JOHANNESBURG — Botswana’s government has admitted to allowing fracking in the southern African nation after a documentary exposed operations the government had previously denied. Some of those gas extractions are happening in environmentally sensitive areas, including a major national park that is home to one of the world’s largest elephant herds. The documentary maker says his work is not anti-fracking, but he wants Botswana’s people to have the opportunity to debate the issue with their leaders.
Botswana is one of the world’s most sparsely populated nations, with just 2 million people across a landmass slightly larger than Kenya.
For years, U.S. filmmaker Jeff Barbee said, the government of the southern African nation has used that space to quietly grant oil and gas concessions in remote areas. And - in a surprising move for the nation considered to be Africa’s least corrupt - activists claim they haven’t told anyone about it.
For the last week, Botswana’s government has denied allowing fracking. Late Wednesday, though, the government issued a statement conceding that “Permission has, however, been given in some instances in the past for the use of industrial explosives in sub-surface fracturing, which some may view as a type of 'fracking.’”
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technique that uses high-pressure water and chemicals to break underground rocks and release oil or gas. Critics of fracking say it is noisy, that it creates air pollution and can contaminate water. Supporters say it is safe and creates jobs, while also addressing energy needs.
Barbee is from the U.S. state of Colorado, which has become a fracking battleground as the process has grown massively in recent years. Barbee maintains that his soon-to-be-released documentary, The High Cost of Cheap Gas, is not anti-fracking.
“We are not focusing on the idea that fracking is good, or bad, or dangerous. We are trying to say that there is a real dialogue that needs to happen around the facts and the dangers associated with this procedure. Particularly in a rural landscape where we have people totally dependent on groundwater for their water supply, like in Botswana,” he said.
The government says that concessions have been granted in Chobe National Park, home to the world’s largest herd of migrating elephants. Another concession site, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, is home to the San people, who are considered to be one of the world’s oldest cultures. The San have been locked in a battle for years with Botswana’s government over land they claim as ancestral property.
Richard Lee of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, which financed the film, said the bigger issue here is transparency.
“This is the story about gas concessions across a country that people in that country don’t know anything about. So, yes, the impact on the San is important, but so is the impact on other people in the country, and the nation as a whole," said Lee. "And that’s why everyone in the country needs to have the right information, the latest information, so they can decide for themselves what’s in the best interests of Botswana.”
Barbee said many pro-fracking studies and films have been underwritten by the fracking industry.
“It seems that this is not really a two-sided issue at all," he said. "There are the facts behind this process put forward by independent researchers unconnected to the gas and oil industry, and those are the real facts. And there are then the unconfirmed reports put forward by great economic think tanks… that receive money from the oil and gas industries. And as a journalist, it’s very important to focus only on the established facts put forward by independent researchers.”
The film will be shown at a special event in Johannesburg next week. Barbee also said that producers will put together a website and press packs for journalists. Ultimately, he said, he just wants the people of Botswana to have a chance to decide for themselves.