Small gathering of lechwe antelopes, Okavango Delta. Image credit: Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons

Imagine the silence of the bushveld, punctuated by the calls of the African eagle or the chuffing of hippos, along with flashes of colour as kingfishers dart by. Wild dogs lie in wait in the tall blades of grass and hundreds of elephants trudge through water.

This abundance of life flourishes in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, known as the Okavango wilderness region. Covering 2.5 million square kilometres and spanning three countries — Angola, Botswana and Namibia — the Okavango wilderness region, which includes the Okavango Delta, is a biodiversity hotspot in Africa and the world. It’s one of the last truly wild places left.

A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Delta is home to a diversity of birds, plants, the largest African elephant population left on the planet, and endangered species such as cheetahs, black and white rhinos, and wild dogs. The region is also the ancestral land and one of the last places of refuge for the San and other Indigenous groups in Southern Africa, while the Okavango River supports the water security of more than one million people.

These rich life systems are in serious danger of irreparable harm from the oil drilling activities of Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica), a Canadian company. In January 2021, ReconAfrica began exploratory drilling for oil on the first of three wells in the Kavango Basin, upstream from the Okavango Delta.

The licensed area covers 35,000 square kilometres, an area larger than Belgium, and overlaps with the continent’s biggest cross-country conservation park, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Namibian, Botswana and global environmentalists are concerned that the project will destroy efforts to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius by using one-sixth of the global carbon budget. Meanwhile ReconAfrica stands to benefit from 90 per cent of the profits, with Namibia only receiving 10 per cent in exchange for the destruction of its wildlife.

Already in the first exploration phase, ReconAfrica’s practices are raising numerous concerns from Indigenous and local communities. The company has failed to answer their questions: for example, what is the plan for the wastewater produced by the exploration, and what are the conditions for actual consultations, including translation?

Closer to home, ReconAfrica is facing allegations of fraud in their bid to secure funding from stock exchange investors. According to a recent National Geographic investigation, a whistleblower complaint filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), cites over 150 instances of misleading statements by ReconAfrica. The complaint alleges the company raised millions of dollars fraudulently, alluding to claims several top executives sold their shares as ReconAfrica promoted the stock. How can we expect more accountability from ReconAfrica if they are already acting so recklessly, at home and abroad?

As the internationally acclaimed South African climate scientist Prof Bob Scholes, who sadly passed away on April 28, 2021, said:

“You’re going to hear all kinds of big promises from the likes of ReconAfrica who are trying to sell something of course … when the word gets out that there is a gas field development, people flood in from everywhere and in modern development we are only talking about (creating) a couple of hundred of jobs. The highly skilled jobs will be occupied by expats… but people don’t know that, shanty towns develop and when it goes away the bubble bursts and the community have no resources left to support them.”

The situation of the Kavango Basin is one of too many examples. It highlights the urgency to increase not only the accountability of Canadian companies overseas, but also shows the lack of measures in place to actually hold companies accountable. Even the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) does not have the power to investigate abuses, leaving affected communities without the proper structure to serve them.

As a signatory of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Canada should ensure that Indigenous peoples’ and Kavango’s rights are indeed protected from the exploration and extraction of oil and gas in the place they call home since time immemorial. Yet, their opposition to the project remains ignored, and their rights violated.

Ina-Maria Shikongo, Namibian Fridays For Future coordinator and front-line defender asks:

“Our lives as Namibian people mean nothing to greedy corporate powers like Recon Africa. How is it that in this world today, a foreign company would have more rights to our lands before us, the people? What does it mean to be a citizen when my rights as a citizen are stripped away by lawless company Recon Africa?”

Fuelled by their desire for profit, ReconAfrica’s oil exploration activity in the Kavango Basin is yet another example of a new threat with an old story — neocolonialism. Instead of the previous direct or indirect military and political control by foreign governments, multinational corporations have become the latest colonial powers, carving out pieces of Africa and working to undermine Africans democratic control of their land and water resources.

At the site of the first well, Canada’s flag even flutters above Namibia’s, violating the country’s national constitution which stipulates that the national flag must be flown on a separate staff from other international or national flags.

While the drilling of the second well is underway, the International Energy Agency released a roadmap to reach net zero by 2050. It leaves no ambiguity that there can be no investment in new fossil-fuel supply projects and an immediate phase-out of current projects is needed.

Canada’s promises of ambitious climate regulation will not be credible if Canadian companies such as ReconAfrica dig for new fossil-fuel projects. Communities have the right to say no. It is time to stand together to stop the continued exploitation of Africa’s people and natural resources.

We cannot stay idle and must answer the multiple calls to action led by Indigenous people, local communities, and civil society groups. On Africa Day, you can make a difference in helping #SavetheOkavangoDelta, fight for the #WorldWeWant and #ChooseLife by taking the following actions:

Sign and share this petition.

Learn more and raise awareness on this critical issue by joining the Grandmothers Advocacy Network’s panel on May 28 at 1:30 p.m.

Ask your local civil society organizations to sign on to this open letter to Canadian government officials by May 27.

Amy Giliam is the branch manager of the African branch of The Climate Reality Project and André-Yanne Parent is the executive director of The Climate Reality Project Canada.

Image credit: Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons