May 2010

Canadians Abroad

A multinational marathon of a career

By H. Ednie

Simon Handelsman has learned that common-sense approaches go a long way in building trust across borders


Hand crushing of gold ore, Rwamagasa, Tanzania

It is not uncommon in the minerals industry for people’s careers to include considerable international experience. But even by the sector’s globetrotting standards, Simon Handelsman’s career has been a multinational marathon.

As a senior advisor on global issues, Handelsman has been to virtually every corner of the world. Along the way, he has learned that the most important skills for international success are rooted in common sense. After all, it is not so complicated to just listen carefully; to try to understand local cultures, customs and aspirations; and to respect communities and their values.

“Mining is an international business, and has been for a long time — even before globalization,” says Handelsman. He began working overseas early on in his career, when he ran a Vancouver-based consulting service for Rio Tinto.

In 1984, Handelsman was recruited as a technical advisor by the United Nations. Over the next decade, he spent at least 40 per cent of his time abroad in developing countries. “I was a roving consultant, part of a team offering advice on a wide range of mining activities,” he explains. His work touched a number of fields, including project finance, due diligence, evaluation, appraisal and selection, mining engineering, sustainable development and, more recently, human rights, ethics and corporate social responsibility.

“We were a full-service technology transfer group, and also ran workshops and seminars,” he says. “Back then, it was not fashionable to be doing such work overseas. Now, everybody is doing it; but at the time, we were simply meeting a need.”

The need was as enormous as it was varied. In Nepal, at a lead-zinc prospect near the Sino-Nepalese border, Handelsman’s team defined a feasibility study. In China, they helped the government develop a project to introduce modern processing, management and interpretation methods for exploration-related geophysical data. In Morocco, they developed a computerized mine title management system. At a rock salt and potash site in Thailand, the team evaluated the potash resources, assisted with policy development and negotiation, executed a bankable study, conducted test mining and undertook market studies. In Mali, they identified the nine-kilometre-long Syamaan anomalous area with a regional geochemistry exploration program led by UN chief technical adviser Michel Atger, a French geochemist, conducted statistical analysis and helped negotiate a concession. They also helped upgrade North Korea’s steel drill bit manufacturing capacity to support the local mining industry. In Tanzania, they helped establish a national mineral data bank.

Handelsman returned to Tanzania with the Global Mercury Project, an effort to introduce social and economic strategies as ways of reducing mercury pollution from artisanal and small-scale mining by alleviating extreme poverty.  His task was to obtain information from local sources about  the quantities of mercury entering the country, formal and informal distribution channels and end uses. Similar work took him to Brazil, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

With all these assignments, Handelsman realized that what happens in the field is very different from what people tell you in the office. It was only by keeping an open mind and engaging the local people that he could fill in the gaps between office-generated data and field-based reality. “For example, once in northeast Cambodia, we learned that small-scale gemstone mining was dangerous,” he recalls. The source of the danger was not one that is often encountered at any Canadian mine. “Cobras inhabited the area and would slip down the holes,”

Handelsman explained. “They would get quite annoyed when disturbed.” Not even a travel-hardened mining man like Handelsman wanted to annoy a Cambodian cobra. “But the local people were happily collecting the stones and even showed us some of the gems they had gathered. Local information is invaluable for risk assessment.”

Handelsman feels that the one thing to be done that could greatly assist Canadians working abroad is to improve the overall reputation of Canadian companies operating overseas. “This situation needs serious attention — not just a public relations effort, but true behavioural change,” he says. “Yes, many Canadian companies are doing great things globally. But you’re always judged by the worst performer.”

Handelsman does his best to act as a good diplomat representing Canadian mining. His approach with local communities is simple. He explains what he is doing and what the project he is working on entails. He shows genuine interest in the local people’s persuasions and aspirations, and makes sure to not come across as giving orders. “You have to build trust and remove distrust,” he declares, adding, “It is common sense; but common sense isn’t very common.”

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