A Sisterhood of the Karoo and the Western Slope
I work in the Karoo Desert, a semi-desert area that spans South Africa and Botswana, but I grew up on Colorado’s Western Slope, where residents have faced the oil and gas industry drilling for the last 25 years.
When gas drilling was proposed near my home in South Africa, I began to hear many of the same arguments that had been used on my Colorado community 20 years ago.
Colorado now has some of the highest rates of birth defects in the USA and researchers believe that gas development is responsible. Western Colorado has witnessed the collapse of many farming communities, social breakdown and falling land and housing prices.
Seeing the same signs crop up here, producer Mira Dutschke and I felt the need to share this knowledge with people around the world who are facing these same sorts of gas developments.
Some of the money for our documentary, The High Cost of Cheap Gas, came from the Open Society Initiative and Alliance Earth, an environmental and scientific reporting nonprofit based in Basalt. We also raised funds on social media, and we contributed our own funds in the hope that seeing the experience of a similar community in the USA will empower people in South Africa and throughout the world to make better decisions.
While researching and making the film, which took us to four countries over two years, we came to the conclusion that no one really understands the consequences of fracking. The late Dr. Gerrit Van Tonder, from the University of Free State in South Africa, told me that his research prompted him to believe that all of the drill stems will eventually leak gas and chemicals within 50 to 100 years.
It is clear that we don’t understand the way groundwater works in the Karoo, or even in Colorado, where we have been drilling for decades.
Who will take responsibility for our grandchildren’s water if not us?
Although Botswana has been lauded as one of Africa’s most transparent and stable democracies, it has been accused of sacrificing the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the CKGR, one of the world’s most precious wildlife reserves, to commercial fracking, while ignoring the concerns of environmentalists and of communities who could lose access to scarce water. Outside the public eye, Botswana has been granting lucrative licenses to international companies to carry out fracking in three world renowned parks: Chobe, Kgalagadi and the CKGR.
The CKGR Game Reserve, which covers 52,800 square kilometers, includes ancestral lands belonging to the Kalahari Bushmen who are called the “San.” For years, the San have been conducting a court battle to be allowed to return to their lands. They succeeded in court, but Mira Dutschke, a human rights lawyer and the film’s producer, says that the fracking licenses may prevent the San people from benefiting from this success.
Had South Africans not stood up and fought for the Karoo for the last five years, large-scale fracking would probably already be underway there. South Africa’s people are proud. They value community, water and farming as an honor and a right to pass on to further generations. In May 2015, the government said exploration drilling would go ahead, so the battle is still raging here.
South Africa is fortunate in having a long history of conservation. People from all walks of life believe that environmental protections are very important, not just for the sake of health, but because they love their Karoo. They love bird watching, hiking, and the clean air and great water that the region enjoys.
The San, and the other people of the Karoo and the Kalahari, made a profound impact on us while we were filming. They have shown us what it means to find joy and success in daily survival. The people of this desert region taught me to judge others on their strengths, their abilities and their character. Though poor, these people are powerful in spirit. The fact that together they have successfully stood up to the biggest industrial lobby in the world for five years only reinforces that belief.
The San had no idea that their land had been earmarked for drilling until, during the filming of our documentary, we showed them a government map illustrating how half of the reserve had been allocated to multinational oil companies.
San rights advocate Keikabile Mogodu said, “We are in the dark. If fracking is done in the areas where people are, consultations should be done. The companies should talk to the people, but nothing has been done. We are trying to follow it up with the ministry because fracking is dangerous and is going to destroy the balance of the ecosystem – it should be a debate in the media.”
Our documentary team is continuing to work to ensure sure that the public, the press, civil society and government are all informed about this industry. Since we released parts of the film to the national media, we have had huge interest. We are always looking for supporters to help us get the word out, plan screenings or contribute in some way. This is a team effort and we welcome everyone’s help. You can support us through a tax-deductible donation to our Basalt-based nonprofit Alliance Earth.
We want everyone facing this unsustainable extractive industry to work together to make collective decisions that make us all healthier and happier. We now live in a global village. Africans are not facing the gas and oil industry alone; we all share this earth. We stand together.
“The High Cost of Cheap Gas” has recently been named a winner in the prestigious 2015 Envirofest film festival in Europe.