Locals from Rundu, Namibia, remember a time when the footprints of large animals such as elephants, giraffes and antelope could be seen on the soft soils.
Now the ground bears only the indents of large truck tyres, the machines they carried used – according to locals and National Geographic – to flatten virgin forests, plough through local farmland and widen narrow roads.
A Canadian petroleum exploration company, ReconAfrica, has been accused by six families from Rundu of violating the terms of their seismic exploration permits. The company was granted a permit to conduct a 450km-long seismic survey by Namibian authorities in 2020.
ReconAfrica believes that the Kavango Basin holds significant amounts of recoverable oil. The company’s exploration licence covers over 21 000 square kilometres, much of which is situated near the famed Okavango Delta and is home to some 200 000 people and abundant wildlife, including the world’s largest remaining elephant herds.
The destruction of pristine virgin forest, farmlands, and the widening of existing road infrastructure are all prohibited actions, clearly stipulated in the survey permit.
National Geographic reported that on January 26 this year, the Legal Assistance Centre, a Namibian human rights organisation, filed a complaint with the country’s environment ministry on behalf of community members, demanding an investigation.
Six families told the centre that ReconAfrica representatives “entered their properties without permission, concluded seismic survey activities, and compelled them to sign papers without explaining their contents before leaving”, according to the complaint. It further alleges that people’s homes were damaged by the thumping and that the company’s surveyors cut “new roads in virgin territory without consulting local communities”.
Since October 2020, National Geographic has documented a pattern of ReconAfrica breaking rules and ignoring environmental and community concerns in its quest for oil and gas in a vital part of the watershed of the world-famous Okavango Delta, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Yet despite increasing allegations and evidence of wrongdoing brought to the attention of Namibian authorities and international financial regulators, the work has continued.
The company drilled two test wells before applying for all the required rights and permits, and relocated the second, without permission, inside a wildlife conservancy.
Protests in Namibia and loud criticism abroad seem to have done nothing to slow the company’s work.
In a statement emailed to National Geographic in December, the company said: “ReconAfrica categorically denies that it engaged in any wrongdoing.”
It added: “The company’s commitment to ethics and business conduct are based on the highest standards of corporate governance, respect, integrity, and responsibility.”