AAPG member Jorge Calvache, unconventional exploration venture manager at Shell Exploration & Production Colombia, knows firsthand the challenges companies face when they start operating in Latin America.
He has worked in the United States and Colombia and knows that, while the geology and technology are similar in the two countries, the operating environment is vastly different.
One of the biggest challenges companies face is working with the local communities living in areas targeted for exploration.
Calvache said differences begin from who owns the land.
“The situation is different in Colombia than it is in the United States, where in many cases landowners own the mineral rights,” Calvache said. “People who own the mineral rights have an interest in drilling, because they get royalties. In Colombia, mineral rights are property of the state.”
If companies expect community members to support exploration, he said they should be prepared to offer goods and services that provide sustainable benefits to the local population.
One example is hiring local people to work on the projects, particularly for the jobs requiring unskilled labor.
“If companies are going to drill wells, they need to make sure that they hire local people,” he said.
Equally important is communicating proactively to community members – and to start that communication before work starts.
“If we’re going to drill holes near their homes, they are curious and want to know what the companies will do and how they are going to benefit,” he said, “and you need to talk with them before bringing in equipment.
“If you show up the first day with the drilling rig and you’ve not notified the community,” Calvache commented, “they are not going to be happy.”
Lessons Learned in Bolívar
Calvache learned about working with communities during seismic acquisition of non-conventional resources in Colombia´s Bolívar department. When Shell started shooting seismic in the San Pablo area in 2012, the company experienced conflict with the communities.
“These communities have been exposed to lots of problems – guerilla, paramilitaries, narcotrafficking,” he said. “People in the region have been living a very difficult situation during many years. When we tried to enter there and shoot the seismic, we had problems.”
Shell worked to establish trust with the community, hiring a local non-governmental organization to help farmers commercialize products, and building houses in the village so farmers could sell them.
In the end, Shell acquired the seismic, and made a sustainable social investment in the community that lasted beyond the time of acquisition.
“After completing the seismic, the community understood there were other ways of interacting, and they learned the benefits of working with Shell,” Calvache said.
“They had previous experiences with companies who had communication and performance gaps, but we did not.”
Calvache said Shell’s experience in San Pablo highlights two important components of effective work with communities:
- Engage early.
- Build a relationship of trust.
Two additional components include:
- Protect the local environment.
- Implement sustainable projects.
Shell specifically practiced the concepts in Simití, Bolívar, a town surrounded by swamps that serve both as a source of fish for the community and an integral feature of the cultural heritage.
Simití residents were concerned that seismic would damage the swamps, but Shell used a low perforation technique with limited explosive impact.
After completing the acquisition, the company restored the environment to its original state.
“We asked them what they thought about the impact of the seismic,” Calvache said, “and they could not even tell where we worked.”
In addition to communicating regularly with community members, Shell worked with community leaders and the Omacha Foundation to develop a swamp preservation and recovery program.
Calvache and Shell public affairs managers launched the Simití Swamp Preservation and Recovery Program at a ceremony held on Feb. 1, 2014. The Simití mayor, fishing industry leader, environmental minister, community leaders, teachers and non-profit leaders and many community members attended the inauguration, which focused on protecting water, natural resources, flora and fauna.
The local newspaper applauded the event, calling it one of the best opportunities the town ever had to defend the natural environment.
Calvache said the Simití and San Pablo projects are successful because they are sustainable.
“If a company builds a school, but there are no teachers, that’s not sustainable,” he said. “Neither is a hospital with no doctors or equipment.
“Projects that truly benefit the community will continue,” he added, “even after the company has left the area.”