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San communities are fighting to protect their homes from oil and gas exploration

Leaders say they were not consulted about exploration for oil and gas in the Kavango region, part of the Okavango River Basin

By Devin Murphy on February 12, 2022   duration

Khwe San, Xaara and Nxkuroo, demonstrate their traditions such as using snares made from acacia bark and other traditional hunting methods that involve living sustainably off the land. (Photo by Re:wild)
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San peoples are one of the Indigenous groups in northeastern Namibia, and they have lived in southern Africa, including in and around the Okavango River Basin, for 100,000 years, making their cultures the oldest in the world.

When Namibia gained its independence in 1990 after more than a century of colonial rule, it enshrined protections in its constitution against discrimination based on tribal or ethnic identity. And although those protections are designed to help Indigenous groups, they are not the same as guaranteeing Indigenous rights, especially free, prior and informed consent.

The lack of Indigenous rights in Namibia compounds centuries of land-grabs and dispossession that have especially pushed San communities into smaller and smaller areas called corridors. Many now live in conservancies, which were created with the intention of giving communities control over the land they contain.

Many San communities who have been dispossessed of their ancestral lands now largely rely on subsistence farming and other means to support themselves, or they sometimes leave their communities and seek out jobs in towns and cities.

“Namibia is also a highly, highly unequal country,” says Rinaani Musutua, an Indigenous Herero community activist. “It's the world's most unequal country according to the latest statistics. Unemployment is also the second-highest in the world.”

That inequality is acutely felt by San peoples. Their communities are some of the most impoverished in Namibia and struggle with access to education, economic opportunities and healthcare, and they receive little assistance and support from the government.

The San communities of Namibia

For millennia, nomadic San communities have cultivated ancestral and traditional knowledge to live sustainably and in harmony with the wild. Approximately 30,000 San people live in Namibia in six communities. Those communities are largely in Tsumkwe East, Tsumkwe West, Omaheke South, Omaheke North and the Kavango and Zambezi regions. Each of their languages, customs, traditions and cultures are unique. Their ancestral lands now largely make up Namibia’s national parks, which prohibit hunting and harvesting plants for traditional medicines, leaving many San communities to live in buffer areas outside parks.

“[E]specially [for] the San communities, the culture is directly linked to the land that they live in, the trees, the animals, the water, the sounds,” says Nadia April, the San Indigenous woman program officer for the Women’s Leadership Center in Namibia, who works closely with San communities. “It's connected to the culture, it's connected to the songs, it's connected to the dance. It's connected to how you narrate the world around you.”

Khwe San, Xaara and Nxkuroo, full names and location withheld, demonstrate their traditions such as using snares made from acacia bark and other traditional hunting methods that involve living sustainably off the land. (Photo by Re:wild)

Though San and other Indigenous and local communities desperately need and want economic development opportunities, many are angry and scared about oil and gas exploration in Kavango West and East.

“People are very very angry because the government has allowed us to create conservancies, and forestries so that we can benefit from our natural resources,” says Joram Useb, southern Africa regional coordinator for the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee.

However, the government’s actions during the past year have undermined the ability of San communities in Kavango West and East to protect and control those natural resources.

ReconAfrica in the Kavango

In September 2020, many local and Indigenous communities were surprised when news broke that oil exploration would soon be underway in the Kavango region in Namibia, part of the Okavango River Basin.

ReconAfrica, a Canada-based oil company, had secured a license to explore a 13,200-square-mile area for oil and gas, which included Kavango East and West in Namibia and the Okavango Delta in Botswana. According to Namibian and international law, ReconAfrica was required to consult local and Indigenous communities before starting to drill, though communities say that did not happen properly. By the time the first exploratory well was being drilled in January 2021, the San Council, which promotes the rights of San communities in Namibia, wasn’t even aware of the project.

“When Women's Leadership Center informed the San Council about the ReconAfrica project, there was already a drilling site...which means that consultation wasn't done properly and that nobody gave enough information to the communities before they could...agree with the project or disagree with the project,” says Kileni Fernando, coordinator of the Namibian San Council, and a member of the !Xung San community living in the Omatako Valley in Tsumke West.

According to Namibian law, all communities living in the drill sites should have been consulted and given the chance to ask questions about and potentially object to projects that will affect them.

“We are shocked and actually disappointed in our government for not consulting us at all before any project started,” says Fernando.

The experiences of some Namibian farmers has made San communities in the Kavango especially anxious.

“Seventy percent of Namibians actually survive on crop fields and livestock farming as their main agricultural livelihood,” says Musutua. “That’s how they survive. Now, if ReconAfrica comes and takes over somebody’s crop fields, where do you think that person is going to get food from?”

ReconAfrica says that it has obtained permission from local traditional authorities for land use, but many communities are scared that they will have no recourse if ReconAfrica decides to drill wells on the land that they live on.

“The communities need to be consulted and make sure that they are happy with the project, and if they're not happy, they have the right to stop the project,” says Fernando. “And what the government is doing right now is that it is violating our rights as San Indigenous communities and the local communities in that specific area, in the Kavango Delta.”

