In 1964, Flai Kalenga Mbwenga went looking for some good grazing land.
Mbwenga was a small-scale farmer who lives in northern Namibia, close to the Kavango River that forms part of the border between his country and neighbouring Angola.
Like nearly all the rural people in his country, Mbwenga’s family’s livelihood came from small-scale and mixed farming, raising a few livestock and cultivating staple crops such as pearl millet, maize, and wheat, as well as vegetables and tree crops on family farms.
As his grandson Jonas Mbwenga tells it, his grandfather found just the land he was looking for in a place he called Mbambi, a name derived from the word for the oryx, the long-horned African antelope that lived there. There, Mbwenga settled with his family.
They fetched water from a borehole that was drilled by the South African regime during the apartheid era, when South Africa set up an interim administration in Namibia. The country obtained its full independence from South Africa only in 1990.
Jonas Mbwenga says his grandfather died in 2018. But by then, his family had called Mbambi home for decades, and some of his descendants – a household of 10 – still depended on the five-hectare farm for their livelihoods.
Then in March this year, Mbwenga says that out of the blue, a chain-link fence went up around their farm.
Unbeknownst to the family, the Canadian company Reconnaissance Energy Africa — or ReconAfrica — had somehow taken possession of the land to drill for gas and oil.
Jonas Mbwenga recalls getting the phone call informing him that someone had been sent to the area to recruit people to clear his family’s farmland.
Mbwenga is 37 years old, the father of three, and a science teacher at a secondary school 40 kilometres from Mbambi. He spends his weeks at school, and travels to the family home in Mbambi each weekend.
But when he received that alarming phone call about the fence and land-clearing, he drove home. The family then learned from the Mbambi head woman that ReconAfrica had sent a person to the Shambyu Traditional Authority that governs in the area, and that person said the company would be bringing “development.”
In an interview over Whatsapp, Jonas Mbwenga tells the Halifax Examiner that ReconAfrica’s envoy, Alois Gende, had asked the Traditional Authority to help recruit 10 people to clear the land, and then paid them the equivalent of US$12-15 for the work.
After that, the Mbwenga family set out to try to find out how the Canadian company had obtained their family’s land. It was an intense and frustrating process that involved many meetings and letters to lawyers, ReconAfrica, the Traditional Authority, and even Namibia’s Ombudsman.
Their quest uncovered a lot that, in Mbwenga’s view, was “fishy.”
He says when they confronted the chair of the Traditional Authority about his signature appearing on the consent letter that gave ReconAfrica the Mbwenga family farm for its drilling, the chair told them his signature had been forged, and alleged that the “mess-up” was the fault of the ReconAfrica representative.
“So now we knew that things were cooked,” Mbwenga says. “We sat as a family. We saw we are fighting a huge battle here, which was also politically influenced.”
They were about to give up, he says, when they learned that the Legal Assistance Centre would take on their cause.
The Mbwenga family then submitted two affidavits to the Namibian High Court, which is where the matter now sits.
The company has also recruited people to support it in affidavits, and in return, Mbwenga says, it is putting in borehole wells for those who provided the supporting affidavit.
“They’re bribing now,” he alleges.
Further, the headwoman who Mbwenga says “stood firm to the truth” has been removed and replaced by someone who contributed to the company’s affidavit.
Asked what the company has told the people in the area about any possible negative effects of oil exploration and exploitation, Mbwenga replies, “Zero. They have never explained anything to the community.”
Nor has the company done so where it is drilling in neighbouring Botswana, according to this August 2021 report by The Voice newspaper.
The ReconAfrica story is a complex and controversial one.
ReconAfrica has taken out exploration licences covering 30,000 square kilometres, nearly half the size of Nova Scotia, in northern Namibia and Botswana. There are two World Heritage sites in the region — the Okavango Delta and Tsodilo Hills. It is also home to the San and other Indigenous people, and there are “critical freshwater sources and endangered wildlife,” that are of extreme importance and vulnerability in such arid countries.
