By Jeff Barbee & Laurel Neme, National Geographic
RUNDU, NAMIBIA: Canadian oil and gas exploration company Reconnaissance Energy Africa has bulldozed land for a test oil well inside a protected wildlife area in northeastern Namibia, and two local leaders say they were offered jobs in return for their silence.
Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy borders the Okavango River and extends more than 22 miles south into the Kalahari Desert. Established in 2018 to protect habitat for charismatic animals such as elephants and rare sable antelope, the conservancy also attracts tourism and provides jobs for some of its 3,700 residents. Villages are interspersed among groves of towering teak, rosewood, and mopane trees, which offer vital shade.
But last December, the oil company came.
Today a clearing the size of five football fields scars the Kapinga Kamwalye refuge, sensitive land bulldozed in January by ReconAfrica for an exploratory drill site.
Pits holding waste from test drilling are filled with dark liquid. Fields are pocked with the heavy imprint of metal seismic testing plates. Ripped-up trees lie in blackened heaps alongside wide tracks through the bush.
Since National Geographic began reporting last year on environmental and community concerns about ReconAfrica’s oil exploration near the Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage site, opposition to the project has grown in Namibia and beyond.
New evidence, including aerial photographs taken in September 2021, points to ReconAfrica having drilled in the conservancy without proper permissions.
In a statement emailed to National Geographic, the company wrote, “ReconAfrica categorically denies that it engaged in any wrongdoing.”
“The Company’s commitment to ethics and business conduct are based on the highest standards of corporate governance, respect, integrity, and responsibility,” ReconAfrica wrote. The company did not provide answers to a detailed list of questions emailed by National Geographic.
Meanwhile, a whistleblower who is a global securities expert filed a complaint on May 5 with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), accusing ReconAfrica of misleading regulators and investors about its work.
The confidential complaint, which is based on public records, prompted two U.S. members of Congress to call for an investigation by the Department of Justice and the SEC. (The agencies would not confirm an investigation into ReconAfrica’s activities.)
Recently, a class action lawsuit was also filed against ReconAfrica executives and associates, alleging violations of federal securities laws.
Celebrity environmentalists are speaking out. Leonardo DiCaprio, Forest Whitaker, and Ellen DeGeneres are among those who signed an open letter written by the environmental nonprofit Re:wild calling for a moratorium on ReconAfrica’s drilling. Prince Harry, meanwhile, published an opinion piece in the Washington Post with Namibian scientist and activist Reinhold Mangundu about threats to the region posed by ReconAfrica’s operations.
ReconAfrica obtained licenses in 2015 and 2020 to explore for oil and gas across more than 13,200 square miles in the ecologically sensitive, wildlife-rich Okavango Delta watershed in Namibia and Botswana.
UNESCO recognizes the delta, a 7,000-square-mile oasis, as a natural landscape with “outstanding value to humanity.” It’s home to endangered animals, including wild dogs, white-backed vultures, black rhinos, and Africa’s largest remaining herd of savanna elephants.
The company’s exploration licenses cover a significant part of the sprawling Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), established by five countries in southern Africa, in part to safeguard the headwaters of the region’s great rivers, including the Okavango.
ReconAfrica’s Namibia license is valid until January 29, 2023, and the company has said it will drill multiple wells in 2022. Test drilling so far has taken place roughly 160 miles upstream of the delta.
Critics describe ReconAfrica as adopting an act-first-ask-later approach: clearing land and conducting test drilling before securing land-use permits and local permissions, and using water and disposing of it before receiving water permits.
“The precedent of drilling first and asking permission later completely undermines any [environmental impact assessment] process, the rule of law, and, obviously, best practices,” said Erica Lyman, a law professor and director of the Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment at Lewis & Clark Law School, in Portland, Oregon.
ReconAfrica spokesperson Claire Preece told National Geographic in October 2020 that the company would “ensure that there is no environmental impact from these wells,” adding that “ReconAfrica follows Namibian regulations and policies as well as international best practices.”
ReconAfrica’s drilling project comes as other threats are endangering the region’s vital ecosystem. Scant rainfall has contributed to one of the lowest levels of annual water inflows in the Okavango Delta ever recorded by Botswana’s Department of Water Affairs.
Water use by commercial farming in Namibia and Angola, as well as pollution and climate change, threatens the waters that nurture “much of the life, production, and economy” of the region, three scientists wrote in a recent paper in Conservation Namibia.
The situation is so grave that a deeper study of the impacts on the entire water basin is urgently needed, they said. “The more broken the river, the harder it is to find fault or to fix, and the easier it is to accept further breakages.”
The Okavango Delta’s headwaters rise in central Angola, pass along the edge of ReconAfrica’s lease area in northeastern Namibia, and cross into Botswana, where they fan out into the wetlands. The entire watershed doesn’t have the same protections as the delta itself, largely because the three countries have conflicting national goals.
Surina Esterhuyse, a geohydrologist with the University of the Free State, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, said that if ReconAfrica were to discover commercially exploitable oil, getting it out of the ground could require large quantities of that increasingly scarce water.
