Paradise lost?

A vast area of Namibia and Botswana is under threat from oil and gas exploration. Devastating consequences are feared for the people, wildlife and natural environment. Graeme Green reports on the fight to keep Kavango alive.

Home under threat: Endangered savanna elephants have a migratory corridor in the Kavango region. A CURIOUS APE

‘The destruction is unimaginable,’ says Nnimmo Bassey, director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation. ‘It’s going to be huge. If Namibia goes in the direction they’re moving, it will be terrible for local people, for the African continent and for the planet.’

Bassey is one of many campaigners fighting to save the pristine ecosystems of Namibia and Botswana’s Kavango Region, a ‘natural paradise’ that contains remarkable biodiversity. Canadian oil and gas company ReconAfrica has claimed that the Kavango Basin holds 120 billion barrels of oil. The company has secured exploration licenses covering a total of 34,325 square kilometres in northeast Namibia and northwest Botswana and plans to create an oil and gas field the size of Belgium, taking in the buffer zones of three Namibian National Parks, community conservancy lands and forests.

African and international activists and organizations, including Fridays For Future Windhoek, SOUL (Save Okavango’s Unique Life) and Greenpeace are calling for ReconAfrica’s fossil fuel exploration in Kavango to stop, envisaging a disaster. Celebrities such as Djimon Hounsou and Leonardo DiCaprio have joined the campaign, alongside local indigenous and civil society leaders. Kavango East and Kavango West in northern Namibia are currently home to around 200,000 people, including the indigenous San, with the wider threatened area, encompassing the Okavango Delta, providing livelihoods for more than one million people.

The region’s wildlife is also under threat. Test wells in Namibia have already been drilled in a migratory corridor used by 18,000 endangered savanna elephants. There are just 130,000 elephants left across Botswana and Namibia – one-third of the amount remaining on the African continent. Savanna elephants were recently listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, marked out as needing urgent protection.

If the land is destroyed, we’ll be homeless. We depend on it for survival. Coronavirus is already killing us, and we will not let drilling for oil and gas do the same

ReconAfrica has acquired licenses to explore a vast area which is also home to many other endangered species, such as African wild dogs, black and white rhinos, Temminck’s pangolins and Martial eagles. ‘Oil activity and destruction affects the environment and wildlife right from the period of exploration,’ says Bassey, a former director of Friends of the Earth. ‘The test drilling and collection of seismic data affects the survival of wildlife. Some will migrate elsewhere, some will die.’

Along with roads, pipelines and constructions that will fragment the landscape, campaigners predict fatal levels of pollution which will threaten all forms of life. Chemicals used in fracking are known to contaminate water supplies and there is the risk of oil spills, as well as air pollution from gas flaring. ‘It’s suicide to risk the water source,’ argues Namibian activist Ina-Maria Shikongo of Fridays For Future Windhoek. ‘In Namibia, we’ve been experiencing droughts. Food security’s a real issue. Three quarters of the country is desert. Kavango is one area that has water all year. This will also impact Botswana, Angola, the whole region. If the water source is taken away, wildlife won’t survive. The San people won’t have anything to hunt or forage, and the water won’t be drinkable. It will kill everything around it.’

Water contamination, environmental destruction and the loss of wildlife are life-and-death issues for the San people. ‘We’re worried it will destroy the land we use for farming and getting medicines,’ says Menesia Kandombe, a San woman from Mutjiku village in Kavango East. ‘If the land is destroyed, we’ll be homeless. Everyone in Namibia knows we depend on the land for survival. Coronavirus is already killing us, and we will not let drilling for oil and gas do the same.’

Fearful future

ReconAfrica claims industrialization will bring jobs and economic benefits to the region, without harming the environment. Bassey, who’s based in Nigeria, points to the Niger Delta as a prime example of what should actually be expected. ‘It’s one of the most contaminated places on Earth,’ he says. ‘We have very low life expectancy in the Niger Delta, 41 years, because of six decades of oil contamination. There’s contamination of land, air, water and soil.

‘The people of the Kavango region can expect to have a totally new reality,’ he continues. ‘When oil companies began to exploit the Niger Delta, the stories people were sold on were exactly the same as the promises ReconAfrica are selling to the people of Namibia and Botswana. They promise improvement of life, social services, roads, education, health facilities. But all these promises don’t play out. And even if they did, it doesn’t make sense to provide health services if you’re also poisoning the people.’

The oil and gas industry has already delivered environmental destruction in many African countries, alongside wealth inequality and an increase in human rights abuses and violence. ‘With any kind of extreme extraction activities, bringing in teams of workers will destabilize communities,’ Bassey says. ‘It may look like they’ll bring in economic activity but it will bring total destruction. It will increase inequality, increase poverty.’

‘We have a saying: “where there’s oil, there’s war”,’ says Shikongo. ‘People are afraid that when they find oil, war is coming to Namibia. Just like it is in Mozambique. Look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya… oil-rich countries. You see it in Nigeria, Mozambique, Angola... Where there’s oil, there’s often instability.

‘Fossil fuel extraction has generated conflict across Africa,’ Bassey adds. ‘Oil companies ask for a buffer zone where local people don’t have access, so you’re going to have militarization of Kavango, where communities won’t get any access to natural resources in areas of drilling or fossil fuel infrastructure. There will be a marked increase in poverty because people who depend on natural resources will no longer have access to them. The resources are controlled by politicians in the capital.’

