A staggering 120 billion barrels of black gold are claimed to lie untapped beneath the semi-desert wilderness that straddles the Namibia-Botswana frontier. It’s been heralded as a get-out-of-poverty-quick card for these small, underdeveloped nations. But as exploration licenses begin to be issued, questions are being raised over how much oil really lies under the southern African sands, and what impact trying to find it could have on the wildlife, the half-a-billion safari industry and local farming communities alike. By Britt Collins.
Namibian farmers and activists have joined forces with over 200 wildlife and environmental groups to call a halt to a proposed oilfield spanning one of Africa’s last great wildernesses.
Canadian oil-and-gas company ReconAfrica has attracted global outrage over its decision to drill exploratory wells close to the Okavango Delta, a Unesco World Heritage wetland home to a quarter of the world’s elephants.
The company claims that its wells are more than 150 miles (260km) west of the Okavango Delta, in the semi-desert Kalahari region that straddles the Namibia-Botswana border.
But conservationists and local residents say it’s close enough and an oil discovery would mean further encroachment on wildlands and communities.
They are concerned about what the prospect of sprawling oilfields in Namibia and Botswana might do to one of the most untouched wild places left in the world.
They warn it could seriously endanger migrating savanna elephants and other vulnerable wildlife, as well as threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people who live on the land.
‘At a time when wildlife populations have plummeted and Africa’s elephants are critically endangered, we must do all we can to protect them,’ said Rosemary Alles, co-founder of the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos campaign group.
‘ReconAfrica’s actions represent a clear and present danger to wildlife and an ancient ecosystem that is a haven to the earth’s last and largest herd of wild elephants.’
‘We have to get this stopped to protect the largest nature reserve on earth,’ said Ina-Maria Shikongo, Namibian activist from Fridays for Future Windhoek, an environmental group which has led a long-running public campaign against the project.'
‘Local and international cooperation is needed because this does not affect just us here, but everyone, everywhere.'
‘ReconAfrica says there is the potential to extract 120 billion barrels of oil from this field. Can you imagine what all the build-up of toxins, from that, the emissions, everything, is going to do to already rising global temperatures?’
More than a quarter of Africa's elephants live in the Okavango ecosystem.
Some experts doubt that petroleum exists in the region. ‘We don’t believe there’s oil or gas, other than trace elements,’ said Chris Brown of the Namibian Chamber of the Environment.
‘The sediments aren’t deep or thick enough. Only in deep marine basins do you get sediments that convert to oil and gas.
‘The geologists in Namibia are deeply sceptical about the whole exploration,’ he added.
‘The fact that they drilled first and did seismic work second. They should be doing the seismic work first, see what’s there and then positioning their draw.’
Actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, who criticised the project as ‘a threat to a beautiful piece of wild Africa’, has been sharing concerns about the project’s potential impact on wildlife with his 90 million-plus social-media followers.
American congressmen have also pressed for a US government investigation into the danger that a potential spill could pose to the wildlife, people and the environment in the region.
Last month, US senator Patrick Leahy and congressman Jeff Fortenberry appealed to the secretary of state and the attorney general pressing for a ‘full investigation of the project under the Defending Economic Livelihoods and Threatened Animals (DELTA) Act’, which is designed to protect areas like the Okavango Delta.
‘Africa is not a border to be exploited,’ said congressman Fortenberry, author of DELTA, co-chair of the International Conservation Caucus, and member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Affairs.
‘This area in particular is one of the most pristine ecosystems in the world and irreplaceable.’
An exploratory well in Namibia.
ReconAfrica’s exploration licenses in northern Namibia and Botswana covers 13,500 square miles (35,000 sq km) of land in an ecologically sensitive, semi-arid region.
It borders three national parks upstream of the Okavango Delta wetlands and stretches across 11 community-run reserves, one World Heritage Site and part of the largest protected area in southern Africa, the Kavango-Zambezi Trans-frontier Conservation Area (KAZA).
The region is a refuge for some 130,000 elephants – more than a quarter of the world’s remaining elephants.
Some of Africa’s most threatened wildlife also roam the red sands and golden grasslands of this protected corner, including black and white rhinos, pangolins, painted wild dogs, lions, leopards, sable antelopes and more than 25 other species that have been variously classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as ‘critically endangered’ or ‘vulnerable’.
Neil Greenwood, regional director of International Fund for Animal Welfare Southern Africa (IFAW), told NewsAfrica: ‘IFAW is concerned allowing oil and gas exploration in one of the world’s most delicate ecosystems is putting the main water source serving thousands of people and wildlife at risk, including the Okavango Delta.
‘Allowing such actions within critical protected areas potentially creates a precedent which undermines conservation efforts in favour of economic gains.’
Stretching across both countries, the Okavango ecosystem is a cornerstone of Namibia and Botswana’s sustainable tourism economy, bringing in around $500 million a year.
In Namibia in particular, community-owned eco-tourism has proven popular with local people and accounts for 15 percent of the GDP.
Conservationists and locals warn large-scale oilfields would threaten the industry’s very existence and hurt communities that depend on tourism for a living: scaring away the animals and making them vulnerable to poaching.
