High Court judge will decide whether Kavango communities–who have led the fight against Canadian company ReconAfrica with few resources–must pay nearly USD$35,000 to cover the government’s legal fees
For immediate release, February 17, 2023
After standing up against Canadian oil and gas company ReconAfrica, local communities, activists and civil society organizations in Namibia say they are being intimidated and silenced by the High Court’s threat of a substantial legal fee.
The Namibian High Court and government could waive those fees when announcing their decision Feb. 21, instead showing their support for the local communities’ rights, but so far have not indicated they will do so.
In a video shared on social media today, local activists and community members asked the High Court to waive the fees and for people around the world to show their solidarity by sharing the video or adding their own voices using the hashtag #StandWithKavango
The Namibian High Court will decide Feb. 21 whether local communities in the Okavango River Basin must pay almost USD$35,000 in government and other legal fees after the court rejected their July request for urgent help to prevent Canadian company ReconAfrica from continuing to drill for oil and gas on community-managed land. International organizations, including Re:wild and BirdLife International, join the local communities and activists in calling on the court to waive all fees, including those that may still be levied, and instead protect the communities from threats posed by exploration for oil.
"ReconAfrica and the government are throwing away the communities' rights,” said Max Muyemburuko, chair of the Muduva Nyangana Conservancy, one of the plaintiffs in the court case. “These court costs are suicide to poor communities as our rights and freedom of speech are thrown away to keep us in darkness."
Four community committees and forestry associations from the Kavango regions filed an official appeal to Pohamba Shifeta, Namibia’s minister of the environment and tourism, in June 2022 asking him to review or rescind Environmental Commissioner Timoteus Mufeti’s decision to grant an extension for ReconAfrica to continue its exploratory drilling. Shifeta did not respond to the official appeal to his office, and in July 2022 the group filed an urgent court action in Namibia’s High Court in an attempt to compel him to respond to their request. The court rejected the request and now there are fears that it could mandate that the local conservancies, associations and forestry committees cover the government’s legal fees.
“The biggest sin committed by the conservancies in Kavango East was not that of fighting the oppressor ReconAfrica,” said Reinhold Mangundu, local Namibian activist. “The biggest sin they committed was believing that our constitution will protect them. They believed the constitution will safeguard their lands and everything they have lived for. The biggest sin was giving their trust to our Namibian justice system.”
Though the local community committees and forestry associations could be required to pay the government’s legal fees, the Namibian government also has the ability to waive those fees. Under Namibian law underserved communities–such as those represented by the community committees and forestry associations from the Kavango regions–can be exempt from paying expensive legal fees even if the High Court rules against them in cases that are in the public interest.
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.
New evidence at the end of 2021 showed that ReconAfrica had bulldozed a forest area the size of five football fields and then drilled illegally inside the Kapinga Kamwalye Community Conservancy, a protected area in Namibia’s ecologically sensitive Kavango regions. The company did this without permission from the conservancy’s leadership or the communal land board, as required by Namibian law.
In 2021, local Indigenous and civil society leaders and conservationists in Namibia and Botswana–including Muyemburuko, Mangundu, Nadia April, Patricia Dinyando, Veruschka Dumeni, Anita Lekgowa, Rinaani Musutua, and Joram Useb–launched an ongoing international campaign with support from Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex, Leonardo DiCaprio, Forest Whitaker and others to call for a full moratorium on all oil and gas development in the Okavango River Basin. This includes an open letter from individuals around the world in support of protecting the people and wildlife in the region.
Community members and civil society organizations are also planning to protest against this attempt to use these new legal costs to silence the voices of the people of the Kavanago regions. Mekondjo Katjivena, a university student, is helping to plan the protest.
"Playing the blame game and pointing fingers at the communities when ReconAfrica is the one at fault, doesn't solve the problem, it only prolongs the damage being done,” Katjivena said. “Our communities have paid enough."
Civil society organizations and activists have expressed concern that the wastewater from ReconAfrica’s exploratory drilling risks leaking into the groundwater and ephemeral rivers upstream of the Okavango River and Delta in Botswana, which directly provides drinking water for more than 250,000 people in a region especially prone to droughts exacerbated by the climate and biodiversity loss crisis.
In addition, hundreds of wildlife species depend on the freshwater rivers that feed the floodplains that make up the Okavango Delta, a Key Biodiversity Area, which is a place critical to the persistence of the planet’s biodiversity. The Okavango Delta is also the terminal sink of the river system and has little or no outflow to the sea. Any contaminants that enter the delta via this river system would be impossible to remove and could significantly destabilize the fragile ecosystem upon which abundant biodiversity and local communities depend.
“Re:wild joins Namibia’s local communities and civil service organizations in calling on the High Court and government to waive these punitive and inappropriate fees,” said Wes Sechrest, Re:wild chief scientist and CEO. “We hope that Namibia will instead take this opportunity to protect one of the most important places in the world for biodiversity, while also honoring the rights, livelihoods and health of local communities.”
In a video shared on social media today, local activists and community members asked the High Court to waive the fees and for people around the world to show their solidarity by sharing the video or adding their own voices using the hashtag #StandWithKavango.
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Re:wild protects and restores the wild. We have a singular and powerful focus: the wild as the most effective solution to the interconnected climate, biodiversity and human wellbeing crises. Founded by a group of renowned conservation scientists together with Leonardo DiCaprio, Re:wild is a force multiplier that brings together Indigenous peoples, local communities, influential leaders, nongovernmental organizations, governments, companies and the public to protect and rewild at the scale and speed we need. Learn more at rewild.org.