Namibia is the driest country in sub-Sahara Africa.
Critics view ReconAfrica’s efforts to open up “a new frontier of oil and gas production” in the Okavango Delta watershed “in the midst of a mounting climate emergency” as deeply concerning from both “a human rights and environmental perspective.”
In August 2021, civil society groups in Namibia held a media conference at which speakers detailed the many problems they see with ReconAfrica’s operations.
One of the speakers, Matthew Totten Jr., who worked for years for British Petroleum in operations and explorations, both onshore and offshore, questioned whether there is even commercial oil in what ReconAfrica calls the “Kavango Basin” and said there is “no real proof.”
ReconAfrica acitivities “outrageous”
Totten alleged that the much of the hype around the project, and thus the company’s high share prices, were the result of “paid promotion” by the company itself on the website Oilprice.com.
According to Totten, the company’s activities in one of Africa’s “most pristine wildlife areas is outrageous, to say the least.”
He noted that there is a “green development alternative,” pointing to an April 2021 announcement by the US embassy in Namibia about a clean energy future for Southern Africa through “Mega Solar.”
Totten said that ReconAfrica has been inconsistent in what it tells investors and the public, originally calling its finds “unconventional” that would require fracking, and then, after the public learned of this and protested in the Namibian capital Windhoek in December 2020, changing its story and saying it was going after “conventional” oil.
Resource curse will harm women
Another speaker at the media conference was Rinaani Musutua, a trustee of the Economic and Social Justice Trust, a small non-governmental organization in Namibia.
Over Whatsapp, Musutua tells the Examiner that the ReconAfrica activities in the Kavango Region, which are being allowed by the Namibian government, are evidence of the “state capture” in her country.
Musutua points out that Namibia is a resource-rich country, with diamonds and uranium, and yet, she says, “64% of the population lives in poverty.”
“You will never find a Namibian who will tell you how they have benefited from our natural wealth. Never. I don’t know where that income goes,” Musutua says. “We are a poor country, although we are really rich.”
Musutua calls this a “resource curse,” and says the ReconAfrica oil exploration in the Kavango Region is “just another resource curse in the making.”
According to Musutua, about 200,000 people live in the Kavango Region, and the majority of them depend on agriculture, their only source of income.
So it’s really, really important that they have access to land, fertile land, healthy, and not polluted in order for them to continue surviving. If you take away their land or you destroy the land with mining [oil and gas] activities that are destructive or polluting, then you are really doing them a big, big disfavour, actually. And another thing is that within the Kavango Region, there are different tribes, and a huge population of the San community. They get their food from the field; they are hunters and gatherers. So if you’re going to take that away from them as well, it means that you’re ruining their life.
If they are unable to sustain themselves using ancestral lands, Musutua says, there will be still more urban migration, which causes immense suffering, as rural people wind up living in informal settlements, in “deplorable conditions” in cities.
Musutua says that the oil and gas operations will also “affect women in a very negative way.” While many men work in more urban areas to earn money, women and children tend to stay in rural areas and farm for their livelihoods. Should the oil and gas operations ramp up, Musutua says that there would be a high risk of increased incidence of “transactional sexual activities” because of male workers demanding those services, and because, especially if they lose their land and livelihoods, women will need to engage in these for their survival.
And that, Musutua adds, will lead to the spread of HIV/AIDS in a country that has the fifth highest rate of the disease in the world and where it is the leading cause of death.
When she visited the Kavongo Region, an eight-hour drive from the Namibian capital Windhoek, in March this year, Musutua says that that the security around the ReconAfrica drilling site was “intimidating.”
She says it was disappointing to hear a farmer in the area say he thought ReconAfrica’s presence was a good thing because it will provide jobs. Musutua explains:
This person is never going to get a job there. The promises that have been made to these people are just unrealistic. There is no one – no one – in that area who will ever be able to work for the company, get a proper job that will help them escape poverty. They don’t have the skills for that specific industry. ReconAfrica brought its own people to come and do the job, and the local people just clear that land and so some cleaning here and there, and guard the gate, just those small, small jobs for one or two weeks… And then they are fired and then they employ another group of people again, just to push the numbers up to look like they have employed many Namibians.