Who can be trusted?

The fossil fuel exploration plans for Kavango are a continuation of centuries of colonialism, Bassey argues, as outside companies extract Africa’s natural resources with little benefit to the continent’s citizens. ‘All the pipelines go to seaports to feed markets outside Africa. This plays out in a way that’s attractive to politicians who use measures, such as GDP, to tell the world they’re making progress, but it’s just a cover for global exploitation.’

It is also feared that industry corruption will mean only a few leaders and powerful people will profit. ‘We also have diamonds, gold, uranium… People are mining but poverty has been going up,’ explains Shikongo.

Namibia is still reeling from the recent ‘fishrot’ scandal. Six men, including former Namibian fisheries minister Bernhardt Esau and justice minister Sacky Shanghala are awaiting trial over allegations they took $15 million in bribes from Icelandic fishing company Samherji. In 2021, Namibian president Hage Geingob was also implicated in new allegations of corruption involving the country’s fishing industry.

ReconAfrica are known to have hired Knowledge Katti, a friend of Geingob with a long history as a ‘middleman’ in mining and energy deals in Namibia, according to a 2021 report from Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. ReconAfrica’s chair Jay Park initially denied any relationship with Katti, but the company later admitting to hiring him in 2020. In addition to awarding ReconAfrica oil rights, Namibian officials have issued public statements in favour of their exploration activities. ‘What surprises me most in Namibia is that the process that led to exploration was not inclusive, people weren’t consulted, and it wasn’t commenced with the approval of the people,’ says Bassey.

ReconAfrica is facing increasing criticism for failing to implement sufficient environmental protections and operating without required permits. Activists and geologists also suspect that the company has exaggerated its ‘finds’, saying the estimate of 120 billion barrels of oil is not supported by evidence. Sproule International Limited, an independent engineering firm, estimate the prospective oil resources at a much lower 1.04 billion barrels. ‘The value of the Kavango Basin’s estimated recoverable hydrocarbons is highly contested,’ explains Matt Totten Jr, an oil and gas expert working with SOUL. ‘When you analyse all the publicly available data critically, myself and the local Namibian geological community believe that no deep basin exists in the Kavango and that there isn’t any commercial hydrocarbon potential in northeast Namibia.’

A whistleblower report has been filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the US, alleging that ReconAfrica has fraudulently misled investors in order to drive up its stock price. The company’s value increased from $191 million at the start of 2021 to more than one billion dollars in May. Following the allegations, several law firms are preparing class-action lawsuits against ReconAfrica.

ReconAfrica has denied that it plans to carry out fracking. But campaigners believe this is dishonest as the company has been telling investors that fracked oil should be considered as part of their stock price valuation. Multiple fracking experts have been hired to work for ReconAfrica, including Dan Jarvie, known as the ‘father of modern fracking’. ‘It’s very apparent that the current exploration project is aimed at shale gas, as initially indicated in ReconAfrica’s reports and publicity brochures,’ says Jan Arkert, a geologist working with SOUL. ‘It’s also deceitful to be declaring success to investors before basic geophysical and petroleum testing has been concluded. ReconAfrica’s activity in Kavango is like a neurosurgeon performing brain surgery without using an MRI, CT scan or X-ray – and declaring the procedure a success before the patient has even been anaesthetized.’

Andreas Mawano lives with his family near ReconAfrica’s drill site, near Rundu in the Namibian region of Kavango East. JOHN GROBLER


Campaigners are calling for an immediate moratorium on all oil and gas activities in Kavango. In June, there were protests in cities around the world, including Windhoek, London, Berlin, Pretoria and Vancouver. Shikongo and other campaigners also went to Namibia’s National Assembly to make their case. Their petition argued that ReconAfrica’s oil and gas play is a ‘carbon bomb’ which jeopardizes attempts to limit global heating to 1.5°C and that it’s inconsistent for Namibia and Botswana’s governments to claim to be reducing emissions and upholding the Paris Agreement while letting the project go ahead. ‘What happens in Kavango won’t stay in Kavango,’ she warns.

‘Oil, gas and coal should be left in the ground,’ argues Bassey. ‘ReconAfrica may be trying to assure their shareholders they have something to look forward to. But this is completely moving in the wrong direction. They’re just going to destroy the ecosystem, destroy wildlife, harm communities, and then leave stranded assets and stranded communities.’

Campaigners hope for a global response, as seen with the Alberta Tar Sands in Canada and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. ‘Many environmental crimes have been committed in Africa, in the Niger Delta, South Sudan, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo… because global media don’t pay attention to what’s going on here,’ Bassey says. ‘There’s an ecocide going on across the continent. If we have a sufficient spotlight, we stand a chance of getting leaders in Namibia and other African countries to realize this is a wrong area to invest in.’

Keeping Kavango alive will be an uphill battle. ‘I’m a Namibian. It’s my water they’re threatening and my rights,’ says Shikongo. ‘We are the local people saying we don’t want it. But it will be very difficult to stop. We’re fighting people who will lose a lot of money if we win.’

Shikongo hopes to see an alternative future for her country. ‘If we invested in solar energy, we’d become global leaders. We have wildlife and the potential to build up tourism. I also want us to invest in real solutions, such as farming. I want real development that’s sustainable, that respects nature, that looks at how we can live with our environment and still create a better standard of living for our people. We have that potential.’