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Oil company exploring in sensitive elephant habitat accused of ignoring community concerns

Namibians allege ReconAfrica disposed of wastewater unsafely, without permits, and ignored concerns about potential impact of oil drilling on water and wildlife.
11 min read

BY JEFFREY BARBEE AND LAUREL NEME PUBLISHED MAY 11, 2021 – NATIONAL GEOGAPHIC

ReconAfrica, a Canadian company exploring for oil and gas in Namibia upstream of a world-famous UNESCO World Heritage site that’s home to elephants and other wildlife is disposing of wastewater without permits, according to a government minister. The company is also ignoring local concerns about the impact of exploration and drilling on water supplies, homes, and animals, according to interviews and official comments submitted by members of the public.

There was scant public awareness of ReconAfrica’s plans to search for oil in this region of more than 200,000 people before National Geographic began reporting last October on the risks drilling could pose to water and wildlife.

The company’s 13,200 square-mile license area—about 70 percent of that in Namibia and the rest in Botswana—encompasses part of the vital watershed of the Okavango Delta. One of the largest inland deltas in the world, this fragile, 7,000-square-mile desert wetland lies in northwestern Botswana about 160 miles southeast of ReconAfrica’s first test well. It attracts some 100,000 tourists to high-end lodges each year and holds such a spectacular diversity of wildlife and plants that in 2014 UNESCO added it to its list of World Heritage sites. The delta is home to lions, giraffes, antelopes, wild dogs, martial eagles. Botswana’s 130,000 endangered savanna elephants—Africa’s largest remaining population—roam its lush islands, where they depend on the 2.5 trillion gallons of water that flow in each year from the north and west.

ReconAfrica’s drilling areas also overlap with the continent’s largest multicountry conservation park—the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), which includes land in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe—and six locally managed wildlife reserves in Namibia.

The threat from oil and gas drilling to one of the planet’s most diverse ecosystems “boggles the mind,” Willem Odendaal told National Geographic last year. Odendaal is the former land, environment, and development project coordinator at Namibia’s Legal Assistance Centre, a public interest law firm based in the capital, Windhoek. The roads, pipelines, and construction that come with oil and gas extraction could “negatively affect important animal habitat, migratory pathways, and biodiversity,” according to the World Wildlife Fund. And wringing oil from rocks deep underground requires massive quantities of water, which is already scarce in the region. ReconAfrica’s license area abuts the main river that feeds the Okavango Delta for some 170 miles. Few other water sources are available for people and wildlife during the long dry season in this parched land.

Drilling for the first test well began in January, and waste fluids are being stored in what appears to be an unlined pond, where they could leach into the ground and contaminate the water supply in this desert region, National Geographic reported last month.

Calle Schlettwein, Namibia’s minister of agriculture, water, and land reform, the agency responsible for water-related permits, told National Geographic in a written statement that ReconAfrica does not yet have permits approved to extract water to use in its drilling operations nor to dispose of the waste water, suggesting that the company is operating in breach of Namibian government regulations. In its 2019 environmental assessment, ReconAfrica said it would have all permits in place before work began.

Asked about wastewater disposal, water extraction, and the ministry’s assertion that ReconAfrica has not yet secured the proper permits, spokesman Chris Gilmour, of Beattie Communications, a U.K.-based public relations firm hired by ReconAfrica, didn’t answer directly, but said in an emailed statement that the company “has completed several required permits for its ongoing work and will continue to complete all drilling-related and other permit requirements.”

Beyond the dispute over permits and wastewater disposal, members of the public—both in interviews and in statements submitted officially to company representatives—say ReconAfrica has not taken seriously the requirement to inform and consult the public about its plans. That’s both legally mandated and critical to ensure the voices of the people most likely to be affected by the project are heard, says Annette Hübschle, a Namibian-raised environmental social scientist and senior research fellow with the Global Risk Governance Programme at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

It allows “people to judge for themselves whether oil and gas development is the kind of socio-economic development they are seeking for themselves and their children,” she says. As has happened in Nigeria’s Niger DeltaEcuador, and elsewhere, corporations often “fail dismally in apprising Indigenous peoples and local communities about long-term impacts of resource extraction and the clean-up once extraction processes have been completed.”  

To guard against that, Namibian law requires companies to ensure that members of the public are aware of the proposed project, fully understand it, and have a chance to raise concerns. This can be achieved by newspaper ads, notices on community bulletin boards, and public meetings. (ReconAfrica’s newspaper notices were published in English, the official language, but most Namibians in rural communities affected by the project don’t read or speak English.) Numerous people and advocacy organizations have registered their concern with ReconAfrica representatives that the process has fallen short.

For example, pandemic travel restrictions and health concerns prevented some from attending public meetings, and at those meetings, the number of attendees was capped, says an official comment from Natural Justice, a human rights and environmental law nonprofit that supports Indigenous African communities. Namibia’s lack of broadband infrastructure, especially in the areas covered by ReconAfrica’s exploration license, has also been a barrier to informing Indigenous and rural communities and giving them an opportunity to give feedback, others noted.

Meanwhile, at public meetings, including a contentious hearing in Windhoek, company representatives sidestepped attendees’ questions. The company also canceled other meetings in remote, rural communities without explanation.

Gilmour, ReconAfrica’s spokesman, did not respond to questions about the public consultation process, notices, and meetings, but he said there have been “detailed consultation[s] with local communities and other stakeholders” and that ReconAfrica will “continue to keep an active and collaborative relationship in place with all interested parties.”

Thumping the ground

More recently, ReconAfrica has said it will begin seismic testing if it gets approval—another way to help confirm oil and gas deposits. This involves sending shock waves into the earth by thumping the ground with mobile equipment the manufacturer describes as “better than dynamite.”

Some worry that the vibrations could damage their water wells and mud and brick homes and say ReconAfrica isn’t taking their concerns seriously.

Before the company can begin a seismic survey, it needs to do an environmental assessment that evaluates, among other things, any problems the survey may cause. By law in Namibia, oil and gas projects must solicit input from the public, and concerns raised must be addressed in the assessment’s final report in order to get government approval. On March 26, ReconAfrica released the thousand-plus-page draft of the assessment, prepared by Namibian consultant Sindila Mwiya’s company, Risk-Based Solutions.

Risk-Based Solutions also carried out a 2019 environmental assessment for ReconAfrica’s test wells that was criticized as incomplete and lacking scientific rigor by environmental experts who reviewed it for National Geographic. They lambasted it for—among other things—failing to include field assessments of animals and plants to measure possible effects on wildlife, local communities, archaeological sites, and water.

ReconAfrica invited comment on the project during a public review period from January 7 through February 12, and a number of public meetings were held during that time. Namibian journalist John Grobler said a meeting scheduled in Mbambi on January 23 never took place. The next day when he was traveling to a scheduled meeting in Ncamakora constituency, a ReconAfrica representative told him it had been canceled. But according to the draft assessment for the seismic survey, the Ncamakora meeting was held the day before at Mbambi, where, Grobler says, about a hundred people were waiting for the opportunity to raise their concerns directly with ReconAfrica.

The company is either “confused, poorly organized, or being intentionally misguiding,” Grobler says. 

ReconAfrica spokeswoman Claire Preece and Gilmour did not answer National Geographic’s questions about public meetings.

Max Muyemburuko, chairman of the Muduva Nyangana community-based wildlife conservancy, which lies within ReconAfrica’s exploration area, says the hearing he attended on January 22 in Rundu was so filled with jargon that “no one on the ground can understand the technical terms that Recon is using. We just come from the meeting with no information at all. It is very upsetting.”

