On a hillside in Colombia, an SMS message pings on a mobile phone. There has been a rockslide five miles away, the message says, causing a temporary roadblock. Two days later, it pings again, saying where to register for upcoming local elections.
The SMS service is called Suna Verde (meaning Green Pathway). Its interface is designed by a jewellery team in London and the platform is funded by a mining company in London's Mayfair district. But the service was rolled-out and is monitored by Chalkstone Ltd, a private company in the UK that specialises in granular social intelligence.
Chalkstone was born out of counter-insurgency tactics used by troops in Afghanistan, but increasingly its techniques are being taken-up by the mining industry, to map-out power structures and counter the potentially crippling risk of strikes or political opposition in fragile, resource-rich regions.
Chalkstone is run by Donald Bray, an academic at Cambridge University who sports a moustache and glasses. Having studied politics, anthropology and development at Cambridge and Harvard, Bray jumped to Afghanistan, a war-zone at the time.
His work was focused on IEDs, improvised explosive devices. “The initial question,” Bray says, smoking a cheroot outside a train station in London, “was what role do local communities play in supporting an insurgency?” If you can understand a community's imperative, you can counter any coercion it is under, the military reasoned. Bray also looked at opium production and trading.
Bray was not a government employee “per se”, he says, but was providing advisory services to the UK's Foreign Office and a firm in the US.
After an intensive study on a ruby mine and a copper deposit in Afghanistan, Bray was hired in 2015 by Gemfields, the world's largest emerald and ruby miner, for research into Colombia, where Gemfields had provisionally committed to building an emerald mine.
Colombia is sitting on the world's most lucrative emerald deposits, but has been locked in stop-start revolutionary battles since the 1960s, signing a peace deal in 2016. Gemfields had meanwhile landed an agreement over the Coscuez mine in Boyaca, long tainted by
allegations of money-laundering.
“Time and time again,” Bray says, “the same issues arise in countries emerging from conflict.” The rural community where Gemfields was working felt removed from Colombia's capital and the local population of just under 100,000 felt “somehow left behind.”
“It's not that local communities don't want jobs and education and progress. They want all of these things. But they also want to be included in that decision-making process. What they don't want is for decisions to happen to them.”
Only 17 per cent of the population had internet access, so Chalkstone worked with mobile network operators to launch Suna Verde, keeping the community updated on everything from job-training initiatives to when the local “health brigade” (a team of doctors and nurses that travel around the countryside) would be in each village.
Suna Verde was quickly rivalling the radio as the region's chief source of information. “It's like internet 0.5, as opposed to internet 4.0,” Bray says. “It worked brilliantly. We could mass communicate in a very targeted way.”
Bray says Chalkstone, which works with a tiny number of anonymous mining companies to lower their insurance costs, was not harvesting information to exploit it. “It's nothing subversive,” he says. “If we took a London or New York approach to marketing, I don't think we'd get very far. You don't build a trust-based relationship on a bed of lies and deceptions.”
Instead, by opening a dialogue and diffusing information “as broadly as possible,” Chalkstone was tackling head-on “the fear and apprehension” that Gemfields, as a large foreign company, was flying into a region fraught with sensitivities, “and what's going to happen to my livelihood? These are normal and natural questions and it's just proper that they should be fully respected and addressed.”
But Suna Verde also had commercial benefits, from farming-out jobs to advertising procurement opportunities. By mapping out power structures in Afghanistan, Bray had been able to identify so-called super-predictors, individuals who were “in the right position within the structure to come across different types of information,” he explains. Picking-out super-
predictors from an electorate of 5,000, he had been able to predict election results in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. “We identified 25 people and they told us who was going to get the top-ten spots and the order of the top three.”
Chalkstone used similar techniques in Colombia, warning Gemfields of an upcoming protest at a foreign-owned mine, four months before it happened. “When you start to involve the voices of thousands in a conversation, you're engaging the power of the crowd and we were able to get in front of the risks. We can start to see things that you wouldn't normally see.”
Ultimately, Gemfields pulled out of Colombia in an announcement in May. Suna Verde was wound down. But as companies across the mining industry continually get whacked by mine closures caused by a failure to mesh with the communities around them, the industry is looking for new ways to gage political risk.
US-based Tahoe Resources fell 39 per cent last week after its mining license was revoked in Guatemala, due to a long-running dispute with local groups. London-listed Acacia Mining meanwhile plunged from £4.34 to £2.66 in three days in May, after Tanzania's government blocked gold exports overnight. In Colombia, AngloGold Ashanti halted its La Colosa gold project in April, after losing a municipal vote.
If a mining company can lower its political risk discount even fractionally, the net value of an asset shoots-up, says another source in London, who works in the fuzzy middle-ground between the mining industry and governments, advising Mongolia over Rio Tinto's giant Oyu Tolgoi copper mine. In each case, Donald Bray says, companies are up against systems less clear-cut than the rule of law.
“It's not just about what's written on the regulations. It's about understanding how different groups fit together, the tensions, the cleavages, the cohesion within that system, how trust is gained, how trust is lost, what are the rules that people use to manage their day-to-day lives. And often those rules are informal.”
“An event like a civil disturbance doesn't happen in a vacuum. They are planned and if you're listening, you can hear it. But to listen to your constituency, you've got to know your constituency. Or else it passes you by.”