Putting profit before people, climate and wildlife. Why the UK government is using aid money to back oil and gas drilling in protected areas in Africa

To address climate change we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. While the UK government doesn’t quite go as far as acknowledging this obvious fact, it does claim to be working to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by investing in low-carbon energy sources”.

Similarly, to protect biodiversity we need to stop trashing highly biodiverse protected areas by exploring for oil inside protected areas.

The UK has signed onto the Paris Agreement which is supposed to address climate change, and the Convention on Biodiversity, which aims to conserve biological diversity.

So why is the UK government using aid money to support oil drilling in Africa? Particularly oil drilling in protected areas?

Research by Greenpeace UK found that six UK companies hold oil exploration licences in 29 national parks in eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The UK government is actively supporting this destruction as part of a new way of looking at aid. In September 2016, in an article in the Daily Mail, Priti Patel, the UK’s international development minister, wrote,

“As secretary of state for international development, my objective will be to challenge and change the global aid system so that it properly serves the poorest people in the world and the taxpayers who foot the bill.”

While Patel talks about “the poorest people in the world”, the reality is that the Conservative government’s plan is to make sure that aid benefits UK corporations.

This policy could have disastrous consequences for people and the environment in Africa, as the following examples show. Greenpeace uncovered more examples in its research.


The UK government has spent thousands of pounds in Malawi aimed at “establishing the UK as the partner of choice in the oil and gas sector”. Much of the oil and gas in Malawi lies under Lake Malawi, Africa’s third largest lake. To the south of the lake is a World Heritage Site.

UNESCO has warned that,

“An accidental spill would pose a potentially severe risk to the integrity of the entire lake ecosystem including the aquatic zone and shoreline of the property.”

A UK company, Surestream, has two blocks overlapping Lake Malawi, one of which overlaps the Nkhotakhota Wildlife Reserve.

Surestream has developed a cosy relationship with the UK government. In 2013, company representatives met with a Home Office minister, and in 2014, the company made a donation to the British High Commission in Malawi to help fund a party for the Queen’s birthday.

At the birthday party, Michael Nevin, the High Commissioner for Malawi, thanked those that had donated, including Surestream, and added,

“DFID [the Department for International Development] too will provide more support to the private sector. This includes working with the Government to create a better enabling environment for business.”

By May 2015, Surestream had sold 80% of its stake in the two blocks and the right to operate them to a company called Hamra Oil Holdings from the United Arab Emirates.


Heritage Oil, registered in Jersey, has exploration licences that overlap Lake Rukwa and Uwanda Game Reserve in Tanzania. The company says it will start drilling its first experimental oil well at Lake Rukwa next year.

In an interview with Energy Boardroom, managing director of Heritage Oil Tanzania explains the company’s strategy in Tanzania:

Heritage Oil is targeting an oil play in Tanzania which would make us the first exploration company to discover oil in Tanzania. Heritage Oil has a track record of success in East Africa; being the first company to explore in Uganda for more than 60 years and discover the prolific Albert Basin.

Heritage Oil told Greenpeace that it will only drill in the onshore area and outside of Uwanda Game Reserve. But that’s hardly reassuring. On the Ugandan side of Lake Albert, thousands of villagers have had their livelihoods destroyed since oil drilling started.

Luke Patey, senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, told Offshore Technolgy that,

“Oil has already led to the displacement of local communities. This is creating social grievances that could lead to protest and conflict between these communities and government security forces. It’s really not the best starting point for oil in Uganda.”


UK registered firm Karoo Energy has three licences overlapping Botswana’s Kgalagadi transfrontier park and Central Kalahari game reserve, Africa’s second biggest game reserve, and home to the San people.

Noel Lyons, chief executive of Karoo Energy said in an interview in May 2016 that “the plan for us is to become the major shale gas explorer in Botswana”. The company has approximately 160,000 square kilometres of licence area in Botswana.

Lyons told Greenpeace’s Energydesk that Karoo Energy has not done any work inside national parks, and “has no plans to do so”. Which unfortunately doesn’t rule out the possibility of Karoo Energy drawing up plans tomorrow to exploit shale gas inside national parks.

In a December 2015 article in the Guardian, Jeff Barbee wrote that,

Park officials said that no drilling has yet taken place, but the Guardian found oil sediment on the ground near a popular camp site. There was an overwhelming smell of tar and a drill stem protruded from an apparently recently drilled hole. It is not known who had carried out the drilling or when.


Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park is threatened by oil exploration and development. Three companies are involved: UK company Tullow Oil, French company Total, and Chinese company CNOOC. Dozens of wells are planned in a multi-billion dollar oil plan inside the national park.

Murchison Fall National Park is home to the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe, lions, elephants and Uganda’s largest population of crocodiles.

A Total report leaked to Greenpeace reveals that damage to the park has already happened. Greenpeace’s Energydesk notes that,

The ecological compliance study, commissioned by Total, found 283 instances of damage, 159 of which were were found to be “non-restorable”. This included oil leakage; damage to trees and riverbanks and the destruction of termite mounds.

Nevertheless, UK trade officials see Tullow’s operations in the park as an “opportunity” that could be worth more than £1 billion to UK companies. The government is keen to offer Tullow financial support.

Files obtained by Greenpeace via freedom of information requests show that the government has held meetings with Tullow about providing the company loans and insurance backed by UK taxpayers.

A February 2016 presentation by UK trade officials highlights the government’s backing for UK companies hoping to profit from oil drilling in Murchison Falls National Park. Here’s the title page of the presentation:


PHOTO Credit: Murchison Falls National Park: Endangered Rothschild’s Giraffes and Tullow oil rig.

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One Comment

  1. In Botswana, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) is no longer home to the Bushman (San, Basarwa…) – apart from a few given permits to live there, or employed by the safari lodge in which Ian Khama has shares. The UK’s Karoo has been given exploratory prospecting licenses.

    In 2012, 122 prospecting licenses for petroleum and methane gas were issued; but by 2013, 88 had been canceled or relinquished, most of those being in the CKGR, the government insisting that hydraulic fracking is not allowed in the exploratory phase. Petroleum license EL001-2012, covering the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (former Gemsbok National Park) in the south-west of the country, appears to have been issued in 2012; to this has now been added petroleum licence EL162-2015, which includes the southern half of the CKGR; and coal and coal-bed methane (CBM) licenses PL 159 and 160 covering 1500 sq km in the mid-eastern part of the CKGM.

    The Government ignores the risk of extreme environmental damage during exploration, let alone during the inevitable extraction.

    Here is the link to my map:

    The obliteration of the CKGR Bushman is a crime against humanity. DFID, the Conservatives, and Prince William, will continue to heap honours upon Dr. Ian Khama who has simply carried on the mandate of the administrations before him: Masire kicked first kicked the Bushman out and was then knighted; Mogae carried on with the crime and received the Mo Ibrahim Prize. As for Unpriti Patel… she is just saying what DFID has always done.

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