“It’s going to get worse if this company continues with its operations. More people will lose their homes and their livelihoods,” Musutua says.
As Musutua got involved in the issue and learned what the company was doing, she says, “I got really pissed off … because this company thinks that they can come here and do whatever they want, and disregard everybody, disregard the country’s laws.”
ReconAfrica is based in Calgary
The ReconAfrica story involves players from around the world.
It involves a BC-headquartered but Calgary-based company working in southern Africa, which is listed on stock exchanges in Canada (TSXV), the United States (OTCQX), and Germany (Frankfurt).
ReconAfrica’s claims about its oil and gas finds — whether they are conventional deposits or shale resources that would require fracking — have earned the company extremely critical reports from the Delaware-based investigative firm, Viceroy Research, and resulted in a request from civil society groups to the TSX Venture Exchange for an investigation into “potential misrepresentations” in its disclosures about its operations in Namibia.
According to the September 16, 2021 press release from the civil society groups:
ReconAfrica initially described the “Kavango Basin” as a significant shale play, referring to its potential for unconventional oil and gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing (fracking). After the company’s August 2020 announcement that it planned to drill for oil and gas in the Okavango region, local media reported concern over the project, including prospective fracking. On September 18, 2020, the Government of Namibia issued a joint media release with ReconAfrica’s local subsidiary, disclaiming plans to frack. Thereafter, mentions of “unconventional” and “shale” were removed from the company’s public communications, including its website and disclosures.
In August 2021, investment banker turned activist, Marco Rodzynek, wrote a scathing report of ReconAfrica’s operations and financial dealings, entitled “Anatomy of a billion dollar scam.” This is some of what Rodzynek has to say about the company’s activities:
ReconAfrica, through paid-for online publications like Oilprice.com, says they are sitting on the biggest onshore oil discovery of the decade. But our research following the money and investors’ capital shows that the company is simply a prefabricated online marketing campaign using digital advertising methods to make this fake news appear a reality.
If the company’s purpose is not to pump oil but to pump stock, as the research firm Viceroy alleges, then they have been fabulously successful. This tiny oil company with few assets, no oil in place and zero earnings has grown to nearly a billion-dollar company in the last year alone.
Despite announcing in April that they had found “a working petroleum system” in the supposed “newly discovered” Kavango Basin, the company has shown no independent analysis to back up these claims. The announcement did however coincide with a massive and potentially illegal online marketing campaign that pumped the stock price from 2 to 10 US Dollars in just six weeks.
ReconAfrica’s ongoing drilling program is being conducted in the world’s largest protected international wildlife reserve, the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (“KAZA”), covering five nations — an area bigger than France. This massive park protects the world’s largest remaining herd of endangered elephants as well as dozens of other endangered species, like the Slaty Egret and Temmincks ground pangolin, which has been nearly poached to extinction.
The interlinked Kavango River, Okavango Delta and the Omatako ephemeral underground river which flows past ReconAfrica’s drill sites support almost a million people with sustainable livelihoods. The company’s drilling operations are already potentially damaging local water supplies in violation of Namibia’s environmental laws.
Nova Scotians take on ReconAfrica
So what, you may well ask, does this all have to do with Nova Scotia, and why are you reading this in the Halifax Examiner?
Well, it turns out there is a Nova Scotia connection to this story.
Two Nova Scotians have been paying a great deal of attention to the ReconAfrica controversy and documenting their concerns about the company.
One is Rob Parker, who has not just been writing about ReconAfrica. He’s been active in the campaign to oppose ReconAfrica’s operations since he first got wind of the company’s activities in Namibia earlier this year.
Parker is a Nova Scotian who has been living in Namibia for the past 15 years, although he is currently back in the province with his Namibian-Canadian family.
