A local civil society organization is appealing to the Ministry of the Environment to reverse the government’s earlier decision to extend the oil company’s license to drill in the Okavango River Basin until 2025
By Lindsay Renick Mayer on April 01, 2023
UPDATE (April 25, 2023): On April 24, 2023 Namibia's minister of the environment heard two similar appeals concerning oil company ReconAfrica’s activities. The appeals were heard simultaneously. The first appeal was brought by community organizations in the Kavango East and West and claims that their right to be consulted was violated. The grounds for the second appeal by the Economic and Social Justice Trust were that the company used an irregular process to circumvent public participation. Either of these two appeals could halt Recon's Environmental Clearance Certificate and now make the stay appeal, outlined in this blog, legally moot.
UPDATE (March 31, 2023): Late Friday, March 31, after this story was published, Economic and Social Justice Trust received word that the hearing before Namibia's Ministry of Environment, Foresty and Tourism Minister was cancelled until further notice.
For the first time since Canada-based ReconAfrica got a license to begin rolling its bulldozers through the fragile forests of Namibia’s Kavango East and West regions at the end of 2020, local communities, activists, and civil society organizations will have the full attention of Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism Minister Pohamba Shifeta this Monday, April 3.
At that hearing, the minister has agreed to consider appeals from the affected conservancies and community forest associations as well as the Economic and Social Justice Trust (ESJT). These separate appeals have a common goal, calling for the reversal of the government’s earlier decision to extend the oil and gas company’s license to drill for another three years, until 2025.
For savvy investors who were promised that this project would be the ‘largest oil and play of the decade,’ ESJT’s supporting allegations should be deeply concerning:
the illegal bulldozing of land without community conservancy permits or permission, as required;
seismic lines cut through pristine community forest without consultation of the proper authorities;
the irresponsible possible pollution of drinking water for thousands of people by failing to line its wastewater pits with an impermeable plastic barrier meant to prevent chemicals from leaking into the ground;
and, perhaps most embarrassing, the company’s illegal violation of its own Environmental Management Plan (EMP), which called on the company to avoid cutting a road through the Omatako River. Yet this is exactly what the company did at the end of last year, extending a road across the Omatako River in protected land to allow vehicles to access the drilling pad for a fourth exploration well.
These infractions have all happened without the company finding any oil at all.
The communities and the ESJT are arguing that ReconAfrica’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is inadequate and therefore their Environmental Clearance Certificate, which allows them to drill, should be revoked.
“ReconAfrica is here to destroy our people’s livelihoods and environment,” says Rinaani Musutua, trustee of the Economic and Social Justice Trust. “It is pure exploitation. Africans still do not determine their own destiny, just like in colonial times. And it is companies like ReconAfrica that perpetuate neocolonialism.
If companies want to invest in Africa, they need to make sure that they adhere to the laws of the host country and respect its people, as well as making sure that the Indigenous peoples benefit directly from such ventures.”
A long, winding and destructive road
Since the end of 2020, when it was reported that ReconAfrica obtained a license for exploratory drilling across a 13,200-square-mile area that covers part of the Okavango River Basin, local leaders and activists have publicly expressed their concerns that the company did not adequately consult local communities, that it may not be implementing sufficient environmental safeguards to prevent the pollution of the region’s sole source of water, and that it may be putting endangered wildlife at greater risk. Okavango River Basin communities include the Indigenous San peoples, who belong to one of the oldest known cultures in the world.
At the end of 2021, National Geographic broke the news that ReconAfrica had bulldozed forest and then drilled its second well illegally inside the Kapinga Kamwalye Community Conservancy, a protected area in Namibia’s sensitive Kavango regions. According to National Geographic, the company cleared the equivalent of five football fields of forest from the Kapinga Kamwalye Community Conservancy without permission from the conservancy’s communal land board, as required by Namibian law.
“The world needs to know how our government is exposing people to toxins and putting people’s lives in danger,” said Max Muyemburuko, who was chair of the Kavango East and West Regional Conservancy when the forest was cleared. “And by law, the minister should be in support of the local communities’ motion because nobody is above the law. Anyone violating the law should be punished accordingly.”
Despite these serious findings, when the company went to renew its Environmental Clearance Certificate in June 2020 to extend until 2025, Namibia’s Environmental Commissioner Timoteus Mufeti eventually approved the request in June 2022. This approval is what the ESJT has sought to reverse. ReconAfrica challenged ESJT’s standing to appeal the decision, stating that they had not registered as an Interested & Affected Party on the original 2019 Environmental Impact Assessment. But in March 2023 the Minister agreed to allow ESJT to bring the case forward to the hearing he will conduct on April 3.
“I’m thrilled that we’ve gotten to the stage that we’re at,” said the ESJT's Rob Parker, who helped bring the case forward. “This company has done so much damage. We’re really overjoyed that we now actually have a chance to stop this.”
The April 3 hearing comes a little more than a week after Rolling Stone and National Geographic published separate investigative pieces about ReconAfrica’s unscrupulous actions. And because ReconAfrica says it is about to drill for oil in Botswana, the Botswana Gazette published a story about the international media’s findings.
If Minister Shifeta rules to revoke the renewed Environmental Clearance Certificate, according to Musutua, ReconAfrica would have to stop its operations and carry out another EIA, this time done in line with Namibia’s laws, one properly protecting both the country’s environment and people.
“The Okavango Delta is a precious ecosystem that sustains the lives and livelihoods of local communities,” says local Namibian activist Reinhold Mangundu, who co-authored an op-ed about ReconAfrica and the Okavango in the Washington Post in 2021 with Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex. “We cannot afford to let corporate greed destroy it. The minister must prioritize the protection of the environment and the welfare of local communities over foreign corporate interests. We urge them to do the right thing and stand with us in our fight for a sustainable future.”
Whatever decision the minister makes based on the hearing on April 3, Parker says, the case will likely be appealed to the Namibian high court, no matter who wins.
Re:wild is asking for individuals around the world to support the local communities by signing an open letter calling for an immediate moratorium on oil and gas drilling across the Okavango River Basin.
Lindsay Renick Mayer
Lindsay is the Director of Media Relations for Re:wild and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.