Khwe San Nxkuroo, demonstrates his traditional arrow making skills and others, such as using snares made from acacia bark and other traditional hunting methods that involve living sustainably off the land. (Photo by Re:wild)

Empty promises

When ReconAfrica and representatives from the Division of Marginalized Communities did meet with San communities in Omege and Mwitjiku they emphasized that drilling for oil would economically help the communities.

“Everybody was very excited that an opportunity, a big opportunity is coming, to give jobs,” says April of her conversations with women who were in the community meetings.

However, San communities say those jobs have failed to materialize. Some people have been hired for short contracts as janitors or cleaners but steady long-term employment has remained out of reach.

“It’s not going to bring development or provide employment to the region because oil and gas exploration is a specialized field,” explains Musuta. “The majority of Namibians have no knowledge of that industry, so ReconAfrica will not be able to employ people that will have an impact on them so they can escape poverty.”

Environmental and health risks for San communities

According to the San community members who attended meetings with ReconAfrica and the Division of Marginalized Communities, the company did not explain the potential environmental risks and consequences of oil exploration, nor did government representatives. Under the license, ReconAfrica will receive 90% of the profits from oil drilling and the Namibian government will receive 10%.

The Women’s Leadership Centre, the Namibia San Council and the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC) have been working to make sure San and other Indigenous communities across the Okavango River Basin are presented with the potential dangers as well as economic benefits from oil drilling, so they can make informed decisions about what they want in their own communities.

“What we have done is we have met with different community members, their leaders, and we’ve taken them through the impact of what will happen if this is allowed to go on,” explains Useb.

The meetings shared facts and stories from around the world about how oil-drilling and fracking has affected different places and people. The humanitarian crisis in the Niger River Delta and the disastrous and deadly effects oil has had for the people who live there, caused the most alarm.

Shell has been drilling for oil in the Niger River Delta since the mid 1950s. Local communities there have not reaped much, if any, economic benefit from it, and decades of oil spills have polluted and poisoned the water and soil they rely on for farming. It’s estimated that about 10 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger River Delta during the past 50 years. Local communities are suffering the long-term health consequences of being exposed to toxic chemicals and pollution. They have higher cancer rates, higher rates of kidney disease and higher infant mortality rates among many other health concerns.

“We are trying to encourage the leaders to take up these issues by themselves and talk to the management, top management of Recon[Africa] and voice their concerns,” says Useb. “[B]ecause it’s their future livelihood which [will be] destroyed. It is the livelihood of our future generation that is in danger, that’s why we don’t want this to happen.”

The Okavango River Basin is a vital and pristine water source for Indigenous communities. The stakes to keep it clean and free of pollution are extremely high, since Namibia has few other sources of water.

“​​We are prone to drought, and floods, and all that kind of thing,” says Musutua. “We are actually a global warming hotspot. Us investing in fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming, [and] climate change, it doesn't make sense at all because we are the people that should be working the hardest towards achieving low carbon emissions. Here we are investing in an industry that contributes to carbon emissions, it just doesn't make sense at all, and I don't understand why our government is not taking that into consideration.”

Any pollution in the Okavango River Basin would also likely have implications beyond Namibia. Nearly 1 million people depend on the Okavango River Basin for water.

“This worries us a lot because immediately if one channel or the other part of the Okavango is affected, the whole of the Okavango is going to be, whether it’s in Angola, whether it’s in Namibia or Botswana,” says Diphetogo Anita Lekgowa, gender representative for southern Africa for IPACC.

Concerns have already been raised about the wastewater drill ponds at ReconAfrica’s two test wells. Activists and local communities are worried that the wastewater from the ponds may be leaking into the groundwater and ephemeral rivers that connect the Okavango River and the Delta in Botswana. At a news conference in August 2021, the Women’s Leadership Center showed video from one of ReconAfrica’s drill sites that showed a wastewater pond that did not appear to be lined with vinyl to prevent any chemicals leaking into the ground.

ReconAfrica has said that the drill fluid the company is using for the test wells is organic. And it told National Geographic in October 2020 that it will “ensure that there is no environmental impact from these wells. Specific steps are taken that are part of our plans and verified by environmental auditors and technical specialists. ReconAfrica follows Namibian regulations and policies as well as international best practices.”

Especially dangerous for women and girls

Within San communities, women and girls may be most at risk from the societal effects oil and gas could have on the Kavango region in Namibia. Many San women in remote areas are left to care for their families and maintain farms while men move to towns and cities looking for work.

“The population [in the Kavango] is very small already, but [has] very high HIV/AIDS risk,” explains April. “HIV/AIDS prevalence, teenage pregnancy, school dropout, these are issues that they are already facing in their communities, so multiple forms of discrimination, multiple forms of violence that they face in their communities.”

If a woman’s farm is destroyed or damaged by oil drilling, she would have few if any other ways to provide for her family.

“That’s definitely going to impact them and that’s going to cause even more chaos for the women [so] that at some stage, maybe they have to move,” says Musutua.

An influx of men who are not part of the community could also put women and girls at a higher risk of becoming victims of sexual assault or other crimes.

“Women are going to have a lot of problems when it comes to rape, teenage pregnancies, and drugs, as well as alcohol will be a problem at those villages at the site of the drilling activities,” says Fernando.

Trying to protect what should have been protected

The decision to grant a license to ReconAfrica to explore for oil and gas in the Kavango regions is especially disappointing for Indigenous communities because Namibia has a history of recognizing the importance of the Okavango River Basin and protecting the wild. Conservation is enshrined in the constitution, and Namibia has signed several international treaties to protect the Okavango River Basin. Indigenous leaders are hoping other signatories on those treaties will pressure Namibia to honor them.

“We need solidarity,” says Joram Useb, regional coordinator for southern Africa with IPACC. “‘Save [the] Okavango’ should be the slogan, and at the same time, [we should be asking] what are the alternatives? In the case if this development go[es] through, and go[es] on, what can people do to sustain themselves because their livelihoods will be taken away? What are the projects that could be brought in so that the communities could survive?”

Namibia has ratified the United National Convention on Biological Diversity, as well as a long list of other international treaties. The Okavango Delta is a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized for the critical role it plays in making the Kalahari Desert habitable to humans and wildlife. Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia worked together to create the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), which includes the Okavango River Basin. The 170,000-square-mile area was established to protect wildlife and encourage ecotourism across the five countries. When the treaty was signed in 2012, it was estimated that it could help bring tens of millions of dollars to the KAZA region. The lower Okavango River and part of the Okavango Delta in Namibia also make up the Bwabwata-Okavango Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance.

“We strongly feel that if the international community can help us hold the Namibian government accountable; that the Namibian government must honor its commitments towards fighting climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions that destroy our ecosystem that we depend on for survival,” says Musutua.

Drilling for oil and gas in the region seems to contradict the long-standing treaties, and Indigenous leaders say it is the latest example in a pattern of the government putting profits over the wild and the rights of Indigenous communities.

“Whenever there is a massive development, they just do what they want and what is good for the country,” says Useb. “This is in conflict with the international treaties, conventions they have signed to be the custodians of these laws and guidelines and so on. It is not the first time. It is happening all over and over again.”

A traditional Khwe San grass basket. (Photo by Re:wild)

Pushing for green investments and energy

Indigenous leaders and activists are hoping that any future projects in the Okavango River Basin will focus on sustainable development and include consultations with San and other Indigenous communities.

“We're saying no to oil, leave what's underground, what belongs underground, leave it there,” says Lekgowa. “Let's find other sources that can bring development, that can sustain livelihoods for everyone instead of damaging our natural resources. There is no safe way of taking the oil out, it must be left there. We are scared for the health of our people and the long-term impacts that oil will bring to our communities. Oil will destroy their health.”

Indigenous communities and leaders would like to see industries, like solar energy, explored in Namibia’s Kavango region instead of oil. Namibia is a very dry country and averages about 300 days of sunshine each year, giving it favorable conditions for solar energy.

“Oil is destructive, oil destroys, oil brings in weak governance, oil brings in conflict,” says Useb. “If we can maybe think about solar energies, other renewable energies maybe that will help us also develop. Oil is not only the answer. You can’t drink oil.”

Activists say that the Namibian government has expressed interest in developing renewable energy sources in the past, which makes its decision to allow oil exploration even more perplexing and disappointing.

“There have been talks, there have been opportunities about green energy,” says April. “There is huge potential when it comes to investing in green energy.”

A future that benefits Indigenous peoples

Even if Namibia ultimately decides to honor the international climate and environmental treaties it has signed and to explore renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, activists hope that those benefits are spread more equally throughout the country.

“There is still poverty in the country, which is an evil that adds onto other things, such as gender-based violence, rape, all of these things,” says April. “My vision for it is that if there is an opportunity for Namibia to be a powerhouse with great energy, there would not be a house that doesn’t have electricity.”

Khwe San, Xaara and Nxkuroo, demonstrate their traditions such as using snares made from acacia bark and other traditional hunting methods that involve living sustainably off the land. (Photo by Re:wild)

And community members and activists say the best way to ensure that opportunities solve interrelated crises that affect Indigenous communities is to be sure they have a seat at the table where decisions that affect their futures are made.

“That’s my dream for San people to be respected and be included and not be treated like some exhibition, like a history thing,” says April.

If an effort is not made to respect and include San communities, April is worried that their cultures could disappear completely. She thinks that it’s possible much of their knowledge of the environment, their languages, their stories of creation and their traditional medicines could die with older generations. Ultimately, she hopes Namibia recognizes San peoples’ incredibly rich and unique cultures as part of Namibia.

Her ultimate vision and hope for Namibia is that it is a place that helps the most disenfranchised and vulnerable people.

Khwe San, Xaara and Nxkuroo, demonstrate their traditions such as using snares made from acacia bark and other traditional hunting methods that involve living sustainably off the land. (Photo by Re:wild)

“​​When everybody's living in peace, where greed is not the topic or the subject of the day, where someone has a big advantage over someone else because you feel like they're in a vulnerable position and you have power,” she explains is true development and what San communities want.

A Khwe San elder making a traditional grass basket. (Photo by Re:wild)

About the author

Devin Murphy

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.

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