File photo: Greg Maxwell.

Johannesburg - Survival International, a British-based NGO, says the world should pay attention to the potential threat that hydraulic fracturing for gas has for the indigenous Khoisan people of Botswana.

The organisation, which aims to protect the rights of indigenous tribes, reported yesterday that large parts of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve – home to Africa’s last hunting Khoisan – had been opened up to international companies for the controversial practice of fracking.

If the Botswana government’s plans go ahead, it could be the first country in southern Africa to carry out the extraction of gas from deep underground. But the government says that it has issued coal bed methane prospecting licences and that was not the same thing as hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, which is embedded in rock deep underground. In coal bed extraction processes, natural gas is, however, also extracted.

In a statement, acting permanent secretary in the ministry of mineral, energy and water resources Nchidzi Mmolawa, deputy permanent secretary for government communication in the office of the president Jeff Ramsay and acting deputy permanent secretary for environmental affairs Portia Segomelo said the Botswana government had received “a number of enquiries” about “supposed fracking” over the past week.

Fracking, they said, was a slang term describing a process involving sub-surface fracturing of rocks usually through the injection of fluids.

They confirmed, however, that Botswana’s Minister of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources had issued three prospecting licences for coal bed methane in the reserve, including to Tlou Energy Botswana. Tlou is based in Brisbane, Australia.

“There are currently no fracking operations going on in the country except exploration drilling by various exploration companies,” they said.

South Africa’s government has given the green light, subject to certain conditions, to hydraulic fracturing, and Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies said the government wanted to get the process off the ground in the Karoo before next year’s election.

The Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) noted: “Botswana has been caught with its pants down.”

Jonathan Deal, the TKAG chief executive, said while he did not think that the Botswana experiment could be stopped in its tracks, he described it as a wake-up call to the South African authorities. “The controversy has thrown a spotlight on fracking in southern Africa… it is certainly helping our cause,” he said last night.

Survival International reported yesterday that a leaked map showed that exploration concessions had been granted for half of the game reserve, which it said was larger than Switzerland. This raised fears of land grabbing, a drop in water levels and irreparable damage to a fragile ecosystem essential for the survival of the Khoisan and the reserve’s wildlife.

In a documentary film, High Cost of Cheap Gas, it was reported that Tlou had already started drilling exploratory wells for coal bed methane “on the traditional hunting territory of the Khoisan”.

South Africa’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Deputy Minister, Pieter Mulder, who leads the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), said his party did not wish to prescribe to a neighbouring country how it should approach and manage fracking in its territory.

However, his party believed that in a democratic system where human rights, as well as the rights of indigenous people, were recognised “a public participation process is an important issue when it comes to fracking”.

Transparency was a cornerstone of democracy and if a government recognised the rights of its people, it should give communities and minorities the opportunity to participate in a public participation system, he said. The FF+ is the only parliamentary party in South Africa that has unreservedly opposed hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo.

“The FF+ is opposed to fracking as there has been insufficient research undertaken to determine the effect of fracking on the land, as well as the socio-economic impact on communities living in areas where fracking takes place.

A Khoisan leader in the reserve, Jumanda Gakelebone, told Survival International that the government was “doing everything it can to try to destroy us. They have lied in the past about diamond mining, but now there is a functioning mine in the reserve. Fracking is going to destroy our environment and if the environment is destroyed our livelihoods are too.” - Business Report