Pollution from oil and gas drilling in Namibia and Botswana, she added, could foul the Okavango River and could accumulate in the Okavango Delta, which has no outlet to the sea.
The company says it has established a buffer zone around the river to protect it. “ReconAfrica is implementing the most advanced technologies and systems available in our exploratory drilling operations to ensure all water, above and below ground, is protected,” according to a company fact sheet on water management published in September.
Even during exploratory drilling, groundwater pollution is a concern, as National Geographic first reported in March. ReconAfrica has not lined its waste pits with an impermeable plastic barrier to prevent chemicals from seeping into the ground, contrary to standard industry practice in British Columbia, where ReconAfrica is based.
The company says its pits are lined with a layer of bentonite clay, which swells when wet to create a barrier, according to its fact sheet on drilling fluids. Aerial photographs taken by a journalist in September 2021 show erosion along the waste pits’ sides.
In January ReconAfrica began construction of its first test well, at Kawe, without the required water permits, according to Namibia’s minister of agriculture, water, and land reform, Calle Schlettwein.
The ministry did not respond to National Geographic’s queries, but in a December 13 story in The Namibian, Schlettwein told the newspaper that the company was not supposed to drill without the permits.
“They did it illegally,” he said. “We reiterated that the rule is they should not drill for water without any permit. We threatened not to issue a permit anymore if they carried on like that.”
Six months after drilling began at the first site and roughly a month after drilling began at the second—about eight miles northeast, in Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy—ReconAfrica announced in a June 24 press release that it had received “all water well regulatory approvals for drilling operations.”
The company did not specify what activities were covered by those approvals, nor did officials provide copies of the permits when asked. Schlettwein told The Namibian there had been challenges coordinating among the ministries and that ReconAfrica thought its exploration permit from the Ministry of Mines and Energy included drilling boreholes for water.
The Controversy Heats Up
Reinhold Mangundu, the Namibian activist and scientist who recently co-authored an opinion piece with Prince Harry protesting the drilling, said in an interview that “politicians are starting to ask the right questions”—questions shaped by input from Indigenous people, human rights activists, international experts, and scientists. He credits a groundswell of concern—driven by local people and amplified by the international community and Namibian and U.S. lawmakers—with “helping to uncover the flawed processes that led to this project being approved.”
Anti-drilling grassroots and Indigenous organizations have protested in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, during the past year. In public hearings since June, Namibian lawmakers have expressed concerns about inadequate oversight by the environment and water ministries. And the Namibian High Court is hearing the case of a farmer who alleges that ReconAfrica illegally cleared his land for a test well.
The company says it had “documented permission” from the local traditional leader to clear the land.
The New York-based Rosen Law Firm, known for its work on investor rights, filed a class action lawsuit against 11 ReconAfrica executives and associates, alleging “violation of the federal securities laws.”
The lawsuit names ReconAfrica board chairman James Jay Park, CEO Scot Evans, Namibian environmental assessor Sindila Mwiya, and three ReconAfrica spokespeople, among others. It states that company representatives “had a duty to disseminate accurate and truthful information” and to correct “materially false or misleading” statements.
The litigation attempts to hold ReconAfrica accountable for alleged misrepresentations that have the potential to “cost investors their life savings,” and it highlights how the company’s actions may be putting the region’s communities, the environment, and wildlife at risk, said Lyman, of Lewis & Clark Law School.
In a press release on October 28, ReconAfrica said it “will undertake vigorous action to defend itself against any such claims.”
In Canada, the Center for International Environmental Law and other groups filed a request on September 16 with the TSX Venture Exchange, where the stock is listed, to investigate possible “misrepresentations” in the company’s public disclosures that may have misled investors and regulators.
In Germany, ReconAfrica also lists its securities on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, and a spokesperson at the financial regulatory agency BaFin confirmed to National Geographic in an email that the agency is “analyzing” the company’s trading activities.
The View from Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy
On a broiling Sunday afternoon in September, a National Geographic reporter drove from the village of Shitemo, on the Okavango River, to Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy to investigate ReconAfrica’s activities.
Namibia’s community wildlife conservancies make up more than 20 percent of the country’s land and are considered examples of how wildlife conservation can promote rural development and protect natural resources.
ReconAfrica’s second test drilling site, near Mbambi, is inside the conservancy.
Originally, according to the company’s own environmental assessment, the drill site was to be outside the protected area, but it was moved inside, about three miles to the northeast. (The company did not answer questions about why the site was moved.)
In the regional capital of Rundu, under a huge kigelia, or “sausage tree,” near the Okavango River, conservancy leader Thomas Muronga raised his soft voice to be heard over the high-pitched kee-kee-kee of Meyer’s parrots feasting on the blossoms above. ReconAfrica’s drill site, he asserted, was inside his community’s conservancy “illegally.”
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.