In Namibia, Parker was working as a social media consultant, and also as a copywriter at the country’s largest daily newspaper. He describes himself as a consumer rights activist, who has campaigned for a basic income grant and other social justice issues in Namibia.
“These are your people, what are you going to do?”
Parker tells the Examiner how he was drawn into the ReconAfrica controversy:
I had heard something about an oil company coming to the Okavango Delta to do fracking, but I didn’t believe it. Like a lot of people in Namibia, we just didn’t believe that was going to happen. Then, back in December  and January  I started to see things appearing on Facebook and some guy started tagging me like, “Hey, you know, these are your people. What are you going to do?”
Parker says a friend then put him in touch with a group called Frack Free Namibia & Botswana, and there was no turning back.
In March, Parker and his 11-year-old daughter traveled from Windhoek to the Kavango Region with fellow activist Rinaani Musutua and her son. There they met with people in local communities, including Jonas Mbwenga whose family’s land in Mbambi had been fenced in for drilling.
They also discovered that the pit in Mbambi where ReconAfrica was putting its drilling wastewater was unlined.
Alarmed by that discovery, Parker drafted a complaint that he intends to send to the TSXV. Among other things, Parker states:
The company has failed to install a barrier between their wastewater and the ground. The company states that no liner is required because the company has been using an “organic” water based fluid to drill. Even if this is the case, it does not obviate the need for the company to line their drill mud pits. The water that is returned to the surface after drilling contains, at least according to ReconAfrica, oil and potentially naturally occurring radioactive waste. Canadian companies face stringent regulations in Canada, as would be known to the directors of ReconAfrica. The company has ignored these safety guidelines and has chosen to mislead the nation of Namibia. The company, through their spokesperson Shapwanale and through print documents, has repeatedly stated that they intend to donate the wastewater to small farmers to use on their crops.
There is much about the company’s operations that Parker says is problematic. He alleges that it is common practice for an oil lawyer “to come into a country in Africa and make a deal with connected middlemen, whereby they are then put in touch with insiders, decision-makers, ministers who can make things happen.”
Parker says that Jay Park, chair of ReconAfrica’s board, “is a Canadian oil lawyer with many years of experience over a dozen African countries,” something Park’s company biography confirms.
In Parker’s view, there is a tendency for extractive companies to look for “weak regulatory capacity and low levels of political will to go after people who are connected to people very high up.”
Even from Nova Scotia, Parker says he is often on conference calls with Namibian colleagues who tell him what is happening there:
People are really angry. They’ve been lied to. They were promised jobs and they never got jobs … And ReConAfrica isn’t just promising a few jobs, they’re promising development right now, schools, roads, hospitals, you know. These are the things that their spokespeople say on the air. And it’s just not true. They haven’t delivered jobs to people who have gotten work, have gotten low paid work on two week stretches, which is a violation of Namibia’s labour law.
The CORE problem in Canada
Parker has been campaigning to attract Canadian politicians’ and public attention to ReconAfrica, and to the serious shortcomings of the Canadian Ombudsman for Responsible Enterprise, or CORE.
According to the Canadian government, CORE is supposed to be a “human rights ombud” who reviews “complaints about possible human rights abuses by Canadian companies when those companies work outside Canada in the garment, mining, and oil and gas sectors.”
Canadians should know that we were promised a CORE ombudsman with power, and it’s countries like Namibia that pay the price for the lack of political will and the failure of our political leaders to stand up to industry. We were promised the CORE ombudsman back in the 2015 election. So, for people in Nova Scotia and Canada, they must be aware that people in Latin America are talking about us. People in Africa, they’re talking about us. You know those days where you used to wear the Canadian flag on your hat, they might be over because of what these companies are doing, and the failure of Canadian authorities to hold them accountable. There are a lot of Canadians who are who are upset by this. I talk to them all the time, and we must put pressure on our leaders that just says, “Look, we don’t want human rights violations happening in our name.”
When the office was originally announced, they would have had the power to investigate and compel documents and get answers from people. So, those were the powers that were taken away. The CORE office never got them. That’s what we were promised. And then they just didn’t deliver because by the time the office opened, those powers were gone because of the intense industry lobby.
Now, Parker says, the CORE office is toothless. “It advises and encourages dialogue, and says, ‘Let’s sit down with the people who stole your house and dialogue about it.’”
He admits that it’s not easy to get people to buy into something that may seem so far away, but says:
I would ask people to contact their member of parliament and ask what happened to our CORE ombudsman that we were promised in 2015. I mean, if nothing else, it should offend us as Canadians that this small, small group of people in the mining industry has overruled what I think the Canadian consensus would be, that we don’t want this happening in our name. All the Canadians that I can think of would feel that way. I think it’s a very small minority that have hijacked an element of our democracy here, and decided for themselves that they don’t want to be accountable to anybody as they operate around the world.
“They’re throwing confusion about”
Elizabeth Kosters is another Nova Scotian who has been delving into and writing about the ReconAfrica operations in Namibia. Kosters is a retired sedimentary geologist and professor, who has worked on natural gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico basin and taught sedimentary geology and petroleum geology at Utrecht University in The Netherlands, and at Acadia and Dalhousie Universities in Nova Scotia.
Kosters says she heard about ReconAfrica’s operations in Namibia through a South African geologist friend, who has a great deal of experience in mining, and in oil and gas.
Her friend pointed out to her that ReconAfrica is a Canadian company, and said that what was going on was “really awful.”
Kosters then undertook and published an extensive literature review of the geology of the area.
Kosters says that what ReconAfrica calls the “Kavango Basin” is being portrayed as a “separate sub-basin” from the Owambo Basin, where previous exploration has not turned up any oil or gas deposits of any significance.
“The literature does not show that there is such a basin,” Kosters tells the Examiner.
So even if there is a small basin there, it is tied to these other basins, which have never yielded anything important … If there is anything there, and they keep saying that they have a working petroleum system, they’re not telling us. They’re not telling the public in which interval… That’s weird, because that’s a very basic bit of information. So then they’re saying, “Oh well we may have seen a lake there,” but they indicated no age… They’re throwing confusion about.
“A lake” (in the fossil record) would mean fresh water. Fresh water biota are very different from salt water biota. The 500-700 million year old limestones which are known to exist further to the west (never documented in the Kavango area) are salt water (marine) limestones. Organisms didn’t have an exterior skeleton (shell) before 500 million years ago, so the limestones are algal, hence finely laminated, hence needing fracking to be produced. If ‘there was a lake there’, then it must be part of a much younger interval (and you would easily be able to tell that by the biota), so if they want to take away confusion and suspicion, they should be clear about that difference.
Kosters says that the area was inaccessible for a long time because of all the land mines, but that it is “very unlikely” that things were missed, concluding that, “None of the literature indicates that there was ever a deep basin there.”
Kosters says ReconAfrica seems to be targeting limestones that are “very finely laminated.” That means they would have to frack to produce any petroleum, she says, “if there is even anything producible in there.”
In Kosters’ view there are two major problems with ReconAfrica’s activities in northern Namibia:
Namibia says it doesn’t allow fracking. That’s one. So why would you even go there, if that is officially the law? But second, this is … the watershed of the Okavango Delta, which is one of the last remaining unique wilderness areas in that part of the world. So it would, by definition, pollute that water and it would also reduce the amount of water that flows into the Okavango watershed. And that would be a crime, because you need so much water for fracking.
ReConAfrica tells a different story
ReConAfrica, not surprisingly, refutes these criticisms.
The Halifax Examiner asked ReconAfrica what considerations the company had made about its operations, given the climate crisis, and warnings from scientists that no more oil and gas infrastructure should be built to avert a catastrophic global temperature rise.
The reply from Ian La Couvée, Principal, ReCon Africa:
It has been acknowledged by governments around the world that the transition away from oil and gas will take time and that some countries will take longer than others to make the shift. Oil and gas will remain part of most countries’ energy mix for many years to come. Namibia and Botswana are eager to industrialize their countries and will require oil and gas to support that effort. ReconAfrica is committed to carbon-neutrality and will work with Namibia and Botswana to support their net-zero objectives.
