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COP 15: Oil drilling continues to threaten biodiversity in the Okavango

It's time to create a transparent and trackable system for biodiversity credits and financing to protect the wild

By Rory Sheldon on December 06, 2022   duration

Okavango Delta in Botswana. (Photo by Peter Moore)
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As the world gears up for COP 15 in Montreal, the absurdity of oil drilling in the Okavango is now very much a reality. Against the backdrop of the Okavango Delta, one of Earth’s last truly wild areas, Canadian company ReconAfrica has to date drilled three major exploratory wells in Namibia, with two more wells planned before the end of the year. Despite the many threats this poses to regional biodiversity and the local communities who depend upon the fragile ecosystem for their livelihoods, ReconAfrica are now also preparing to start exploration activities in Botswana close to the Okavango Delta and the Tsodilo Hills, both UNESCO World Heritage sites.

I am from Botswana, and I am very interested in the regional ecology, hydrology, and biodiversity of the Okavango; and how local communities can benefit from long-term sustainable practices that protect the ecosystem and their own livelihoods. Oil drilling significantly threatens biodiversity and the livelihoods of local communities in northwestern Botswana, although it is just one of the numerous threats we face.

Botswana's Okavango Delta (Photo by Peter Moore)

The other challenges are deep rooted in socio-economic dynamics and include:

  • regional development and urban expansion across the river basin and especially within the Angolan catchment area (where the vast majority of the rainfall that feeds the river system falls);

  • debilitating levels of poverty (over 75% of the population living in the Okavango River Basin in Angola live below the poverty line);

  • anthropogenic climate change;

  • illegal hunting;

  • access to water and many other challenges.

While these threats are intertwined and highly complex in nature, the challenge posed by oil drilling in the Okavango is comparatively simple. It is a challenge driven purely by the neo-colonialist greed of a foreign company hellbent on generating profits at the expense of the environment and local communities. And the costs we now face as a result are profound.

Beyond the irrationality of extracting hydrocarbons when we should actively be seeking to keep them in the ground, oil drilling has the potential to contaminate localized and regional hydrological systems and destabilize the fragile ecosystem within the Okavango Delta. Beyond surface and groundwater contamination, oil drilling will also likely lead to increased seismic events from hydraulic fracturing, disrupt and decimate wildlife corridors, exacerbate human-elephant conflict, and escalate illegal hunting as new roads are opened into previously inaccessible areas.

Botswana's Okavango Delta (Photo by Peter Moore)

In Namibia there has been some remarkable resistance to oil drilling, and we want to ensure that our own resilient communities, particularly the BaSarwa (San) groups within northwestern Botswana are prepared to not only confront ReconAfrica when they arrive, but also resist other threats and challenges.

I feel we need to move away from an activism against extractive companies toward an activism for the protection of ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health within the region. We must understand that we cannot simply compel local communities to disallow and dismiss an oil drilling company that has (falsely) promised them so much, unless we’re able to offer them a reasonable alternative. And why can’t we find an alternative that works not only for the socio-economic benefit of the communities, but also for the long-term protection of biodiversity and the ecosystem? Local communities in the area have made it clear that they want to participate in tourism, and they could derive far more long-term benefits by extending protected areas, safeguarding biodiversity, and protecting wildlife corridors between Namibia and Botswana.

The communal tap in Mukwe village is shared by hundreds of people. The water is pumped directly from the nearby Okavango River.

By addressing the issue within this context, we are not only able to deter foreign companies from damaging the region, but we are also able to begin to resolve other challenges faced in the area.

However, transparent financing for projects that facilitate sustainable livelihoods and biodiversity protection is imperative. We simply cannot compete with the false promises of extractive companies. We need to show communities that we are as serious about protecting their livelihoods as ReconAfrica is intent on destroying them.

What I would like to see come out of COP15 is an alignment and agreement over the value of biodiversity. Current ecosystem valuation models are based on short-term static and outdated nonlinear models, and they fail to include biodiversity and natural capital as a tangible and finite resource. Biodiversity does not belong to human beings. Rather we are a part of biodiversity, and we belong to it.

Popa Falls on the Okavango River. The Okavango River is facing many threats, including climate change-driven drought, people taking water from the river, and now the specter of oil and gas drilling by Canadian company ReconAfrica.

At COP15 I would love to see the creation of, or at the least a firm commitment toward, a system for biodiversity credits and financing. This would be an amazing way to transparently finance conservation projects that protect the Okavango. Unlike the carbon credit system, which is hard to understand and easy for governments and multinationals to manipulate, a system for biodiversity credits is something we could all technically wrap our minds around. They would be transparent and trackable. We just need the right people to put the infrastructure and mechanisms into place to make a form of biodiversity financing feasible.

Local communities in Botswana are and always have been the traditional guardians of the environment. If we can find new and innovative tools to support and empower these communities to confront the emerging challenges they face, particularly from extractive companies, I fully trust they will make long-term decisions that safeguard both the natural environment and their own socio-economic future.

About the author

Rory Sheldon

Rory is an ecologist from Botswana with experience in tourism, conservation management and governance, and scientific journalism. He is dedicated to supporting communities to protect wildlife corridors and rewild ecosystems, while promoting the role of tourism in conservation and poverty alleviation.

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