Last weekend I finished reading John Ruggie’s Just Business, which traces the story of Ruggie’s UN mandate to develop a framework for business and human rights. There are connections between Ruggie’s important work in the area of business and human rights and my own interest in the exercise of non-coercive power — or what I’ve been calling the power of asking. I was especially struck by Ruggie’s discussion, at several points in his book, of listening, and how listening as well as the failure to listen play into the dynamic between business and society.
From the introduction to the final chapter, Ruggie emphasizes the need for businesses to listen to stakeholders and host communities as well as the serious consequences that failing to listen can have. What seems to be a fairly widespread, almost a knee-jerk reaction to refuse to meet or speak with community representatives and other stakeholders, or simply failing to listen or engage when people bring forward a concern, usually makes matters much worse for business. Things “escalate,” to use Ruggie’s word.
I’ve recently written about a couple of such instances: the CEO of PNC Bank refused to meet with Quakers concerned about the bank’s investment in Appalachian mountaintop removal. His refusal, despite repeated requests for conversation, ended in the disruption of this year’s shareholder meeting; CEO James Rohr surrendered and walked off the stage, into retirement and in ignominious defeat. At Rio Tinto’s Annual General Meeting, I noted the board’s recourse to a rhetoric of “respect” when questions about the social and environmental costs of their mining operations were raised — a rhetoric that was clearly intended to deflect, not connect. It was a cynical parody of a listening attitude, a question-taking strategy that got them through this year’s meeting. How it will play out in the long run remains to be seen.
Ruggie’s book includes inventories of the escalating costs that companies incur and discussions of the risks they run when they take these tacks. But none of that material is so striking as a brief account of what Ruggie describes as “a long meeting” in 2006 with Father Marco Arana Zegarra in Cajamarca, Peru. Unable so far to find any other record of the encounter, I can only rely on what Ruggie says about it in Just Business.
Even the faint image of the conversation we have in Ruggie’s book makes a strong impression. On the one hand, Harvard Law professor and UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative John Ruggie, in the Peruvian highlands at the invitation of Denver-based Newmont Mining, to gain what he calls “a more granular understanding” of the business and human rights issues that his UN mandate is intended to address. On the other, Father Marco, steeped in liberation theology, dubbed “the red priest” by his enemies and detractors in Peru, a seasoned fighter for human rights who risked his life in the campaign to stop Newmont’s gold-mining project at Cerro Quilish. (Defrocked by the Church when he opted to run for political office in 2010, Marco Arana Zegarra now runs the environmental and social justice group Grufides; you can follow him on Twitter here.) This meeting of two human rights leaders — the academic and the practitioner, the professor of law and the radical priest — almost seems like something out of a South American novel.
At the center of the trouble in Cajamarca — at least at the outset — was water, as it is in so many conflicts over mining and extractive industry. “Streams and canals were drying up,” the Times reported. “They were filled with murky sediment. The water smelled foul.” Diverting and polluting the water, the gold mining operation had struck “the heart of the land. The people [in the Andes] depend on it — for their animals, for drinking, for bathing. Community life is organized around it.” The campesinos were without recourse. By 2004, Newmont found itself up against frequent blockades, and party to an increasingly violent struggle against the community around the mine.
When Ruggie met with Father Marco, he wanted to know how things in Cajamarca got from legitimate worries about water to a state of siege. He asked Father Arana “how it came to be that blocking access to the mine was such a routine practice in Cajamarca.”
“They don’t listen to us when we come with small problems,” came the reply, “so we have to create big ones.”
Ruggie tells this story in his introduction to lay the groundwork for much of what is to come; and the need to listen, even or especially to what seem to be small problems or concerns, resonates throughout his discussions of social license, preventative measures companies can take, the human rights due-diligence they must learn to perform, and the “operational-level grievance mechanisms… based on engagement and dialogue” they can set up. The Guiding Principles Ruggie eventually developed offer a number of ways business can improve on its ability to listen and engage with communities and individuals before a problem gets to Cajamarcan proportions.
(Newmont, for its part, has tried to reset the conversation with the local community through a study it commissioned and published in 2012 called Listening to the City of Cajamarca[pdf].)
