By Jeffrey Barbee and Laurel Neme, National Geographic
Once, the only marks on the ground in remote northeastern Namibia were the round, flat footprints of elephants; the cloven-hoofed spoor of giraffes, elands, sable antelopes, and cattle; and the tracks of a few four-wheel drive vehicles.
Now, imprints of massive tractor tires and octagonal “thumper” plates used to locate oil and gas deposits scar the fragile landscape. The newly bulldozed roads are strewn with dead trees and bushes. A 280-mile-long seismic survey contracted by the Canadian petroleum exploration company ReconAfrica plowed through virgin forest and local croplands and widened existing roads—actions prohibited by the company’s seismic survey permit.
These are just the latest in a string of violations by ReconAfrica in the company’s controversial 14-month-long search for oil and gas in Namibia. On January 26, the Legal Assistance Centre, a Namibian human rights organization, filed a complaint with the country’s environment ministry on behalf of community members, demanding an investigation.
Six families told the Legal Assistance 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 7,000-square-mile desert wetland and UNESCO World Heritage site. Yet despite increasing allegations and evidence of wrongdoing brought to Namibian authorities and international financial regulators, the work has continued.
ReconAfrica’s oil exploration licenses in Namibia and Botswana are within the ecologically sensitive and wildlife-rich Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). Established by five southern African countries to protect the region’s watersheds and myriad threatened species, KAZA holds Africa’s largest remaining population of endangered savanna elephants, as well as endangered wild dogs and black rhinos.
From failing to fully assess environmental risks and line oil waste pits with plastic to protect groundwater to drilling before getting land and water permits, the company has cut corners and flouted laws and regulations, according to official documents and eyewitness accounts. ReconAfrica 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.
ReconAfrica declined to answer questions for this story, but 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.”
Paulos Chiwerda, a 74-year-old farmer in the village of Hamweyi, an isolated settlement of a few hundred huts in ReconAfrica’s exploration area, says he knew nothing about the seismic survey before the huge tractors appeared near his home one day last September. As they thumped across his field, which he’d recently plowed to plant millet, he grew angry.
The company’s permit and environmental plan approved by the government prohibit driving through communal fields and require that ReconAfrica keep communities informed and updated of plans—yet the company violated both conditions.
A National Geographic reporter visited the day after the tractors drove across Chiwerda’s fields, when the octagonal imprints were clearly visible in the sandy soil. For dozens of miles in the same region, the company expanded two-lane tracks into a road the width of a six-lane highway—far beyond the 10-foot-maximum the permit allowed.
Trees and Bushes Ripped up for Miles
ReconAfrica’s seismic testing involves tractors the size of a combine harvester with tires as tall as a person pounding the ground every 10 feet with steel plates that can deliver 860,000 pounds of force with each blow. That’s equivalent to the weight of more than four fully loaded 737 jets—“better than dynamite,” according to Polaris Natural Resources, the Canadian company ReconAfrica hired to do its seismic survey. Those impacts generate underground seismic echoes that can reveal oil and gas deposits. But they also can affect the movements of elephants, whose sensitive feet can register seismic activity from at least a hundred miles away.
ReconAfrica’s environmental clearance permit restricted its work to existing roads and tracks. Yet last September in Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy, trees and bushes were ripped up for dozens of miles along roadsides, and dirt tracks were widened by as much as 60 feet, with piles of soil heaped alongside. The telltale indentations of the thumper plates were everywhere.
In George Mukoya Conservancy, a new road had been cut through the refuge. “They just drove straight through the bush,” says Frank Steffen, head of the Editors’ Forum of Namibia, who visited the conservancy last November. “They often didn’t follow any kind of road at all.”
The company didn’t just violate its permit—it broke the law under Namibia’s Communal Land Reform Act, says Max Muyemburuko, chairperson of Kavango East and West Regional Conservancy and Community Forest Association, which oversees conservancies in this part of the country. Any company planning to work in a conservancy must get approval from its leaders.
“They opened a new road for seismic [surveying] in the conservancy without prior written consent from the conservancy management body,” Muyemburuko says. Muyemburuko told National Geographic last year that representatives of ReconAfrica sought to buy his silence and that of another critical colleague by offering them “help.”
