Developing a multi-stakeholder forum to address sustainable development issues in a region that is undergoing large-scale industrialisation linked to oil and gas projects.
Until the 1990s the Asalouyeh region on the coast of the Persian Gulf was characterised by groupings of small villages based on traditional livelihoods associated mainly with fishing, agriculture and trading. Since then the region has undergone rapid industrialisation, especially between the years 2000 and 2008, when dozens of major oil and gas projects were planned and many initiated. This attracted tens of thousands of migrant workers to the region.
The new developments generated numerous environmental, socio-economic, health and cultural impacts that affected local communities and local authorities with detrimental effects on the provision of public services in the region.
In 2009 Living Earth Foundation (LEF) established partnerships with two Iranian organisations to initiate project work aimed at developing constructive relations between local people and the oil and gas industry in the region, in order to better manage the impacts and long term effects of industrial operations. With funding from the European Union, the project was initiated in January 2010. LEF’s two two project partners were:
- The Centre for Sustainable Development and the Environment (CENESTA), an independent civil society organisation with a long tradition of working effectively with local communities to conserve and develop sustainable livelihoods, in different regions of Iran and in other countries.
- The Institute of Petroleum Engineering (IPE) of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tehran, whose role was was to establish initial links to the Iranian oil and gas industry and Government, and was carried out during the first 18 months of the project.
When the project started, the pace of industrialisation in Asalouyeh had slowed down and many major projects had been postponed or stopped completely due to the impact of international sanctions against Iran. By this time, many oil and gas projects (on- and offshore) were already having significant impacts on the region, as were activities linked to these projects, such as the building of new transport infrastructure (i.e. roads, airport and port facilities). Communication between representatives of the new industrial developments and the local authorities and communities was poor. Relations were characterised by mutual mistrust and a lack of knowledge and understanding of each other’s plans and expectations.
In January 2010 LEF was invited to a conference on the sustainable development of the Asalouyeh region, organised by the authorities of Pars Special Economic Energy Zone (PSEEZ), the government body responsible for overall management of the industrial region. LEF gave a presentation and a public interview, and with the support of CENESTA, participated in discussions with representatives of the Iranian oil and gas industry and local and regional stakeholders. This initial step identified key stakeholders interested in participating in the proposed process of multi-stakeholder dialogue and capacity development. Further presentations and introductory workshops by LEF and CENESTA with local authorities and community associations, confirmed and expanded this finding in the following months.
- Enhanced capacity among the most vulnerable people and groups, both personal and institutional, to understand and act on the causes of regional poverty and to realise their potential in addressing them
- Increased capacity of all stakeholders to work together effectively to formulate and carry out locally appropriate initiatives in health and other fields, aimed at poverty reduction and sustainable development (SD)
- Improved monitoring by stakeholders of both public policy and private sector implementation, particularly in the fields of health and environmental impact assessment and mitigation plus poverty reduction
- A multi-stakeholder forum to support the design and implementation of appropriate strategies aimed at poverty reduction and SD
- Increased awareness among local civil society organisations, community groups and authorities of the role of the EU in promoting SD and poverty reduction
Project activities commenced in January 2010 and relationships between LEF and its Iranian partners were formalised in partnership agreements. The main project activities were:
- Presentations and working sessions with senior managers of the PSEEZ and with senior managers and technical staff of major oil and gas projects in Asalouyeh
- Presentations and working sessions with regional provincial authorities of Bushehr, local authorities, and community associations and leaders
- Public information and consultation sessions with local authorities and community associations
- Capacity-building workshops with local authorities and community actors
- Multi-stakeholder sessions and workshops to identify priorities and agree strategies aimed at poverty reduction and the promotion of regional SD
- Development of a shared learning and action programme with the key actors associated with, or affected by the oil and gas industry projects in Asalouyeh
- Workshops to identify and define relevant pilot projects
- Development of a web-based learning programme to share international experience of working with the oil and gas industry (i.e. this website)
- Multi-stakeholder workshops to build capacity in dialogue, negotiation and consensus-building for sustainable development
- Multi-stakeholder decision-making and planning workshops.
Most significant changes generated by project activities
a) the creation of Nayband Organisation for Sustainable Development, an independent community-based civil society organization formed by leaders and associations of the 21 communities of Asalouyeh, which acts as forum and alliance for decisions and action plans by local stakeholders on priority poverty reduction and sustainable development issues, and has been recognized and accepted as a partner by regional government authorities, the senior management of the PSEEZ and the oil and gas companies operating in Asalouyeh;
b) the acknowledgement by authorities of Nayband National Park (a coastal mangrove forest approximately 20 kilometres from Asalouyeh) as a community conserved area (CCA), to be co-managed with the active participation of Nayband Organisation for Sustainable Development;
c) increased trust between industry, local authorities and community stakeholders, as a result of the frequent and constructive exchanges between actors;
d) increased understanding among senior managers of industry and PSEEZ of the need to work closely with local authorities and communities to address issues and challenges associated with poverty and sustainable development;
e) increased willingness of local community leaders to engage with representatives of industry, PSEEZ managers and other stakeholders, with the aim of developing collaborative actions on local issues;
f) indirect results or project ‘spin offs’ include CENESTA’s increasing training and guidance roles working in other parts of the country in helping to develop poverty reduction and conservation strategies through stakeholder engagement, in the context of sustainable development. This has mainly occurred through relations developed through project activities in Asalouyeh with senior managers of the Iranian oil and gas industries who have moved on to other senior positions in Iranian industry and government.
- International geo-political dynamics centred on Iran created a tense climate of mutual mistrust between Iran on the one hand, and the USA and Europe on the other. This affected the project’s operating context, especially towards the end of 2011 and the first half of 2012. In this context, the development of relations of trust and reciprocal respect between project partners and key decision-makers, enabled project implementation to continue.
A summary of the project as an evolving model of a co-management approach to sustainable development has been presented by CENESTA to community leaders and key decision-makers in Iran and the Middle East.
Conclusions and recommendations
- Developing trust-based relations with key stakeholders from all sides of the social spectrum is a fundamental prerequisite for effective multi-stakeholder engagement aimed at promoting sustainable development.
- A key role for civil society organisations such as LEF and CENESTA is that of facilitator of the trust-building and engagement process required for the effective implementation of sustainable development initiatives. This role requires humility, respect for those whose views and beliefs are very different from our own, openness, transparency, flexibility and patience. The process cannot be rushed. CENESTA proved an excellent facilitator, in this regard
- Operating in sensitive, complex and often tense socio-political and cultural contexts requires a deep understanding of local dynamics, history, expectations and fears, and the capacity to adapt to local pace and ‘rhythms’. Conventional project cycles and imposed schedules can become meaningless.
- The development and strengthening of local capacities and relationships among key stakeholders is the only way to ensure the sustainability of impacts.