Oil and gas company did not obtain permission from communal land board before drilling in the conservancy
By Devin Murphy on December 15, 2021
No warning. That is how Canada-based company ReconAfrica arrived in the Kapinga Kamwalye Community Conservancy in Namibia’s Kavango region. In January 2021, the oil and gas company moved equipment into the conservancy and started bulldozing the forest much to the surprise of the eight villages within its boundaries. The conservancy was included in the 13,200-square-mile area the government of Namibia licensed to the company to explore for oil and gas. However, in Namibia any activities within a community conservancy must follow the country’s Communal Land Reform Act, meaning the company needed permission from the community conservancy before drilling for oil and gas inside of it.
“They came the way the rain comes,” says Thomas Muronga, chair of Kapinga Kamwalye Community Conservancy, referencing the sudden speed and intensity of ReconAfrica in an interview with Re:wild. And much like the rain, or drought, there is little the conservancy feels it can do to stop the company besides waiting for them to move on, so the community can survey the damage.
The new road cut, the forests cleared, and the fields taken to accommodate ReconAfrica’s equipment are directly in conflict with the management plan the Kapinga Kamwalye Community Conservancy has developed to manage and protect its natural resources. By failing to get permission from the conservancy to do these things, ReconAfrica appears to have violated Namibia’s Communal Land Reform Act. The management plan, which is reassessed and amended as needed every five years, carefully delineates where activities like hunting and farming are permitted within the nearly 33,000-acre (13,339-hectare) conservancy. The management committees for the conservancy, following rules laid out in its constitution, have representatives from every village, and cooperatively manage daily activities and operations. A map demarcates the conservancy into different zones.
Any deviations from that plan are supposed to be approved and sanctioned by the Kapinga Kamwalye Community Conservancy’s management committees. “We were sidelined,” says Muronga of the test well drilled in the conservancy. “Personally, I feel the way this project came into the conservancy, they did not follow procedure.” According to Muronga, ReconAfrica cleared between 8-to-10 acres (3-to-4 hectares) of forest to access the area where the company wanted to drill for oil. Originally, the company was working outside the conservancy, but he said the drilling then moved inside it with no warning. ReconAfrica cleared a new road to the drill site from the one existing main road in the conservancy. In the company’s environmental impact assessment, it said it would only use existing roads.
Muronga’s claim that ReconAfrica was operating without proper permissions was reported in a story published by National Geographic today. The magazine has been covering ReconAfrica’s exploration for oil and gas for more than a year. Aerial photographs show that the test drill site is inside Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy. National Geographic reported, “In June, ReconAfrica CEO Evans said in a press release that the company intended to ‘exceed regulatory compliance.’ But in the half year since, ReconAfrica still has not gotten approval from the Kavango East Communal Land Board, a group of local representatives empowered by Namibia’s Communal Land Reform Act to be the ultimate arbiter of land rights in the area.”
Under the Act, ReconAfrica needed to consult and receive permission from the conservancy and the federal government before drilling the test well inside the conservancy. According to National Geographic, ReconAfrica retroactively submitted an application for a lease to drill in the conservancy in June 2021. That was six months after they had cleared the site. ReconAfrica told National Geographic that the company “‘categorically denies that it engaged in any wrongdoing.’” The most explosive new information in National Geographic’s report detailed a meeting between Muronga, Max Muyemburuko, chair of Kavango East and West Regional Community Conservancy Association, and individuals working with ReconAfrica. Muronga and Muyemburuko told National Geographic that they were offered what they believed was a bribe: jobs in exchange for stopping their vocal criticism of the company’s exploration for oil. Muyemburuko told the magazine: “I did not see [the offers] as legal,” and that he believes they “were made to keep us quiet.”
The people of Kapinga Kamwalye Community Conservancy are not the only ones who have been disturbed by ReconAfrica’s oil wells and seismic surveys. Muronga says that the conservancy has noticed a change in the pattern of the Savanna Elephants that usually live in and move through the area. “Recon activity...we are seeing it has already impacted us in different ways whereby our animals, like the elephants...have diverted to move from their main routes and create some new routes,” says Muronga. Namibia’s Kavango region, part of the Okavango River Basin, is home to the largest population of African Elephants in the world. About 130,000 of the largest land mammals traverse the Kavango region in Namibia to reach the Okavango Delta in Botswana. This inland delta is an oasis in an otherwise arid and dry region of southern Africa that attracts a dizzyingly diverse array of wildlife. It is a Key Biodiversity Area, a place critical to the health and persistence of biodiversity on the planet as well as one of the largest UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Local communities are concerned that drilling in this sensitive area could hurt wildlife and potentially pollute the major source of water for the region. Threatened species like Hippo, African Wild Dogs, Sable, Temminck’s Ground Pangolin, Slaty Egrets, Gray-crowned Cranes and several species of vultures live within the community conservancy. Seismic testing, a process where a large specialized truck thumps the ground and creates a sonogram of the subsurface, has also damaged homes in the conservancy. According to Muronga, at least one house in a village suffered a crack in its structure after the seismic survey truck passed nearby. Muronga said he was told that the owner of the house was compensated for the damage, but he has not been able to confirm how the payment was made or if it was a fair price that could cover repairs.
As the chair of the Kapinga Kamwayle Community Conservancy, Muronga talks with and listens to community members from across its eight villages. About 3,800 people live within the conservancy and they have conflicting views about oil and gas exploration. The Kavango regions are the poorest in Namibia, but they often do not receive much, if any, assistance from the government. ReconAfrica has promised that their exploration for oil and gas will bring jobs to the region. Some members of the Kapinga Community Conservancy are receptive to the idea of new economic opportunities that would benefit them, but Muronga says they haven’t seen long-term steady jobs created for the local community.
“There is nothing like a permanent job,” said Muronga. “I never saw something that I can tell is a benefit, because people were hired to work for five days, three days, four days.” He said people who have been hired have been hired to work at the drilling site for a few days at a time, and no one has been employed there for longer than 14 days. The jobs people have been hired for are mostly cleaning jobs, not skilled, higher-paid work.
The Kapinga Kamwalye Community Conservancy has sought help from the Namibian government to try to stop ReconAfrica, but have been met with little help. Muronga has tried to engage the governor’s office and the traditional authorities, but none have expressed any interest in listening or acting on the complaints against the company. “I really feel bad because the people who have allowed ReconAfrica to come into this country are the lawmakers,” said Muronga. “I feel disappointed in the leadership of this country.”
He thinks that the decision to grant ReconAfrica a license to explore for oil and gas in Namibia’s Kavango regions was not in the best interest of the people who live there. Oil exploration is a water-intensive process and there is very little water in the Kavango. ReconAfrica was initially drilling test wells without permits to dispose of wastewater, according to National Geographic’s May report. “We really don't need oil exploration in this country,” says Muronga. “There's no need, especially [for people] like us who depend on agriculture, we really don't need that.”
Devin Murphy is Re:wilds’s senior communications specialist and helps Re:wild and its partners tell stories about the work they do to protect wildlife and wildlands around the planet. Her favorite stories about conservation include fascinating and little-known species and the dedicated humans protecting them.