“We’ve talked the talk, time to walk the walk”: Alastair Bisley on repairing social license in the agricultural sector.

The term ‘social license to operate’ may be entirely unfamiliar to many people, but it is becoming increasingly relevant in discussions centred around New Zealand’s agricultural sector.

Essentially, for companies and big businesses, ‘obtaining a social license to operate’ translates to: securing a level of acceptance or approval by local communities and stakeholders for projects and schemes. The term originated in the mid 1990s, as groups extracting finite resources like oil and coal began to realise the importance of staying on side with local communities by operating in a respectful, sustainable manner and encouraging an open dialogue about the trade-offs between development and the environment.

With debates over the economic benefit and converse environmental harm of intensified agricultural projects continuing to cause friction and divide opinion across the country, the importance of discussing and promoting this social license cannot be overstated.

This week I talked with Alastair Bisley, former chair of the Land and Water Forum, to get his thoughts on what the social license to operate entails, and what sort of role it can play in bridging the current so called ‘rural-urban divide’ resulting from these conflicts over economic development and environmental stability.

Alastair Bisley was chair of the Land and Water Forum from its inception in 2008 til mid-2016. The Forum was established, he explained, because “as a nation, we’d reached a point where water - which we’d always thought of as being endlessly abundant and relatively clean - was increasingly becoming a resource that was under constraint”. The reasons for this were numerous, but essentially the issue stemmed from the considerable intensification of agriculture and growth in population since the 1990s, coupled with the varied approaches of regional councils to land and water management, and the lack of  a general sense of what was required of farmers or anyone else in these areas. Bisley describes it as a “period of considerable friction” where it was “difficult to get consents to do things” and there was “a complete lack of security for both the environment and water users”. People realised that if certain changes weren’t made, the situation would only continue to get worse.

Thus, the forum was born, coming out of “proposals based on a study of what the Scandinavians had been doing to get a general consensus over how to handle land and water issues”. It’s aim was to provide a blueprint for the government on how to be better in these areas, promoting improved management practises like keeping stock out of water bodies, riparian planting, and being careful not to deposit large quantities of nitrogen in places where it could run into lakes or rivers. The key aspect of the forum was collaboration, bringing together a wide range of players, from primary industry groups, to green NGO’s, to local Iwi. It was hoped that bringing those from different industry backgrounds with different interests and concerns into a single organised body would help mend social license issues and get everyone working together towards the end goal of both restoring damages done to the environment and allowing agricultural projects and operations to continue providing benefits to the economy, albeit in a more socially approved way.

The problem, according to Bisley, is that to date, very little of what the forum has recommended has actually been taken on board. This has resulted in a number of groups leaving the collaboration, including Forest & Bird and Fish & Game who felt the government had failed to adequately respond to the forum’s recommendations. Additionally, it has meant the hoped improvements to social license have yet to be realised, and will not, Bisley says, until significant changes are made: “the primary sector felt that if the land and water forum could succeed and reach a consensus, then that could improve their social license to operate. They felt that working with these other groups in a collaborative forum, and reaching understandings with them, would help. However, I think, if the recommendations don’t get carried out, then the improvements in social license that the primary sector hoped for will not happen”.

His answer to the issue is a simple and clear one: get it done. “We’ve just got to get on with it”, he says, “don’t say ‘oh we’ve done this’ or ‘oh we’ve spent enough money already’, just get on with it and do what needs to be done. I think the important thing is not to spend your time justifying not doing anything more. It’s important you recognise there is a critical task- critical for your country, critical for your industry- and that you’re a critical player, and it’s important you put your time and effort into finding good ways of going about that task. We tried to make our recommendations as helpful as they good be to economic actors so they could find ways that were efficient to achieve those results. If you don’t do it that way then you run the risk of people finding other ways of doing it which may not be as pleasant or appropriate. I think it is important that the farming sector stop whingeing about how difficult this issue is. It is difficult sure, but farmers need to think to themselves- ‘this is a critical resource for us, and if we want to go on enjoying access to it as we have then we have to do better”. That isn’t to say others don’t need to do better, and urban areas certainly have their own areas in which to improve and do better, but I think the farmers need to concentrate on their role in moving it forward”.

Bisley was quick to point out he wasn’t pointing fingers at farmers, in fact he thinks that “most farmers are taking these issues very seriously and upholding their end of the bargain in every way”. However, he voiced his concerns over the rise of an attitude that “there is no problem” with the environment, and the potential for the primary sector to slip back into a mood where they think: “everyone’s being unfair to us, why should we bother trying to accommodate their concerns” and as a result, drop the ball.

The best way to avoid such eventualities, in his mind, is through organisations like the forum: “I think the forum is a good example of a positive measure towards bridging the gap. It achieved real trust and confidence between the two sectors, which unfortunately has been somewhat lost recently. Still, it has played a very important role, and I believe it could play a bigger role in the future. I think there are opportunities when councils are creating their plans for collaborative processes in which the agricultural players are very important. That’s another way in which they can engage with people of different interests. I think there are tons of opportunities, but it’s not just about talking to people, it’s about getting things done”.