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Canadian support to ReconAfrica lacks transparency and sufficient regulation

Canadian oil and gas company ReconAfrica is set to ramp up its exploratory drilling near a UNESCO world heritage site and protected wildlife reserve in Namibia, despite fervent local opposition and recent findings by a parliamentary investigation that the company violated several laws. Meanwhile Canadian government documents recently released in response to access-to-information requests1 are raising troubling questions about support the company may be receiving from Ottawa.

ReconAfrica site in Namibia
ReconAfrica’s site near Kawe, Namibia. Photo by John Grobler, CC BY-SA 4.0.

A project mired in controversy

ReconAfrica currently holds a petroleum exploration licence which encompasses over 25,000 km2 of land in Namibia and has plans to expand operations into Botswana. If drilling eventually becomes productive, the company would likely be granted a 25-year production license. 

Should the company find recoverable petroleum in the vast quantities it claims exist, the extraction process would threaten the ecological integrity of the second largest protected wildlife reserve in the world, the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), and the water systems on which tens of thousands of people rely. The climate implications would be immense.

Yet expert geologist Paul Hoffman alleges that the discovery of oil in the quantities predicted by the company is highly unlikely, given the results of geological surveys. Questions have also been raised as to whether ReconAfrica misled investors regarding the type of oil and gas resources the company is targeting. 

Since early 2022, ReconAfrica has been under investigation in Canada for allegations of corruption “and possibly also securities fraud” by the RCMP.

Documents reveal Canadian diplomatic and trade support

ReconAfrica has received diplomatic and trade support from the Canadian government, according to documents publicly released following access-to-information requests.

The most recent release, provided to Above Ground in response to our request filed last year, confirms that as of 2022 ReconAfrica was registered as a client of Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service (TCS).2 TCS is housed within Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and provides a range of services to companies operating abroad. This can include help navigating international markets, finding appropriate business contacts in Canada and abroad, and resolving business problems. 

The full range of TCS support that ReconAfrica has received is unclear, but it includes access to the High Commission of Canada for the region, which is based in South Africa and plays a role in advising the company.3 The released documents also reveal that as of April 2022, ReconAfrica had held nine meetings with Government of Canada officials beginning in December 2020, including one meeting with Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae. News of this meeting was made public through previously released files and covered by the National Observer.

Released documents mention concerns about ReconAfrica’s activities raised by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in a direct letter to GAC and by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). They also mention resistance to ReconAfrica’s project on the part of the Indigenous San people, who’ve reached out to Indigenous communities in Canada on the issue. This demonstrates that Canadian government officials were made aware of the many concerns regarding ReconAfrica. 

The fact that the company continued to receive TCS support may be due to a lack of screening of clients based on their human rights and environmental track records to assess their ongoing eligibility. In addition, emails in the documents we received detail an extremely arduous process for removing a company’s access to TCS if the company is found to be causing harm: people concerned about the activities of ReconAfrica could file complaints with the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) or the National Contact Point (NCP), a process that involves significant labour, cost and risk for complainants. If a complaint to either office is deemed admissible and a company does not act in “good faith” during the complaint review process, the office can recommend that the company be removed as a TCS client and the government could decide to withdraw trade advocacy support. It is unclear whether the TCS has any criteria or policies in place under which clients not subject to a CORE or NCP complaint may be denied further support.

The case of ReconAfrica shows that Canada needs a more direct and less cumbersome way to limit government support to companies linked to human rights abuses and environmental destruction.

Government expectations for companies are not enough

Global Affairs Canada’s key messaging guidelines included in the released documents recommend that government representatives publicly highlight Canada’s “expectations” that companies follow all applicable laws and operate in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. However, it is unclear if there have been any attempts to address global and local concerns regarding the company. 

Simply stating expectations is not enough; the government must also impose consequences if companies fail to meet those expectations. Canadian officials should immediately halt any diplomatic or trade support they may still be providing to ReconAfrica.

  1. These documents were released by Global Affairs Canada, one in response to a request by Above Ground and one in response to a request by another party.
  2. According to a memo and emails in the released documents, ReconAfrica registered as a TCS client sometime between November 2020 and June 2021. 
  3. While the undated memo included in the released documents notes that, as part of services offered by the TCS, the High Commission “will not provide advocacy on behalf of the company,” the memo also notes that the High Commission “will continue to play monitoring and advisory roles.”