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Alleged human rights abuses detailed in new complaint against Canadian oil company

April 11, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

Environmental and human rights groups are calling for an investigation into Calgary-headquartered Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica), alleging the company has violated human rights in Namibia.

ReconAfrica is drilling for oil in an ecologically sensitive region in Namibia. Its drilling plans are near the Okavango Delta — a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the world’s largest protected areas for endangered wildlife and a culturally significant place to the San people.

A 187-page complaint filed with the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), a federal corporate watchdog, alleges ReconAfrica’s operations have violated international human rights, including the rights to health, water, food and adequate housing, as well as Indigenous rights of free, prior and informed consent to operations in their territory. The complaint was a joint submission from the International Human Rights Program, housed at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, and Saving Okavango’s Unique Life (SOUL), an advocacy group focused on protecting the Okavango Delta.

"ReconAfrica's oil exploration activities have damaged homes, devastated subsistence crops and destroyed land, illegally and without the consent of local Indigenous communities," said Canadian activist Rob Parker, who works with the Economic and Social Justice Trust of Namibia and is a member of SOUL. "They’ve demonstrated a complete lack of concern for the impact that their actions have on the fundamental rights of the local communities and the protected species that will be driven closer to extinction."

ReconAfrica did not immediately return a request for comment.

At the centre of the complaint are allegations that through its drilling operations, ReconAfrica failed to secure water use and disposal permits, potentially exacerbating water scarcity issues, and failed to line mud pits used to hold spent drilling fluid, potentially resulting in hazardous waste contaminating water sources. It also alleges the company’s operations have similarly affected agricultural lands and lands used by animals for grazing, and that human health has subsequently been affected by water pollution. At the same time environmental pollution is being felt, local communities were not consulted before operations began, the complaint alleges.

In multiple affidavits filed with the complaint, residents of Namibia critical of ReconAfrica describe being offered jobs with the company in exchange for silence. Another individual describes being made to fear for his “privacy and safety” after meeting with someone from the company.

“A representative from ReconAfrica approached me with her phone during this meeting and showed me that she had private intercepted communications between myself and a colleague from an ally organization. However, she refused to explain how my private messages came into her possession,” the affidavit from Thomas Muronga, the chair of the Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy, reads.

Another affidavit from a local farmer describes a ReconAfrica employee driving onto his land to conduct seismic testing, a technique used to explore for oil and gas reserves. The farmer, whose name is redacted in the complaint, says he told the employee to leave and fix any damages, but the employee refused.

“ReconAfrica did not notify me that they will be using my land,” the affidavit reads. “ReconAfrica did not ask for my permission to use my land. I was not consulted about ReconAfrica’s use of my land at any time prior to ReconAfrica performing seismic testing on my land.”

The farmer says the company proceeded to destroy his field to the point animals didn’t have enough grass to graze, cut down trees, ruined fruit plants and caused the walls of his home to crack. He was offered no compensation, he says.

“Given that my family and I rely on our crops and animals for food, we have not had enough food to feed my family,” the affidavit reads. “We have tried to buy food from shops but we do not have enough money to buy enough food for the family… My family and I have gone hungry.”

The allegations have yet to be proven through an investigation. CORE did not return a request for comment by deadline.

"Through this complaint, we … call on ReconAfrica to halt their operations until proper consultations are conducted and concerns addressed, reflected in verifiable changes to their operations and policies," said James Yap, acting director of the International Human Rights Program, in a statement. "It is in Canada’s national interest that Canadian companies be held accountable for their actions abroad. We urge the CORE to take the opportunity to investigate this matter, which falls squarely within its mandate.”

As previously reported by Canada’s National Observer, when ReconAfrica first faced public criticism in 2021 after it was accused of ignoring concerns about its oil and gas drilling near a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the company’s most senior leadership turned to Global Affairs Canada for help.

Global Affairs staff arranged at least eight meetings in 2021 with Canadian officials, including one between the company and Canada’s top diplomat, United Nations permanent representative Bob Rae. Rae advised the company on local contacts in Namibia and Botswana to meet with, and Global Affairs provided contact info to the company shortly after.

The CORE complaint filed Tuesday marks another front in the battle between advocacy groups and the company.

In August, a complaint against ReconAfrica was sent to the FBI’s white-collar crime division and filed with U.S. financial regulators, alleging the company has used environmental claims to mislead investors. That complaint alleges environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics — essentially, benchmarks for environmental or socially friendly plans — have been misrepresented as ReconAfrica “illegally” drills. It was compiled by advocacy groups Economic and Social Justice Trust of Namibia, Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy, Muduva Nyangana Conservancy and the Ncaute Community Forest.

In July, NDP MP Niki Ashton, alongside Climate Action Network Canada, Oil Change International, Earthlife Namibia and others, urged the Toronto Stock Exchange to suspend the listing of ReconAfrica owing to the “ongoing ecological, cultural, human rights, and climatic impact” of its operations.


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