'The largest oil play of the decade'

Move along: elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. 

The world burns. But oil exploration continues. It could cost the earth. And local communities are already paying the price.

The exploitation of petroleum resources has routinely been accompanied by extreme ecological harms.

‘Unprecedented’ is a word used all too often to describe 2020 and 2021. Covid-19 has changed the world irreversibly and unleashed tragedy, fear and uncertainty on a monumental scale.

‘Unprecedented’ describes the images of subways in China and the United States gushing water as desperate commuters struggle to escape.

‘Unprecedented’ were the 50 degrees felt in Canadian forests, where temperatures rarely exceed 25. Unprecedented are the fires that have ignited on every single continent of the planet, except Antarctica, for now.


‘Unprecedented’ is the type of action we must collectively engage in as we attempt to emerge from one global crisis and step into the next.

Multiple lock-downs have not only forced many to reconsider relationships with one another and with the natural world, but have laid bare the vast chasm existing between more developed countries and those with greater development needs. 

Every passing summer seems to bring with it more extreme weather events, signs of the increasing urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and the threat to all life on Earth.

A recent report from the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation found extreme weather events have increased five fold between 1970 and 2019.

July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded, and a heatwave scorched parts of Canada and the western United States, claiming the lives of almost 200 people and blotting out the sun thousands of kilometres away in New York City. Germany and China experienced deadly floods, as Madagascar suffered its worst drought ever recorded.

The exploitation of petroleum resources has routinely been accompanied by extreme ecological harms.


The Parana River, which feeds the mighty River Plate basin, is at its lowest levels since the 1940s.

Sixteen years to the day after the most costly hurricane in history, Katrina, Hurricane Ida hit the north-eastern coast of the United States, and became the fifth strongest storm on United States records, plunging millions into darkness. Thankfully, this time, the levies which protect New Orleans held. 

The first few days of September brought news of flooding in New York City that have claimed the lives of at least 40 people. A state of emergency was declared by the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, and the images of flooded subways echo events in China mere weeks before.

As each passing day brings with it news of natural disasters and extreme weather events, 'business as usual’ seems increasingly unrealistic. Nowhere is safe or will remain unscathed - this is a problem which affects us all.

Welcome to tomorrow: where extreme weather phenomena mean the developing world suffers massive loss of life and the developed world multi-billion dollar losses in damages. The climate emergency has arrived. To what degree and extent, is entirely up to us. 


The UN’s landmark IPCC report, ‘Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis’, published in early August, posits the ‘unequivocal’ link between human activity and the climate crisis, and places the responsibility for our increasingly extreme climate squarely and undeniably at humanity’s feet.

We no longer have the luxury of looking away from this problem as global heating is occurring at an even faster rate than previously expected. The message rings out loud and clear: this is ‘Code Red’ for humanity. 

Reaching net zero carbon emissions is not a topic for debate, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spelled out the ‘death knell’ for coal and other fossil fuels.

Similarly, a landmark ruling against Shell by Dutch courts in May demanding the oil giant slash emissions by 45 percent by 2030 seemed evidence of a shifting tide against the oil and gas industry.

Oil play

The Dutch court ruling came as pressure on fossil fuel finance is ramping up significantly, placing the fossil fuel industry on the wrong side of the International Energy Agency (IEA) which earlier in the year stated how, in order to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, fossil fuel exploration must come to an end, along with spending on new projects.

As leaders gathered in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, for June’s G7 Summit to ‘Build Back Better’, one of the stated aspirations was “moving to net zero and providing financial support for developing countries to do the same”.

Yet the summit failed to face up to the uncomfortable truth that overall emissions of developed countries far outweigh those of developing ones, where much of the planet’s natural resources and raw materials are sourced.

In fact, as the world’s leaders met to discuss their plans for a ‘green revolution’, one Canadian oil company, ReconAfrica, continued its oil exploration in the Kavango region of Namibian and Botswana, in a project that Oilprice.com calls the ‘largest oil play of the decade’. 


In January 2021, ReconAfrica began exploratory drilling for oil on the first of three wells in Namibia’s Kavango Basin - upstream from Botswana’s famed Okavango Delta, one of Earth’s last remaining pristine ecosystems.

The licensed area covers 35,000 km2, an area larger than Belgium, and overlaps with the continent’s biggest cross-country conservation park - the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area.

There are many concerns about how oil discovery in the Kavango region could destroy global efforts laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep global heating below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Namibian climate group, Fridays for Future Windhoek, reported that this project represented a potential ‘carbon gigabomb’ that could release a remaining one-sixth of the earth’s carbon budget into the atmosphere.