Muyemburuko calls the two-hour-long meeting “not a proper consultation,” a concern echoed by many in comments submitted to Risk-Based Solutions. There were only 15 minutes left at the end for questions, “but…they ignored the community’s questions, and they rushed it.”

Later that day, Muyemburuko sent Mwiya, the company’s consultant, an email listing concerns about the seismic testing that he hadn’t been able to ask at the meeting. Muyemburuko cited concerns about potential damage to homes, “many made from mud or light brick and concrete,” close to the roads to be used for the seismic survey. More than a hundred are along the survey lines, satellite imagery on Google Earth shows.

Mwiya’s emailed response was dismissive.

“You are just trying to seek some limelight out of nothing and out of a project that you absolutely do not understand at all,” Mwiya wrote. “It is really sad to see this so low level of ignorant environmental advocacy that you are displaying.” Mwiya went on: “Stupidity and nonsense of the highest level…what is wrong with you?”

“At first I was angry,” Muyemburuko says of Mwiya’s response. “But later I see that it gave [me] motivation to fight for the people on the ground in the Okavango.”

Muyemburuko says he’s worried that the region around his home will end up resembling Nigeria’s highly polluted Niger Delta, where oil drilling caused an environmental and social catastrophe, and resulted in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Nigerian activists who opposed a Shell Oil project in the 1990s.

Muyemburuko says that people warned him about wading into the controversy, and he told National Geographic that he’s afraid. “My life is in danger,” he believes.

A contentious consultation

At the heated public meeting on February 2 in Windhoek, Mwiya and Preece sidestepped attendees’ questions.

Asked about potential damage to homes and water wells from seismic thumper trucks, for example, Preece said the trucks are “not something that stays there,” but didn’t address the question asked.

Preece and Mwiya emphasized that the project is a step-by-step process and that concerns will be addressed as it progresses. Petroleum production is “far, far away,” Mwiya said. Trying to calm an audience that was growing increasingly frustrated, he said, “We don’t even know that the [oil and gas] basin exists.”

That comment contradicts the company’s own statements and investor presentations. ReconAfrica has described its license area in Namibia and Botswana to investors as “one of the largest onshore undeveloped hydrocarbon basins in the world.”

Ina-Maria Shikongo, Namibian coordinator of Fridays for Future, a global climate youth movement inspired by the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, said the officials’ obfuscation at the meeting and in emails was insulting. At one point during the meeting, she declared, “We were bullied by Dr. Sindila [Mwiya].” (In comments submitted to Risk-Based Solutions, others also noted similar experiences with Mwiya.)

Mwiya did not respond to National Geographic’s questions about the consultative process or accusations of bias and bullying.

It’s “very sad to see that people like you…who have zero experience or training in oil and gas exploration now want to be overnight experts,” he wrote to wildlife conservancy director Muyemburuko. “The application [for seismic testing] is indeed going ahead.”

Now that the comment period is closed, Namibia’s environmental commissioner, Timoteus Mufeti, will review the assessment and decide whether to grant ReconAfrica a permit for its planned seismic survey.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

Jeffrey Barbee is a science writer, photojournalist, and documentary filmmaker, whose documentary The High Cost of Cheap Gasabout fracking for oil and gas, has been translated into six languages and won numerous awards. He’s the founder of Alliance Earth , an independent environmental and science reporting initiative that collaborates with news organizations around the world.

Laurel Neme , Ph.D., is a contributor to National Geographic. She served in the U.S. Department of Treasury and consulted for the U.S. Agency for International Development, focusing on environmental and social impacts of development projects. She’s the author of several books, including Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species and The Elephant’s New Shoe .

Jeffrey Barbee is a science writer, photojournalist, and documentary filmmaker, whose documentary The High Cost of Cheap Gasabout fracking for oil and gas, has been translated into six languages and won numerous awards. He’s the founder of Alliance Earth , an independent environmental and science reporting initiative that collaborates with news organizations around the world.

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