But there’s a hidden challenge in these listening exercises, one that I am trying to appreciate and which doesn’t get much extensive and explicit treatment in Ruggie’s book (no surprise there, as it would have taken him pretty far off-topic). It’s a challenge I imagine Father Arana must have taken pains to impress upon Ruggie when they met in Peru — about what it really takes to listen, and the suspension of coercive power listening requires.
Listening is not just hearing the other, or cultivating an attitude or disposition to hear what the other has to say. That’s only half of it, and that by itself isn’t easy to achieve. But even then, only half the work of listening is done.
Hearing is only part of it. Listening is about hearing and heeding the other. For better or worse, that’s the way I’ve been formulating it.
I say that Father Marco must have taken pains to impress this lesson upon Professor Ruggie based on a couple of other sources. Consider, for starters, what the priest said just one year earlier, in 2005, when he was interviewed outside the Annual Shareholders Meeting of Newmont Mining in Denver. At first blush, it looks like just a simple variation on what Ruggie has Father Marco saying in 2006, but there’s a little more elaboration and historical detail: “we have been trying to engage with Newmont for several years,” says Arana, “and have yet to see real change in their practices…It took 30,000 people protesting in the streets of Cajamarca for them to finally recognize there were serious problems” [emphasis mine].
Let’s follow Father Marco for a moment here. To listen is to change practice. That doesn’t have to mean you do what the other asks of you; but it suggests some new relationship, a reorientation, some re-negotiation of positions. I would add that wherever there is new relationship, renegotiation, reorientation, there is also a chance to start again (to redo things), or at least some disruption of the power dynamic between listener and petitioner. Look in the dictionary: heeding can simply be a matter of paying attention, of “minding” what the other says, of giving it careful consideration. Heeding the other is a change in practice that opens up a space of new possibility. And within that space, mutual understanding and coordinated action are newly possible.
At that same shareholders meeting in 2005, Arana made the point to Wayne Murdy, who was then CEO of Newmont Mining. In Just Business, Ruggie simply characterizes it as a “brief exchange with the CEO” orchestrated by Oxfam; it sounds very much like some of the staged conversations I’ve witnessed between activists and board members at shareholder meetings, where the activist tries to have her say and the board member or the executive singled out for the exchange does his best to nod and make a show of concern. But an account in the Times fills in a little more detail about the priest’s exchange with CEO Wayne Murdy.
[Father Arana] is not the easiest of men. Last spring, he met Newmont’s chief, Mr. Wayne Murdy, on the sidelines of the company’s annual general meeting in Denver. As the priest recalls it, Mr. Murdy tried to be conciliatory, saying he lived by his mother’s motto: “We are given one mouth but two ears to listen with.” Father Marco says he rebuffed the overture, replying, “In the Bible, there is a saying about some people have eyes that don’t see and ears that don’t hear.”
I recognize that the Times reporters are probably playing up this antagonistic exchange to the exclusion of everything else that was said on that occasion, but the anecdote is still instructive. Murdy’s conciliatory posture — he was saying that he was ready to shut up and listen — may have been perfectly genuine or at least well-meaning; but having “two ears to listen with” isn’t enough. How could it be, after all the trouble in Cajamarca?
So Arana took the occasion to repay Murdy with some proverbial wisdom of his own, drawn from the font of liberation theology. He reminded Murdy of the biblical condemnation of those who have ears and eyes but are spiritually blind and deaf, to whom the words of God are spoken but by whom they are not understood. I’m tempted to continue here with the passage to which Father Marco referred Mundy as it appears in Jeremiah 5 — a reproach to the powerful and arrogant and an admonition to humble themselves to a higher order of justice. When Jesus speaks these same words in the Gospel according to Mark, he uses them to describe people outside and excluded from the promise of the Word.
As I read it, Father Marco was not only issuing a rebuff; he was sounding the distance between himself and Murdy, between the poor campesinos of the Andean highlands and the big, multi-billion dollar multinational mining company. And he was right to do so: that is a vast distance, created over years of strife, that can’t be bridged by conciliatory gestures, no matter how gracious and well-meaning they may be.
Some distances can never be bridged at all. That is why learning to listen takes a change of practice — a kind of surrender, or letting go of power: we may not be able to close the great distances between us, between listener and petitioner, but there can be dialogue. There can be respect.