The Examiner also asked for the company’s response to the request from civil society groups to the TSX-V for an investigation into “potential misrepresentations” in its disclosures and public communications.
La Couvée’s answer:
The request focuses on misinformation regarding the potential for hydraulic fracturing (“fracing”) in Namibia. ReconAfrica has not applied for, does not want, nor been granted or given, permits to allow ‘fracing’ – a point which ReconAfrica, and the governments of Namibia and Botswana, have gone to great lengths to publicly confirm. As recently announced, a study conducted by Netherland Sewell & Associates Inc. has identified five potential conventional reservoir zones in the 6-2 well – meaning that if the government decided to enter into production from those zones, fracing is not required.
ReconAfrica respects the fact that some organisations have concerns about resource development in the region. We believe the most effective means of mitigating such concerns is through dialogue and engagement, to ensure that those groups have the information they need to fully understand our project and the social and environmental commitments we have made.
We believe the region’s stable energy industry can be developed in an environmentally and socially responsible manner that is accountable and supports the development and delivery of much-needed economic and social benefits, as well as funding investments in local wildlife and ecological conservation.
We are committed to continuing to work closely with, and under the direct oversight of, the governments in both countries, as well as their regional and traditional authorities, to ensure we continue to comply with relevant laws and regulations throughout all the stages of our operation.
Furthermore, in Namibia, ReconAfrica has a joint operating agreement with the state-owned oil-and-gas company, NAMCOR. 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.
Elisabeth Kosters tells the Examiner she is “glad to hear there is no intention of fracking because ReconAfrica discovered conventional reservoir intervals.” However, she is still not satisfied with the explanation, saying:
I’m puzzled as to why the company doesn’t reveal which stratigraphic intervals these reservoirs are part of, as the general stratigraphy of the region is quite well understood so they must know themselves. They have no reason not to do so as they have no competition in the region, having the rights to all the leases. Publishing this information would take away a lot of suspicion.
It’s a Canadian company, and Canadian companies overseas have a terrible reputation. They often ignore any kind of environmental regulation … From my perspective as a geologist, I find it very disturbing that my profession behaves unethically abroad. And I don’t think we should tolerate that, as Canadians and I don’t think our government should tolerate that. … Canadian companies shouldn’t be allowed to behave in such a rapacious manner outside Canada or even inside Canada. But in this case, I just find that completely unethical. Altogether aside from the fact that we shouldn’t be exploring for oil and gas at all, and that this is totally not something that Namibia needs. They have all of two and a half million people, and they can generate electricity in many other ways without having to do this.
It remains wholly irresponsible to explore for hydrocarbons in this region because of the disturbance of wildlife and the risk of pollution of the headwaters of the Okavango Delta. In addition, it remains wholly irresponsible to explore for new hydrocarbon plays in the current climate crisis.
In June this year, 183 organizations from around the world wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “hold ReconAfrica accountable” for its “massive oil and gas plans near the Okavango Delta.
So far, there is no sign that the Trudeau government intends to do so, or that ReconAfrica has any intention of changing its plans.
As recently as October 5, Frack Free Namibia issued a press release, which states:
We strongly condemn Canadian oil and gas company #ReconAfrica’s destructive and unlawful seismic acquisition activities and deviations from its original Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC).
Meanwhile, Jonas Mbwenga and the household of ten in the family can do nothing but wait to see what the Namibian High Court decides about their farmland that ReconAfrica somehow obtained and fenced in for drilling.
And now insult has been added to the injury they suffered.
Mbwenga tells the Examiner that company representatives are convincing people in the area that his family is “blocking development.”
“We are termed the bad people,” Mbwenga says.
Asked what his father and family members are doing these days without access to their farmland, he replies, “Just sitting.”
All they want, Mbwenga says, is their land back.