The first meeting between BASF executives and community representatives from the Changshou district of Chongqing, China, went an hour over schedule last month. Participants say the encounter proceeded smoothly, enhancing BASF’s chance of winning hearts and minds in a region where it just started construction of a $1.2 billion facility that will produce methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI), a component of polyurethane foam.
The project is controversial. Environmental activists are concerned that the plant poses a risk to Chongqing residents and the nearby Yangtze River. In Changshou, opinions of the chemical industry are negative, partly because local farmers were forced off their land to make way for earlier chemical plants and partly because of pollution caused by facilities already in the area (C&EN, Aug. 1, page 20).
None of this controversy was evident at a dinner hosted by BASF for participants in the first meeting of the project’s Community Advisory Panel. Community representatives sitting on the CAP repeatedly exchanged toasts with BASF representatives.
“The CAP is a good initiative that I hope other companies in this area will follow,” Xiaoping Chen, a community representative and editor at the Changshou Daily News, told C&EN.
Yingjun Zhou, a former farmer who lost his land to the chemical industry and is now unemployed, sounded moderately optimistic. “I decided to take part because I am interested in environmental issues,” he said. “Today was just the first meeting, and I still have a lot of questions about technical issues that I don’t understand.” The land seizures by the government, he acknowledged, are not related to BASF’s project.
Dengming Wu, a Chongqing-based environmentalist who until recently had been critical of BASF’s investment, saluted the company’s initial community outreach effort. “BASF has taken a very good first step,” he said. His colleague, Jian Zhao of the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), noted that BASF considered the demographics of the Changshou area when selecting CAP members.
“There’s a medical doctor, a media representative, an unemployed person, several women. It’s not exactly as we recommended, but it’s convincing,” Zhao said. Both Wu and Zhao observed the CAP meeting.
BASF selected CAP members after inviting written applications from area residents. The Chongqing CAP is BASF’s second in China. In 2007, the company set one up in the Gaoqiao section of Shanghai, where it operates plants producing engineering plastics and specialty chemicals.
CAP members in Chongqing understand what the panel is supposed to do, said Christian Tragut, general manager of BASF Polyurethanes in Chongqing. “I am impressed by the level of interest, by how much the community wants to understand this project,” he told C&EN. The inaugural meeting took a particularly long time, he noted, because many procedural issues had to be sorted out.
At the dinner, Tragut stood for an impromptu speech that emphasized the importance of the polyurethane project. “Our plant will serve as a nucleus for the industrial development of the whole Chongqing region,” he said. “We need your personal commitment to this project.” BASF invited the CAP’s chairman and vice chairman, and a few other panel members chosen by lottery, to visit its facilities in Antwerp, Belgium; and Ludwigshafen, Germany, to gain a better understanding of MDI production.
Environmental protests are becoming increasingly common in China. Last month, large demonstrations in the northeast city of Dalian forced the closure of a Chinese-owned p-xylene plant.
“Local residents can be quite skeptical of information coming from a company press release or the government,” said Laura Ediger, environmental manager at the Hong Kong office of BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. “In view of the large-scale protests taking place in China over the last few years related to chemical plants, some companies have decided to take a more proactive approach to engagement.”
In the past, Ediger noted, engagement with local communities would primarily consist of dealing directly with the government, which would also be expected to take care of any local issues or complaints, including protesters.
For companies that make an effort to engage community leaders, it’s a challenge to select who is actually influential. “In other parts of the world, it may be easier for companies to identify appropriate community groups and NGOs,” Ediger said. “But in China, civil society is structured differently, and it can be more challenging to find the types of people or groups you would want to involve in a community relations program.”
It may no longer be enough for chemical companies in China to rely on the government to manage community relations. But as its presence in China grows, BASF is demonstrating that it’s possible to deal directly with local communities.