Everything that is wrong with natural resource extraction in southern Africa

By Richard Lee | November 17th, 2013

Sometimes despair seems to be the only response – despair that in 2013, a government can be pushing ahead with a massive plan to produce natural gas without telling the public. Despair that after all the rhetoric about transparency and accountability in the mining sector – a government has been granting concessions to vast tracts of land, including in world famous national parks, without bothering to inform, let along consult, local communities.

Despair that despite growing global concerns about the harmful effects of natural gas production – a democratic government has refused to openly debate the pros and cons of the process so that the people can decide what is in their own best interest.

And deep despair that the country in question is Botswana – widely regarded as one of the best run states in Africa and lauded for the governance of its diamond resources.

But, unsurprisingly, the response from people in Botswana to their government’s undisclosed dash for gas – uncovered during the making of a new OSISA-funded film, the High Cost of Cheap Gas – has been very different.

It has been one of total shock that they could have been kept in the dark for so long about something so important.

The filmmakers spoke to local community members, lawyers, San activists, lodge owners, and even Botswana’s top investigative journalist – and the response was the same. None of them had heard a word about the government’s gas plans – let alone seen the concession map that shows how licences have been quietly granted to half of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (the ancestral home of the San) and to large parts of the Chobe National Park (home to the largest herd of migrating elephants on earth) as well as to additional chunks of territory across the country.

It will be interesting to see how they react once the shock has worn off. This is Botswana so it is hard to envisage any mass protests or even a substantial backlash at the ballot box next year – but there will surely be strident calls for the government to come clean. And, in particular, to explain why it has silently forged ahead with such a massive project without any public consultation.

And it will be just as fascinating to see how the government responds. The likelihood is that it will come out fighting – as usual. Or it might just try silence - banking on the international media's lack of interest in 'well-governed' Botswana to ensure that the story simply fades away.

But the facts are clear. The film has incontrovertible evidence of fracking and natural gas production going on inside Botswana. And there are press releases from the numerous international gas companies that mention operations in Botswana – operations that neither they nor the government have gone out of their way to publicise.

So at some point, the authorities in Gaborone will have to start telling the truth – and begin a genuine public debate on the issue.

But this will only have happened because the makers of the High Cost of Cheap stumbled across the story – a story which encapsulates everything that is wrong with natural resource extraction in southern Africa: the secrecy, the lack of consultation with affected communities, the weak regulatory systems, and the elite collusion between governments and companies at the expense of the people.


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