The fossil fuel industry is not only responsible for the polluting products that exacerbate climate change but also for destroying ecosystems in their search for and extraction of oil and gas. That is what is happening in the Kavango region in northern Namibia, home to many of Africa’s wild elephants and other life.
In the Namibian headwaters of the Okavango Delta, a Unesco World Heritage site, the country’s flag flutters beneath Canada’s, flying above a new well. This violation of the Namibian Constitution — which requires that the national flag should be “hoisted first” and “flown on separate staffs” when flown with other nations’ flags — is a symbol of neocolonialism, embodied further by a rig standing in the midst of a magnificent landscape, rich in biodiversity and a refuge for the wildlife and people alike, their home for millennia.
The Canadian flag marks the land where Canadian oil and gas company ReconAfrica, which holds a petroleum exploration licence in an area extending over 21 243 square kilometres in Namibia and Botswana, is operating.
Residents and environmental groups point out that the extraction the company hopes for will represent a sixth of the world’s remaining carbon budget when these products are finally used. The potential oil and gas lie under wild and beautiful land that is critical for providing millions of people with drinking water, and is also home to wildlife that is crucial for the survival of global biodiversity.
Fossil fuel drilling in the region poses a threat to the climate and global attempts being made by environmental groups and leaders to stop global biodiversity loss. The Kavango Basin is home to a diverse and rich array of wildlife and covers migratory routes for the world’s largest herd of savanna elephants, which are threatened by ReconAfrica’s activities in the basin. Cheetahs, rhinos and other endangered species in the region are also in danger as a result of this exploration.
Furthermore, exploration by ReconAfrica threatens to displace the San and Kavango people, jeopardises the drinking water for more than a million people who call the Kavango Basin their home, and threatens the region’s major sources of income from tourism, farming and fishing.
This drilling by the company clearly breaches the rights and clauses outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which ReconAfrica’s home country, Canada, is a signatory and has supposedly committed itself to honour.
Should the project pull ahead, a carbon bomb hangs over humanity’s head. The company’s own projections of 120 billion barrels of oil equivalent translate into 51.6 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide. To put this into perspective, one single metric gigaton is equal to 200 000 elephants that can be stacked to reach from the Earth to the moon. ReconAfrica’s shortsighted fossil fuel bid makes a laughing stock of attempts to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as outlined by the Paris agreement.
Namibia’s minister of mines and energy, Tom Alweendo, is aware of the region’s vulnerability but still views the project as a source of revenue for his country. But new global oil demand scenarios that take into account climate policies such as zero-emissions vehicles mean that this project will probably create significant stranded assets and unfunded cleanup, which will undermine Namibia’s and Botswana’s public revenues. In spite of the socio-environmental harms and economic risks, the Namibian government is defending the project and attempting to discredit local climate youth activists through racist attacks and attempts to intimidate local opposition.
On the Canadian side, the Trudeau government is turning a blind eye to the project while claiming Canada is a climate champion. In April 2021, at US President Joe Biden’s virtual climate summit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed, “Canada is a committed partner in the global fight against climate change, and together we will build a cleaner and more prosperous future for all.”
In practice, the Canadian government has not undertaken any concrete action to prevent ReconAfrica from contributing to the climate crisis. The company is operating with impunity in a region of the Global South despite obligations under international human rights law requiring Canada to protect populations from human rights abuses perpetrated by their own companies.
It is time for Canadian officials to do everything in their power to ensure a federal investigation regarding ReconAfrica’s activities and show their commitment to fighting climate change and to stop oil and gas plans from going ahead in the Kavango Basin.
This means barring finance to ReconAfrica from Export Development Canada, empowering the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, which has the independence and the power to investigate human rights abuse allegations, and upholding Canada’s international human rights law obligations by passing legislation requiring Canadian companies to prevent human rights abuses abroad, and to undertake comprehensive human rights and environmental due diligence throughout their global operations.
The Dutch court’s recent ruling holding Royal Dutch Shell responsible for its activities demonstrates how it is possible to hold oil companies accountable wherever they operate. For the first time, a corporation has been obliged to answer for its actions in light of the climate crisis.
With this court order, a precedent has been set in terms of multinationals’ duty of care, and this follows the International Energy Agency’s first 1.5 degrees Celsius-aligned energy scenario declaring there is no room for new fossil fuel investment. This shows the potential power of legislation in protecting the world, fueling the campaign to make ecocide a crime and ensuring the arrest and prosecution of those who are enabling, funding and causing severe environmental harm.
To support countries such as Namibia, international cooperation based on principles of equity is critical to ensure a just transition. Calls for initiatives such as the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty could be helpful not only to demand the end of the expansion of fossil fuels but also to define the role wealthy nations in the Global North, like Canada, should play to support countries in the Global South in their bid to build stable economies while transitioning away from fossil fuels.
A Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty would also help fulfil demands outlined in the communiqué of the 2020 Africa Energy Leaders Summit and push wealthy countries to put an end to fossil fuel expansion, phase out existing production and secure a fair and just transition that will empower all humans to live with dignity while preserving precious ecosystems, of which we are all an integral part.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute