industries, others view their rise with suspicion and question the overarching value of IBAs. Rather than serve to mitigate or prevent conflict over natural resource development, there is cause for concern that IBAs could instead be a source of future unrest between mining proponents and Indigenous peoples. As O’Fairchcallaigh7 argues, the exclusion of Indigenous communities from key elements of the impact assessment process can create situations in which “communities have to deal with projects they have had no role in shaping, leading to conflict.”
This paper expands upon recent literature on IBAs to examine the contentious politics around this emerging form of governance.8 The paper breaks from previous studies, which have theorized IBAs from a “multilevel governance” perspective,9 through the lens of anthropological performance theory10 or via theories of neoliberalism.11 Instead, it adopts a new conceptual and theoretical approach to study the potential conflict dynamics surrounding IBAs.
To do so, the paper employs a “sons of the soil” (SoS) conflict perspective to analyze the extent to which IBAs could serve to cither fuel or prevent the outbreak of conflict. As discussed below, the concept of SoS is commonly used to explain Indigenous vs. migrant conflict over land, territory, resources, etc. throughout the Global South.12 Yet as recent studies suggest, a SoS framework may also provide analytical insight for explaining conflict dynamics beyond the Global South in settler-state societies in the Global North.13
The paper draws upon recent developments in land use planning from the province of Ontario, Canada, to serve as an empirical illustration of the potential conflictual dimensions of IBAs. Specifically, it examines the government of Ontario’s efforts to promote sustainable natural resource development in the northern regions of the province through the adoption of the Far North Act.14 As I note below, this legislation could ultimately trigger a wave of IBAs in the context of future land use planning in the region. The significance of this development is further underscored by recent work, which suggests that the Far North Act could provide fertile conditions for future outbreaks ofSoS conflict.15 While the analysis herein is more exploratory than confirmatory, the findings underscore the critical need for more research on the conflictual dimensions surrounding IBAs.
The paper is structured as follows. The next section provides an overview and discussion of IBAs. In so doing, it identifies the origins and some of the contentious issues that relate to this emerging form of “private governance.”16 Section III briefly introduces the concept ofSoS conflict and relates the framework’s applicability to IBAs. Section IV then uses an empirical illustration through the case of the Far North Act in Ontario, Canada. This provides an opportunity to explore the link between the Far North Act and the potential conflict dynamics surrounding the potential increase of IBAs. Finally, the
The Contentious Politics of Impact and Benefit Agreements 121 conclusion summarizes the arguments, identifies new directions for research, and outlines some wider policy implications for other settler-state societies.