Meanwhile, there are doubts as to whether this project will truly translate to financial gain in Namibia and Botswana. ReconAfrica stands to benefit from 90 percent of the profits, with Namibia only receiving 10 percent 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 Canadian 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. 

ReconAfrica’s activities threaten the precious wildlife calling the Kavango home, and those that live further downstream, in the Okavango Delta.


Though the oil company is not exploring within the confines of the famed oasis, it is exploring near the headwaters, and so leaching and water pollution is a very real possibility, not only affecting the wildlife, but hundreds of thousands of human communities which have resided in the area for centuries.

The region is a critical migratory corridor for an estimated 18,000 African elephants; these elephants form a significant portion of a full third of Africa’s last elephants, specifically, the 130,000 who call Botswana home. 

ReconAfrica’s extraction efforts in the Okavango region are likely to result in a catastrophic disruption of Africa’s last and largest remaining population of elephants.

The consequence is tantamount to a “genocide” of earth’s last great walkers, sentient beings who have inhabited this region for thousands of years. 

When The Ecologist reached out to ReconAfrica for comment, the Canadian oil company alleged their practices were aligned with community interests, and insisted their project would benefit the populations of Namibia and Botswana, providing jobs and boosting local economies.


Yet history is littered with attempts by oil and gas companies seeking profit above all else. In their statement they alleged how they “sincerely believe that 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.”

The company went on to add that they 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.”

In stark contrast to this is this statement made by Nnimmo Bassey, Director at Health of Mother Earth Foundation, “exploitation of petroleum resources has routinely been accompanied by extreme ecological harms”.

He points to his home country of Nigeria’s experience, which fell  prey to the seduction of the promise of “celebrations of progress arriving in the area” back in 1956 when the Niger Delta’s first commercially viable well was spurted.

Yet the result was one of ecological catastrophe, and “after more than six decades of hydrocarbons exploitation in the Niger Delta, the region now ranks as one of the top ten most polluted places on earth. Water bodies, soils, and the air have all been stoked full of harmful pollutants, and life expectancy now stands at a dreary 41 years.”


Bassey, who was named Environmental Hero by Time Magazine in 2009, highlights the need for corporations to “be forced to stop denying the reality of global warming and the ecocide that attend fossil fuel extraction.

"Now is the time for ReconAfrica to spare Okavango, the people of Namibia and Africa the avoidable harms which will result from their mindless pursuit of profit at the expense of the people and planet. Anything less will be nothing other than willful climate and ecological crimes.”

Canada’s National Observer published an article outlining how the country had a unique opportunity to become a leader in renewable energy provision.

On April 22, 2021, the Canadian government announced plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.

The Pan-Canadian Framework commits the country to obtaining 90 percent of its electricity from non-emitting sources by 2030, in part by increasing the focus on renewable sources, and reducing reliance on diesel.


These goals are completely incompatible with the realities on the ground in the Kavango, perpetrated by a Canadian-headquartered company.

With the drilling of the second well underway, the International Energy Agency roadmap to reach net zero by 2050 leaves no ambiguity about the need for a complete moratorium on investment in new fossil fuel supply projects from now on, underscoring the need for an immediate phase-out.

A country’s aspirations to be a climate leader are seriously marred when its own companies pursue less than adequate projects beyond its borders and the regulations deemed necessary for the protection of its own citizens. 

“Promises on climate regulations in the global North ring empty when all companies affected by them have to do is find a country somewhere needing a financial boost and with great exploitation potential.


"Nowhere is this more evident than in the Kavango, where under cover of COVID-19, oil and gas are rushing to cash-in on what they suspect is the last great fossil fuel find, as oil prices plummet amidst a glut.

"Already Southern Africa is experiencing record temperature hikes and severe water shortages, more than other regions on the planet,” laments Ina-Maria Shikongo of Fridays for Future Windhoek, at the helm of a campaign to raise awareness on events in her native Namibia.

ReconAfrica claims it will not engage in extractive drilling, as it spuds exploratory wells in the Kavango, leaving it to the people of Namibia and Botswana to “determine how they will manage their natural resources.”

In a ‘Code Red’ world where fossil fuel extraction is simply no longer an option, how and why is more oil exploration forging ahead at full steam? It is time to ask ourselves, what is truly of more value - the financial bottom line, or the survival of our species, and life, on this planet. 

This Author

Nicolás Eliades has been working in international, political and organisational communications, including journalism, for well over 20 years, spanning four continents. He was born in Nairobi, Kenya and brought up in a Colombian and Cypriot-South African household. Multiculturalism is his way of life. Past employers include US Department of State, EU’s European Commission, renown Colombian daily El Espectador, Africa’s biggest broadcaster, SABC, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.


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