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ReconAfrica pushes ahead with Namibia oil exploration amid claims of violations

  • Canadian oil and gas company ReconAfrica has announced it will enter a second phase of petroleum exploration in Namibia.
  • Campaigners and community members say the company has not conducted the environmental impact assessments necessary to extend its operations.
  • The company has been accused of violating several laws by encroaching on people’s land and into untouched forests.
  • Opponents of the company’s activities say they will consider legal action if the violations continue.

At the end of January, Canadian oil and gas company Reconnaissance Africa (ReconAfrica) discreetly announced it expected approvals shortly for a second seismic survey and the drilling of three to six additional test wells in northeastern Namibia’s Kavango Basin. Residents and environmental campaigners say the company is breaking the law.

ReconAfrica is prospecting for oil and gas in a license area spanning nearly 3.5 million hectares (8.5 million acres) across northeast Namibia and northwest Botswana. Its critics say there has been no public notice of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the latest work.

“There were no public announcements, they just quietly wrote to the Ministry of Environment, and asked for their environmental clearance certificate to be extended,” Christopher Brown, an environmental scientist and founder of the Namibian Chamber of the Environment (NCE), told Mongabay in an interview.

Namibia’s government cleared ReconAfrica to drill two test wells in 2021, followed by a 2D seismic survey. In its January statement, the company said it had submitted an “update to the seismic Environmental Impact Assessment” to the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism and expected approval by the end of February for more drilling and an additional 500 kilometers (310 miles) of seismic surveys.

Under Namibia’s Environmental Management Act, any change or extension of ReconAfrica’s environmental clearance would require public notice and consultation. In a letter to the chair of the Namibian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Natural Resources, several NGOs demanded clarification.

“We have objected very strongly to the environmental commissioner, saying that this is totally unacceptable and they can’t proceed without a proper EIA,” Jan Arkert, a South African geologist and researcher at the NGO Green Connection, told Mongabay. The environmental organization was one of the signatories of the letter.

“They seem to think that once they got one EIA it is like a carte blanche to do whatever they want,” Arkert said.

Residents in ReconAfrica’s license area in the Kavango Basin report that the company has already started advancing into new areas, entering communal and private lands without permission or consulting affected communities. Images courtesy of Max Muyumburuko.

Residents in ReconAfrica’s license area in the Kavango Basin report that the company has already started advancing into new areas, entering communal and private lands without permission or consulting affected communities. Last week, the company placed beacons in a farmer’s groundnut field in Hamweyi community without his permission.

“They drilled and left their beacons in the middle of his field without considering that there is a crop,” Max Muyemburuko, chair of the Kavango East and West Regional Conservancy, told Mongabay. He said it’s unclear what the company’s intentions are and whether the movements are part of the new program.

Since operations started, Muyemburuko has been collecting reports about the company’s activities from community members. According to his data, ReconAfrica has breached several laws, including the Environmental Management Act, the Forest Act, and the Communal Land Reform Act.

To date, two EIAs have been submitted and approved, covering the two initial test wells and 450 km (280 mi) of seismic testing. Both documents have been criticized by NGOs, conservationists and scientists, including Brown and Arkert, for their poor quality and for having omitted crucial aspects, including community consultation, specialist studies, and long-term and cumulative impacts.

Conservationists have warned about the project’s potential negative impacts on wildlife migration routes and watercourses in the sensitive ecosystems of the Okavango Delta and the Tsolido Hills, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On a larger scale, as governments including Namibia’s have committed to move away from fossil fuels, the future and long-term extraction of oil and gas is projected to be incompatible with the Paris Agreement. Climate change campaign group Fridays for Future Windhoek calculated that, assuming ReconAfrica’s projections for the size of reserves in the Kavango Basin are correct, emissions from this field alone would make up as much as one-sixth of the world’s remaining carbon budget if global temperature rise is to remain below 1.5°Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit).

Map courtesy ReconAfrica.

The company appears to have violated the terms of its existing EIAs in numerous instances.

The EIA for seismic testing laid out that the company will use only existing roads and tracks. According to residents, however, the company entered virgin forests and conservancies without acquiring additional permits, and encroached on the 500-meter (1,640-foot) buffer distance to residents’ fields spelled out in the Environmental Management Plan (EMP).

“They opened new roads in community forests and communal lands, where people collect building materials and livestock. You can see that these are not existing roads as stipulated in the EMP,” said Muyemburuko, who had recently returned from investigating residents’ complaints in the community of Mbambi.

Neither the company nor the Namibian Environmental Commissioner responded to Mongabay’s request for comment by the time of publication, but the story will be updated if or when they comment.

Cross-section of sedimentary basins in northern Namibia & Botswana. Graphic courtesy Recon Africa
Recon Africa is drilling into a 9,000-meter-deep sedimentary basin known to geologists as the Kavango Basin to establish whether there is actually oil beneath the KAZA. Graphic courtesy ReconAfrica.

Last year, the impacts of the vehicles conducting seismic surveys close to settlements caused houses to crack. “Two houses crashed completely because they were made of mud, and the owners were offered 2,000 Namibian dollars [$130] as compensation,” Muyemburuko said.

Muyemburuko said most people in the area don’t know what ReconAfrica is planning next. Residents of Mbambi have invited ReconAfrica to a meeting the community is holding this week.

“We don’t know where they’re going and what they’re doing, because there’s been no public consultation on the matter,” Brown said. He added ReconAfrica’s conduct so far shows “a number of weaknesses in our legislation, and in the modus operandi of how EIAs are being administered.”

Alarm as exploratory drilling for oil begins in northern Namibia

Banner image: Okavango river, Region of Kavango, Namibia. Image by Zairon via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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