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Mining Security: Stéfanie von Hlatky

[Stéfanie von Hlatky]To create their products, mining and oil and gas companies must first establish operations where the raw materials are located, and then dig or drill. Sometimes this means venturing into areas populated by people who may object to the company’s presence – and who express their displeasure through vandalism or violence. Keeping their property and employees safe is a concern for every large multinational resource company.

To shed more light on the subject, political studies professor, Dr. Stéfanie von Hlatky, the director of the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy (CIDP), is heading a three-year, multi-sectoral research project to learn more about security threats in the extractive sector and how companies deal with them. Since the threats vary from firm to firm and from place to place, the project’s 13 researchers will travel to several mining and oil and gas operations in volatile parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America to interview security managers and others about the conditions they face at their site.

“We’re looking specifically at high-risk cases, where it’s urgent to come up with a sustainable solution for engaging either with the community or better managing a preexisting conflict,” says von Hlatky.

Not surprisingly, the sort of objective empirical field data the researchers seek is hard to obtain – and not only because the contentious mine sites are usually remote and difficult to access. “Private firms, when it comes to cyber-security or more conventional security, don’t necessarily tend to be in public forums discussing what their security practices are,” says von Hlatky. “For scholars of security studies, it’s one of the areas that we know a little bit less about.”

Private firms, when it comes to cyber-security or more conventional security, don’t necessarily tend to be in public forums discussing what their security practices are. For scholars of security studies, it’s one of the areas that we know a little bit less about.

However, industrial security is a complex business that involves far more than padlocks, surveillance cameras and steely-eyed armed guards at the mine gates. Creating a holistic view of security requires intelligence from other areas. For instance, what is happening politically, socially, and economically in the community and country where the mine is operating? What international security and human rights guidelines must the company bear in mind when it deals with conflict situations? How do different divisions within a mining or oil and gas company work with community relations experts, security professionals, and corporate management to sort out critical security challenges?

This is where the multi-sectoral nature of von Hlatky’s SSHRC-funded study comes into play. The other stakeholders in the study include the UK mining giant Rio Tinto, academics from Queen’s CIDP, the McGill-Université de Montréal Centre for International Peace and Security Studies, and non-governmental organizations such as the Switzerland-based Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Each private, public, and NGO partner has a specified role and brings specialized approaches, knowledge, and skill sets to the table. They each have the background and expertise to ask the right questions at the site, as well as at regional and international levels.

“They’re ball carriers for this project as much as I am,” says von Hlatky.

Although the project only began last summer and some of the researchers have yet to make their site visits, von Hlatky has already gathered some interesting insights.

“My big ‘aha’ moment was to realize that the risk tolerance of companies when deciding on whether or not to be involved in the country is a lot higher than a government or state, because they’re in it for the long haul,” she says. “Politicians are scared of suffering losses and [want to be] successful in the context of interventions abroad. For big multinationals, it’s rare to find a case where security concerns were the reason why operations ceased or forced their withdrawal.”

My big ‘aha’ moment was to realize that the risk tolerance of companies when deciding on whether or not to be involved in the country is a lot higher than a government or state, because they’re in it for the long haul.

Ultimately, says von Hlatky, the researchers hope their case studies and impartial investigations will help large mining and other companies not only to better handle existing security threats, but to take meaningful steps to work with local communities and other stakeholders so that conflicts are minimized or prevented altogether.

Alec Ross
(e)Affect Issue 8 Fall/Winter 2015

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Dr. von Hlatky's research