In an area reaching from the northeast of Namibia to the northwest of Botswana, the Canadian company ReconAfrica is opening up a new oil and gas frontier. Civil society organizations from both countries have called for an immediate halt of oil and gas exploration as ReconAfrica’s planned megaproject would cause immense harm to local communities and the region’s rich wildlife.
ReconAfrica is searching for oil in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Nature Conservation Area (KAZA), a protected and ecologically fragile area. The KAZA reaches across the borders of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and is nearly twice as large as the United Kingdom. The Okavango River flows right through the KAZA. Its water originates as seasonal rain in Angola’s highlands. In Botswana, the Okavango River fans out into the Kalahari Desert to form the Okavango Delta. The Okavango Delta transforms this otherwise dry area into a waterlogged wetland that provides vital water resources for animals, plants and over one million people.14611 The Okavango Delta is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
ReconAfrica is exploring for oil in an area that is sacred to the indigenous San. The San have lived in Southern Africa, including the lands around the Okavango River, for thousands of years. Historically, as hunter-gatherer societies, they lived off the resources the land provides.14613 Although many San have lost access to their lands as a result of European colonization, the Okavango River Basin still remains their sacred traditional homeland.14615 Today, many dispossessed San communities rely on subsistence farming, hunting or jobs in the tourism sector to support themselves. In 2020, several San leaders embarked on a 300-mile “Walk to save the Okavango Delta” and petition the governments of Namibia and Botswana to halt drilling for oil and gas in the Okavango Region.14617 San communities say they do not want ReconAfrica’s project on their ancestral lands and worry that it could destroy the water, plants and animals their livelihoods depend on.14615
In total, more than 200,000 people live in the area that falls under ReconAfrica’s exploration licenses in the Kavango Basin.14619 Many locals only learned about the company’s plans when ReconAfrica began drilling.14621 The Canadian company started its work without the knowledge or approval of local communities.1461914623 In the rare cases where ReconAfrica provided information, it did so only in English, not in people’s native language.14625
Ever since ReconAfrica launched its project in the Okavango Region, local people report that the company disregards national and local regulations.14623 The chairperson of the Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy, Thomas Muronga, said that ReconAfrica drilled illegally within the conservancy borders.14619 In the George Mukoya conservancy, the company has reportedly constructed a road through an intact forest without the necessary permits.14623 To stop the criticism, the company is getting creative. In September 2021, ReconAfrica offered jobs to Thomas Muronga and Max Muyemburuko, two outspoken critics of the project. They both turned down the offer, which they saw as an attempt to silence them.14619 A Nigerian farmer family has also launched a lawsuit against ReconAfrica for clearing their land without their permission.14627 In the United States, investors have taken ReconAfrica to court over environmentally reckless drilling plans and the lack of consultation of local communities in Namibia and Botswana.14629
Today, the Okavango River is a lifeline for the big five animal species: elephants, buffalos, rhinos, lions and leopards. The world's largest remaining population of endangered savanna elephants lives in the region, next to giraffes, zebras, antelopes, pangolins, 400 bird species and over 1,000 plant species.14631 The unique wildlife attracts tourists from near and far.
Local communities and environmental groups are concerned what the region around the Okavango River will look like if ReconAfrica continues exploration and launches commercial oil production in the Kavango Basin. Drill rigs, connecting pipelines, pumping stations and access roads would fragment the region, disrupt hunting territories and obstruct migration routes.14633 Income from tourism will dwindle as tourists will not want to visit an industrialized oil landscape. In the worst case, an oil spill could pollute the Okavango River and ultimately also the Okavango Delta.14619 Noise, infrastructure construction, toxic chemicals and oil spills from ReconAfrica’s project threaten one of the world’s most magnificent ecosystems as well as the people who depend on it.
In 2020, ReconAfrica published its plan to extract the Kavango Basin’s oil and gas through fracking.1463514637 Fracking is especially controversial because it uses pressurized, water-based, toxic chemicals to release fossil fuels deep underground. Fracking consumes gigantic amounts of water, increases the risk of earthquakes and frequently contaminates ground and surface water. It can poison humans, animals and entire food chains.14639 In the face of massive protests, the Canadian company felt compelled to state that “there is no intention for any fracking activities”, but it’s hard to believe that fracking is truly off the table for ReconAfrica.14641
The wave of protest that the indigenous San have started keeps on growing.14645 Indigenous groups, Fridays for Future Windhoek, Frack Free Namibia and Botswana, Saving Okavango’s Unique Life (SOUL) and groups all around the world are campaigning against the megaproject. As a result of tireless protests by community leaders and local, national and international environmental groups, UNESCO announced that it plans to look into the potential effects of oil & gas exploration on the Okavango Delta World Heritage Site.14647
Although ReconAfrica has begun to drill exploration wells, it is not yet too late to stop its plans to open up a new oil and gas frontier in Namibia and Botswana. Financial institutions must stay away from ReconAfrica, a company whose oil and gas megaproject threatens indigenous groups, local communities and fragile ecosystems in the unique Okavango Region.
Groups working on oil extraction in the Okavango Region: Frack Free Namibia, Fridays For Future Windhoek, The Green Connection, SOUL Alliance, Green Bishop of Safcei, Kavango East and West Regional Conservancy and Community Forestry Association, Andy Gheorghiu Consulting, WWF Namibia, Women's Leadership Centre, Legal Assistance Centre and many more.