Mentors of Akordi: Merrick Hoben and how he inspires us

As Akordi celebrates its tenth anniversary this December we’d like to pause and give thanks to our international colleagues for their support. Right at the time when Akordi was founded in 2013, our mentor Merrick Hoben, the director of the Washington office of the US Consensus Building Institute (CBI), came to Finland to support the dissemination of the novel ideas and approaches Lasse and Jonna had learned at CBI. Merrick was the first person to be invited to join Akordi’s advisory board

We have benefited from Merrick’s invaluable insights on mediation, the characteristics of public disputes, and the importance of carefully-considered representation and building a shared knowledge base. We want to share this valuable information by republishing a news post from ten years ago outlining Merrick Hoben’s key insights and advice for Finland, along with a video of Merrick’s keynote speech a decade later, on the occasion of Akordi’s 10th anniversary in 2023




Below you find our news post on Merrick’s visit to Finland from 7.1.2014 (originally published in Finnish)


US Environmental Mediation Professional visits Finland

In the eyes of Merrick Hoben, a US-based expert in environmental mediation, Helsinki’s December grayness took on an exotic and intriguing charm during his first visit to Finland. Merrick, the director of the Washington office of the Consensus Building Institute (CBI), was invited as the keynote speaker for a seminar and workshop organized under the Sustainable Acceptable Mining project, part of TEKES’s Green Mining program.

During the seminar, Merrick shared insights from his work in places like Nigeria and Mongolia, where he has successfully resolved complex conflicts between local communities and multinational corporations. However, his expertise lies in corporate stakeholder engagement, a field that goes beyond international peace negotiations. What does corporate stakeholder engagement have to do with mediation? A lot.

Merrick is often called in proactively, before situations escalate into conflicts. His role is to create a framework for discussion and facilitate processes that lead to mutually acceptable solutions for all parties involved. Importantly, his approach is both reactive, addressing past injustices and damages, and proactive, organizing future collaborations and planning extensive projects that take both community and corporate concerns seriously, seeking acceptable resolutions and commitments.

The Characteristics of Public Disputes

Conflicts between large companies and local communities in resource-based industries such as energy, forestry, and mining aren’t just about the distribution of economic benefits and environmental damage. They can also emerge around the acceptability of planning and decision-making processes and the reliability of studies and impact assessments. Trust between companies and communities can be nonexistent or very fragile in these situations, often requiring the intervention of an external professional specializing in public disputes, termed “environment and public policy mediation” in English. In Finland, the term “ympäristösovittelu” has been used to emphasize that public disputes often manifest in people’s immediate surroundings.

Sometimes, the only way to resolve disputes between corporations and local communities is to construct a confidential forum where the underlying interests and needs behind entrenched positions can be brought to light. Parties can then collaboratively explore concrete ways to reconcile conflicting needs. Despite shared fundamental principles, mediation in environmental and other public legal disputes differs in certain aspects from mediation between individuals.

Representation and Its Organization

Natural resource, land use, and other environmental conflicts involve multiple stakeholders, each with at least partially legitimate claims. Challenges arise because some parties represent only themselves as individuals, while many represent interest entities, such as the state, a company, or a non-governmental organization. Addressing representation is a crucial aspect of an environmental mediation professional’s skill set: determining which entities need to be involved and who has the authority to represent them. If a key stakeholder is ignored, or the representative is not empowered, the outcome of the process may be undermined.

Collaborative Decision-Making Requires a Shared Knowledge Base

Will large companies voluntarily engage in such interaction and mediation processes? Yes and no. Increasingly, global companies understand that the acceptability of their operations is a necessary condition for profitable business. This is also influenced by international corporate sponsors who require projects to have a genuine Social License to Operate (SLO), which can only arise through interaction with the local communities. For instance, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) requires compliance with certain SLO standards. One of IFC’s standards requires obtaining “free informed consent” from indigenous peoples if a project affects them (e.g., potential mining projects in Sami areas).

In the case of large groups, informed consent is often based on sufficient, comprehensible information that is commonly accepted as trustworthy. Sometimes, it is even necessary to develop new measurement methods that all groups find reliable. Constructing a shared knowledge base during the negotiation process is referred to as ‘joint fact finding.’ This aspect of producing information that parties feel is necessary to make informed decisions is an important characteristic of mediation.

New Initiatives in Finland

Finnish participants in the seminar led by Merrick found CBI’s international experiences and insights to be fresh and valuable. After the Talvivaara mining disaster, Finland has come to realize that new approaches are needed, especially in the interactions between mining companies and local communities. These approaches can be implemented by adapting existing practices tested elsewhere to the Finnish context. This work is still in its early stages. Merrick Hoben is part of the advisory group for Akordi Oy, the first Finnish company specializing in environmental and public dispute resolution services.