Neither the company nor the ministry responded to questions about cutting or widening new roads. Last June, ReconAfrica said in a statement that its work in Namibia is “guided by—and under the constant review and approval of—representatives of a wide range of government ministries and regulatory agencies.”
Growing concerns about ReconAfrica’s operations have prompted Namibia’s Parliament to hold multiple hearings since last June.
The company has been accused of misleading investors with false and deceptive statements to pump the value of its stock by investors, a whistleblower, and others. Complaints have been filed with securities regulators in the U.S., Germany, and Canada, the three countries where ReconAfrica lists its stock. Last year, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of investors in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of New York alleging federal securities violations.
The company has denied any wrongdoing and said it “will undertake vigorous action to defend itself against any such claims.”
Although ReconAfrica retroactively received land rights last September for its first test well, it still lacks the required land rights for its second. Nonetheless it announced plans on January 20 for as many as six more wells in the region. The company also said it plans to begin 310 more miles of seismic surveying in late February.
Whether it has adequately evaluated the potential environmental impacts of the new survey is unclear.
ReconAfrica has not officially notified registered environmental organizations, community activists, or media about any new survey to offer them the opportunity to comment in writing, as Namibia’s Environmental Management Act requires.
But ReconAfrica told investors this month that new seismic work “is ongoing.”
The new survey will also entail more land clearing, according to a company map seen and verified by National Geographic.
At a meeting last October 29 in George Mukoya Conservancy, ReconAfrica representatives told the community that the new survey would cross hundreds of miles of untouched forest, including within the wildlife refuge. Indeed, a company map shows a seismic survey route planned through a roadless area inside the conservancy.
This is of particular concern to conservationists because roads can divide wildlife populations and open access for illegal deforestation and hunting.
Neither the company nor the government responded to questions about this new survey.
Conflict of Interest?
Last September in Hamweyi, one of the spots where the first seismic survey took place, Chiwerda and other farmers said Alois Gende—who was at times both a leader in the traditional government and a representative of ReconAfrica—presented them with papers in English that they could not read or understand. They said they signed because they felt intimidated by his leadership position, but now they’re worried they may have signed away their land or their rights.
National Geographic has been unable to determine what the paperwork said.
ReconAfrica declined to answer questions about the documents, and Gende did not reply to multiple WhatsApp or Facebook messages or answer his phone.
According to Christopher Bruno, a former federal prosecutor and former senior counsel with the SEC, Gende appears to have had a conflict of interest that could have given ReconAfrica an unfair business advantage, potentially in violation of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. As a traditional leader, Gende had sway over decisions to approve or deny permission for commercial land use, such as drilling a well, in the region.
“On its face, such divided loyalties would effectively compromise Gende’s duty to act solely in the best interests of the local community,” Bruno says. “If the goal of the company was to gain an unfair advantage to acquire land, then Recon Africa’s retention of Gende may satisfy the ‘corrupt motive’ requirement of the act.”
ReconAfrica declined to comment on Gende’s apparent conflict of interest and potential violations of anti-corruption law.
“We are not happy at signing papers which were not properly explained to us,” Chiwerda, the elderly farmer, said through a translator. He fears he may now be in jeopardy of losing his small farm to the oil company. “Our lives depend on this land.”
Mathilde Mangumba, who lives about two miles from Chiwerda, said through a translator that she also signed documents she couldn’t read. Like him, she worries that she may have signed away her land.
She had heard about a farmer in Mbambi, the site of ReconAfrica’s second test well, who filed a lawsuit against the company last April asserting that his “land had been taken without any consultation whatsoever.” (The company has said it had “documented permission” from the local traditional leader to clear the Mbambi farmer’s land, but Namibian law also requires permission from the regional land board, which ReconAfrica does not have, according to Thomas Muronga, a member of the board and chairperson of the conservancy where ReconAfrica illegally drilled its second well.)
“It’s concerning that Recon is marketing the project as full steam ahead with so many open questions as to the legality of their operations,” 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, said in an email. “It seems that the wheels of justice in Namibia need to catch up.”
Standing in front of his wooden fence under the shade of a big tree last September, Chiwerda grew agitated as he talked about ReconAfrica. Flinging his faded blue cap to the ground, he shouted, “They take my land, they take my life!”