The project has already impacted local communities, including the Kavango people, who make a living from farming, fishing and tourism, and have lived in harmony with their environment for many years.
Many are angry about being left in the dark about development on their land and are scared the rigs will poison their scarce water supply.
As the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has pointed out, hundreds of working farms fall within ReconAfrica’s drilling remit. In a recent press release, the group said that it was ‘far from transparent how, or indeed if, these communities are being consulted’.
Community members in the exploration area allege ReconAfrica cleared land for drilling without properly consulting or compensating local people, according to a lawsuit filed in Namibia’s High Court in April by the Legal Assistance Centre.
Andreas Sinonge, alongside other farming families, is suing the company for allegedly squatting illegally on their land. Sinonge told the Namibian Sun that the works have razed a large forested area and crop fields on his farm, which has been in his family’s possession since before Namibia’s independence in 1990.
ReconAfrica deny these allegations, claiming they have carried out community consultations, ‘gone above and beyond what is required’, and obtained permission to use the land from the Shambyu Traditional Authority.
Willem Odendaal, a human-rights lawyer, blames the disagreement on Namibia’s poor regulatory framework.
‘The government can ride roughshod over people’s land rights and access to natural resources,’ said the former director of the Legal Assistance Centre, a public-interest law firm based in the capital Windhoek.
He added: ‘In the Namibian constitution, everything below the soil belongs to the state, unless otherwise owned. There are some guidelines to how people can be compensated [if their land is taken], but these are very poor guidelines and there’s not strong enough legislation to protect environmental rights.’
Farmers and ranchers are also concerned about drilling affecting the water supply.
Brown of the Namibian Chamber of the Environment agrees that the country’s opaque land rights’ laws have added to the confusion in this case.
‘They got permission from the regional counsellor, who doesn’t have authority over allocating land,’ he said.
‘Normally if there’s an impact on people, we follow best international practice in terms of compensating people.’
According to Brown, this should include meeting the people affected, talking things through, agreeing a price, finding them new land and compensating them ‘to move, build a new house, [and reimburse them] for their crops and what they’ve lost’.
He added: ‘There have to be independent mediators there to make sure they’ve not being ripped off. And they haven’t done any of that.’
But while there are disputes with local farmers over the way exploration has been carried out, Brown thinks real tension will arise if and when extraction begins.
‘All they’ve been given permission for is to do some geological research to see what’s there and that is a value to Namibia. Right now, there’s not a huge environmental footprint, aside from clearing the bush and taking over people’s land in the area. The thing we are most concerned about is them properly sealing and plugging the holes they’ve drilled.’
A well in neighbouring Angola, one of Africa's major oil-producing regions.
The area’s relatively close proximity to the Okavango Delta has raised concerns about the potential impact of a spill or contamination leaching on to the Unesco World Heritage Site.
Under Namibian law, the company must ‘control the flow and prevent the waste escape or spilling of petroleum, drilling fluid or any other substance from their exploratory well.’
ReconAfrica’s UK spokesman, Chris Gilmour, said in an email that the company ‘is committed to sustainable development and employs industry best practices wherever it operates to protect the environment’ and added that the potential oil boom would ‘lift people out of poverty and bring much-needed economic and social benefits to Namibia’.
He further explained: ‘We are avoiding ecologically sensitive areas, migratory routes and national preserve areas. ReconAfrica has put measures in place to protect the environment by using drilling fluids that are water-based, biodegradable and chloride-free. They would use low-frequency equipment to protect wildlife communications and not operate at night, when elephants typically communicate.’
Environmentalists have dismissed such assurances and claim the intense noise, vibrations and bright lights associated with oilfield activity will disrupt the sleeping, feeding and reproductive cycles of the region’s elephants.
According to scientific studies, when an oil company operated near a national park in Uganda, the local herds, terrified by the seismic blasting, moved further away and shifted to nocturnal activities as a risk-avoidance strategy.
The Namibian government, which is a 10 percent stakeholder in ReconAfrica’s exploration, has been accused of downplaying the risks and issuing public statements in defence of the widespread local and international condemnation.
Odendaal thinks the government’s lack of transparency is troubling.
‘I know some of the people who were doing the [exploration impact assessment]. They were very defensive when they were questioned on these things and eager to silence any criticism against their involvement in the process. Freedom of press here is one of the best on the continent, but when it comes to access to information, Namibia is shut.’
An investigative piece by Canada’s leading newspaper, The Global and Mail, raised questions about ReconAfrica’s connection to Knowledge Katti, a friend of Namibian President Hage Geingob, who has a history of working as a fixer in mining and energy deals with foreign multinationals.
Jay Park, ReconAfrica’s chairman, initially told The Globe and Mail that their company had no involvement with Katti. But a company spokesperson later confirmed that Katti was ‘briefly engaged as a media relations consultant for ReconAfrica in Namibia, starting in October 2020’.
Up to 120 billion barrels of oil are claimed to lie under the Kalahari's sands.
Despite public concerns from locals about the consequences of having fossil-fuel extraction in their backyard, the Namibian government continues to argue the project could transform the fortunes of the country.
The governor of Kavango East province, Bonifasius Wakudumo, defends the move: ‘The socioeconomic impacts of exploratory drilling will result in the employment of locals, along with other benefits, such as new water wells for remote communities and “humanitarian aid” from wealthy oil companies.’
Some locals in the rural areas are hopeful the project will bring jobs.
Johannes Kangoro, a headman from a village in the exploration area, told Sky News: ‘You educated people who already have comfortable lives, you want to restrict development here. That means we will stay poor and probably die poor.’
Others though, like activist Rinaani Musutua, said promises of employment are misleading. ‘Some communities are so desperate and think that ReconAfrica is bringing jobs.
‘To give people the impression that they are creating jobs, they are employing people for only a few weeks on short-term contracts.’
The Namibian Chamber of the Environment’s Chris Brown believes that while oil extraction could theoretically boost Namibia and Botswana’s standard of living, it is unlikely to. ‘If you look at a country like Norway and maybe Scotland and the UK, you could say the North Sea oil has made a big contribution to the welfare of the country. In Africa there have been very few countries where rich resources have actually benefited the population. It’s stolen by the elite and contributes to corruption. Then you have people losing their basic livelihoods and their subsistence farming. No one tends to generally care about that.’
It's this fear over what could go wrong that has concerned many locals.
Shikongo, whose Fridays For Future Windhoek campaign group has dubbed the potential oilfields a ‘carbon gigabomb’, believes the risks outweigh the rewards: ‘This project will only generate an income for very few, but it will take away the livelihoods of millions. The oil needs to be kept in the ground.’
Many from the San community fear the impact of drilling on their way of life.
The drilling area is the sacred homeland of the San, the first inhabitants of southern Africa who have historically been victims of displacement, persecution and genocide both during the colonial era and after independence.
The San communities are worried about losing their land rights, ability to farm, as well income from community conservancies where many are employed in well-paying roles such as trackers and guides.
Earlier this year South African San youth leader Craig Q7 Beckett and six other San leaders walked over 300 miles (480km) to protest ReconAfrica’s exploration for oil and handed a petition to the Namibian Consulate in Cape Town.
‘As the custodians of this land for thousands of years, and the rightful current inhabitants and custodians of this land,’ the petition read, ‘we have never been consulted, nor have we given the go-ahead to any entities to prospect for oil and gas in our lands. Any consequent production will irrevocably damage our life-giving water and the fragile ecosystem we depend on as a people. The presence of the oil industry will mean the forceful enclosure of land; excluding us and preventing our free movement and that of animals.’
Tribal leaders fear the oilfields would mean further displacement.
In solidarity with the San people, Anglican bishops across the world have signed a petition demanding an immediate end to drilling, saying the ReconAfrica exploration ‘violates the rights of the San people under the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)’.
The petition also noted: ‘With almost unrivalled solar-energy potential, extracting “billions of barrels of oil” makes no sense. Reducing carbon emissions is a global responsibility.’
Meanwhile conservationists and locals worry that a potential oil discovery would eventually lead to fracking, despite ReconAfrica’s repeated denials that it doesn’t intend to apply for fracking licences.
The practice, which involves injecting underground shale with high-pressure fluid to shatter rocks to release oil and gas, requires between 15 and 16 million gallons of water per well, a scarcity in the tinder-dry landscapes of Namibia.
This controversial oil extraction method can lead to the poisoning of water, cause mini-earthquakes, and release greenhouse gasses that fuel climate change.
The company’s London-based spokesman, Gilmour, confirmed that ‘ReconAfrica has no license to carry out fracking,’ adding: ‘No license has been applied for because this is a conventional oil exploration.’
But Jan Arkert, a South Africa-based geologist, believes that ‘fracking will be necessary at some stage to determine the extent of any shale oil or gas reservoir’, and that harmful emissions would inevitably be released into the atmosphere.
Critics of the exploration have also argued that it is inconsistent with the Paris climate change agreement, which aims to cut fossil fuel usage across the globe.
The driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, Namibia has been ravaged by a succession of severe droughts over the past decade that killed thousands of farm animals and wiped out crops, causing food shortages. Many environmentalists have blamed the droughts on climate change and, in particular, the burning of fossil fuels.
Such concerns have led a South African firm of environmental lawyers, Schindlers Eco Forensics, to put pressure on the Canadian government to hold ReconAfrica accountable for what they deem ecologically questionable activities.
In a letter sent to the Canadian prime minister, they argued that the exploration project is contravenes the Paris Agreement and ‘would also place a burden on developed countries like Canada to financially assist Namibia in the mitigation of carbon emissions during and subsequent to the project.’
Schindlers maintained that Canada is just as responsible for the oil development as Namibia itself and will be responsible for the extraction of those fossil fuels and their impact on the global carbon budget.
They are urging Canada to ‘undertake a comprehensive due diligence’ in relation to human and environmental rights. Further arguing that Canada must require companies like ReconAfrica to cease actions which are inconsistent with the Paris Agreement.