The company didn’t submit its application to the land board until June 28, nearly six months after the land was cleared and drilling began, according to Muronga, who also sits on the board. The board’s chairman, Bernardino Mbumba, confirmed during a parliamentary hearing in Windhoek on November 23 that the company’s application is still pending—even though ReconAfrica began bulldozing the land for its oil well in January 2021.
In any case, before a communal land board can decide on an application, a company needs to secure written authorization from the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform; the local traditional authority; and, if the land is in a conservancy, the conservancy’s leadership, according to the act.
Even then, a communal land board can’t approve a project if it’s deemed to undermine a conservancy’s goals as laid out in five-year management plans that are filed with the government.
Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy was set up “for the management of wildlife,” not for oil drilling, Muronga said.
It’s unclear if ReconAfrica has permission from the ministry to use the land inside the conservancy (the ministry did not respond to requests for comment), but even so, ministry approval would be only the first move of a multistep process.
Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy’s chairperson, Muronga, said the reserve has not given its permission for drilling and the company never consulted with the conservancy’s management in advance about its drilling plans.
“Suddenly we found that they were within our area,” he said. “They were clearing with bulldozers.”
ReconAfrica says it has a letter of approval to use the land from the traditional authority, a local leader empowered by customary law. But according to the Communal Land Reform Act, such a letter is meaningless without the communal land board’s approval as well.
At the November 23 parliamentary hearing, Mbumba said ReconAfrica had worked for nine months at its first drill site, in Kawe, without approval of the Kavango East Communal Land Board, which manages all the land on which the company is drilling.
Despite this, the land board neither fined the company nor stopped it from drilling. “On that one, we failed,” Mbumba acknowledged, saying the board was preoccupied.
In September, the communal land board retroactively approved the first drill site, but ReconAfrica’s application for use of the second drill site, inside the conservancy, is still pending.
Max Muyemburuko is chairperson of Kavango East and West Regional Conservancy and Community Forest Association, which oversees all conservancies in the region. He’s also chairman of Muduva Nyangana Conservancy, within ReconAfrica’s license area.
He and Muronga have been outspoken about ReconAfrica’s actions during the past year. In May, Muyemburuko told National Geographic that he believed his life was in danger for expressing concerns about the company’s oil exploration activities and treatment of local people.
Yet both men said in September that they’d received unsolicited offers to work for ReconAfrica to monitor wildlife, which they interpreted as attempted bribes.
They said ReconAfrica’s lawyer, Shakwa Nyambe, and a ReconAfrica contractor, Francois Jahs, asked to meet them on May 28 at Kavango River Lodge, in Rundu. Muronga provided National Geographic with an email from Jahs sent two days before, outlining a wildlife-monitoring plan Jahs said he wanted to talk about.
At the meeting, according to Muyemburuko, the two company representatives told them that “whatever assistance that we need, we can just tell them, and they can come up with some solutions.” Muyemburuko interpreted this as an incentive to stop him from criticizing the project.
Muronga noted that Nyambe and Jahs said they’d heard Muronga and Muyemburuko speaking out against the company in the media and understood they “are not happy.”
He said Jahs told him that “if we want to be helped,” they would “take us to work for the company.”
Nyambe encouraged them to accept the job offers, Muyemburuko said, because the conservancy’s “allowance is very small,” and “it cannot take you anywhere.”
“I did not see [the offers] as legal,” said Muyemburuko, who believes they “were made to keep us quiet.”
“Oh yes, that is a bribe,” Muronga agreed. “They wanted to silence us.”
Nyambe denied in an email that he had offered jobs to either Muyemburuko or Muronga, and added: “In my capacity as legal practitioner I have never received any instructions from ReconAfrica to conduct recruitment of persons on behalf of my client.” Jahs did not respond to requests for comment; nor did ReconAfrica, which pointed National Geographic to its anti-bribery policy.
The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act makes it illegal for any company whose securities are listed in the United States, including ReconAfrica, to offer anything of value to a foreign official to evade regulations.
Christopher Bruno, a former U.S. federal prosecutor and former senior counsel with the SEC, said that what the conservancy leaders have described could violate the act, particularly because the company is seeking approval of land permits retroactively.
Because Muronga is a member of the communal land board, which has the ultimate authority to approve or deny leasehold over land that ReconAfrica already has developed, the job offer could be intended as a quid pro quo, Bruno said. “Giving jobs is like giving shares to people in the company,” he said.
ReconAfrica came “with a suitcase of promises,” Mangundu said, but all the “processes they’ve been part of—they’ve been flawed.”
A spokesperson for the company countered in the statement to National Geographic that “ReconAfrica is exploring in Namibia and Botswana at the invitation of the national governments. Ultimately, the people of Namibia and Botswana, through their traditional authorities, elected governments and regulatory agencies, will determine how they will manage their natural resources.”
“We are fighting with a big elephant,” Muronga said. “The people who are on top, giving out authorizations, they will be fine because they have money.” But “at the end of the day, whatever impacts that the project will have, it is going to be on us, who are poor.”