Monday, December 5, 2022

Prince Harry, Leonardo DiCaprio Lead Conservation Effort for One of Africa’s Most Important Ecosystems

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Combining their star power, Prince Harry, along with actors Djimon Hounsou, Forest Whitaker, and Leonardo DiCaprio as well as DiCaprio’s nonprofit, Re:wild, are all calling for urgent protection for the Okavango River Basin.

Oil and gas drilling is threatening the Okavango River Basin, one of the most important and expansive ecosystems in Africa. Joining forces with Re:wild, Prince Harry, Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, and Forest Whitaker are calling on Canadian oil and gas company Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica) to pull out of the region.

Spanning across six African countries, the Okavango River feeds into the UNESCO World Heritage site known for its wildlife migrations. The Okavango River Basin is the primary water source for approximately one million Africans including the Indigenous San peoples, who belong to the oldest known cultures in the world.

Last month, National Geographic and diamond producer DeBeers announced the launch of Okavango Eternal, a transboundary conservation effort to help protect the region. DiCaprio and Hounsou co-starred in 2006’s Blood Diamond, originally titled Okavango. Its plot centers on diamonds mined in conflict zones across the region.

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Thursday, Prince Harry and Namibian activist Reinhold Mangundu urged for an end to ReconAfrica’s drilling activity which spans a region “larger than some European countries” across Namibia and Bostwana.

“We believe this would pillage the ecosystem for potential profit,” reads the op-ed. “Some things in life are best left undisturbed to carry out their purpose as a natural benefit. This is one of them.”

Leading scientists, along with environmentalists, and local communities, say the drilling is a threat to the ecosystem and puts the lives of hundreds of thousands of people at risk.

“If one channel or the other part of the Okavango is affected, the whole of the Okavango is going to be, whether it’s in Angola, Namibia, or Botswana. Livelihoods will change because our Okavango people’s livelihoods depend on the Delta,” said Anita Legkowa, gender representative for Southern Africa, Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee. “We believe animals are going to migrate from our beautiful country and go where there is peace because of the sound and contaminated water and plants.”

Prince Harry and Mangundu point to the risks of oil extraction, including the recent pipeline leak in Southern California that saw more than 140,000 gallons of oil pollute the Pacific Ocean.

“There is no way to repair the damage from these kinds of mistakes,” the op-ed notes. “Drilling is an outdated gamble that reaps disastrous consequences for many, and incredible riches for a powerful few. It represents a continued investment in fossil fuels instead of renewable energies.”

ReconAfrica’s drilling in the Okavango River Basin

ReconAfrica received approval to drill in the region at the end of last year. Its license allows for exploratory drilling across 13,200 square miles, including parts of the Okavango River Basin. It has recently started 2D seismic testing, which resulted in clearing land in critical wildlife habitats.

Local leaders and activists have decried the permissions, citing failure by ReconAfrica to adequately consult local communities and to sufficiently implement environmental safeguards. This, the groups say, threatens the vital water source and puts endangered species across the region at further risk.

“If you look at river basins around the world, they’ve all developed in the same way—first with little villages, then towns, and then industry,” said Chris Brown, an ecologist, environmentalist, and CEO of the Namibian Chamber of Environment. “There’s hardly a developed basin that isn’t just a shadow of its former self. We believe that a basin such as the Okavango could have an entirely different development pathway that’s built on sustainability and the values of the people in the basin, not the values of industrialization.”

Concerns are high that wastewater from the drilling sites could leak into groundwater that supplies drinking water for nearly one million people in regions prone to drought and already battling the impacts of climate change.

“We depend on the environment for the oxygen we breathe. Our households are made of trees, grass and mud. We rely on remedies from trees, shrubs, and other grass species. All this you can only get if your environment is safe, healthy, and sustainably conserved.”

Max Muyemburuko

There’s also the risk that infrastructure development would lead to an increase in poaching and human-wildlife conflict.

“We are particularly concerned about the lack of genuine consultation with Indigenous San communities, including women, who will be affected by toxic damage to their lands, their waters, plants, animals, and the people themselves through the exploration and extraction of gas and oil in the region,” Nadia April, San Indigenous Women program officer for the Women’s Leadership Centre in Windhoek, Namibia, said at a recent press conference. “If ReconAfrica is allowed to continue, this will severely disrupt the way of life of Indigenous people through dispossession of their ancestral land, and poisoning of water and land that they depend on for survival.”

Max Muyemburuko, chair of the Kavango East and West Regional Conservancy and Community Forestry Association, says Namibia’s Nature Conservation Ordinance of 1975 and amendments requires compliance by all activities within a conservancy. Under the ordinance, local communities have the right and responsibility to manage and protect their natural resources. 

Image courtesy Jose Mizrahi on Unsplash

“The environment is very, very important, of paramount importance, to our communities,” Muyemburuko said. “We depend on the environment for the oxygen we breathe. Our households are made of trees, grass, and mud. We rely on remedies from trees, shrubs, and other grass species. All this you can only get if your environment is safe, healthy, and sustainably conserved.”

Wes Sechrest, Re:wild’s chief scientist and CEO applauded the efforts.

“We are proud to support the heroic efforts of the individuals and organizations in Namibia and Botswana who refuse to define progress as the destruction of the wild for a quick profit,” Sechrest said. “Our partners in Namibia, Botswana and across Africa are instead visionaries in defining progress as leveraging opportunities to protect our irreplaceable wild places, which are critical to solving the climate, extinction and health crises, and can help address poverty and social inequality.”

The Duke of Sussex and Mangunduurge world leaders and investors along with the public to stand “in solidarity” and advocate for a full moratorium on drilling in the Okavango River Basin.

“Now, the choice is simple: Either we honor our natural and life-sustaining ecosystems, preserving them for generations to come, or we exploit them on a path to permanent destruction,” the Duke and Mangundu wrote. “Will you stand with us?”


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