Forbes Life – photo essay published in October, issue
It’s covered with the branches of hundreds of thousands of dust weary bone-dry four-inch high scrub. This is the Karoo, southern South Africa’s desert, which has changed little in millions of years. A desert that creaks to its own song carried on the wind through rusted windmills and crags of prehistoric rock. To some it’s just a desert. But the South African Government sees a valuable resource beneath, shale gas that could be worth R1 trillion in the next 30 years. But to farmers living in on this land, the Karoo is a livelihood. This is the battle over fracking and these are the voices of those standing defiantly in its way.
Derek Light is a small-town lawyer from Graaff-Reinet who sees himself as a defender of his birthplace. When Light first took fracking to court, in 2008, he represented one farmer. Five years later, he represents thousands, including Johann Rupert, the second richest man in Africa, who lives on a farm nearby.
According to Light, fracking will scar the land. It will leave huge well pads every 5km connected by a patchwork of roads.
“I remember around two years ago, of all the people interviewed in the urban areas, 50% knew about fracking and of them, 15% knew what fracking really was. So ,I think it’s a question of if it doesn’t affect you, nobody cares.”
“The mining industry in the country has a shocking track record. There is a lack of observance of the laws as they are. There is inadequate financial provision made for rehabilitation. Inevitably for this country, the taxpayer has cleaned up the mess. The mining companies will spend money on what earns them money. They are not inclined to spend money on something that doesn’t generate income… No one can really give an answer as to whether we need this resource and if that cost is justified.”
The Valley of Desolation, a national park on the outskirts of Graaff-Reinet, Karoo
Farmhouse between Graaff-Reinet and Jasenville, Karoo
Abandoned train station, Graaff-Reinet
Graaff-Reinet center square, home to one of the oldest churches in South Africa.
The Gem of the Karoo, 2013: Graaff-Reinet, known as the gem of the Karoo, was established in 1786. It is here, in the heart of the Karoo, that the anti-fracking movement began in 2008, led by small town lawyer Derek Light.
“The problem is that the process of explorative fracking is not normal. It’s invasive and has the potential to destroy the environment,” says Light.
“It’s moving as quickly as the oil and gas companies are allowed to move. And we’ve said no. We didn’t make the same mistake that the United States made. They allowed it to happen and then tried to regulate it.”
The Karoo is a semi-desert region
“The amount of energy and effort that has to go into this particular resource, given the estimated lifespan, is disproportionate… we’ve already used up the gold reserves in this country. To take something that has spent millions of years to form and then to extract it in the space of 15-20 years, with no guarantee of leaving the environment in a decent state, is an uneconomical gamble,” says farmer Jeremy Harper.
Harper worked for six years as an exploration geophysicist before moving back to his mother’s farm, Sandkraal, 30 years ago.
“One of the aspects in mineral exploration that I was glad to leave behind was the sense that, while one is involved, you are party to the pillaging of the planet.
My sense of reality says it ultimately will happen. It would be a sad day and the people in authority of this country should be indicted if they enable it to happen before there are cast iron guarantees,” he declares. Sandkraal is within the explorative fracking zone targeted by Shell.
Camdeboo National Park, Karoo
Sunset, Aberdeen District
Fifty-five-year-old Dickie Ogilvie gave up teaching to help his wife, Colleen, take over her brother’s farm. Doorndraai is 100km south-west of Graaff-Reinet. Ogilvie’s fears of fracking led him to pledge R3 [R1=$0.10] for every hectare of his 14,000 hectare farm for the battle. Farmers across the Karoo are following suit.
“Some guys have given a lump sum payment. Most of the money is per hectare basis, from 20c to 50c up to R2-R3 depending on how strongly they feel about fracking. It might sound like a lot of money, but it’s actually nothing. If I lose my property, at the end of the day it’s not money at all, we’ve lost everything,” he says.
“My big concern, particularly in the Aberdeen district, is the apathy of a lot of the farmers. There are a lot that have pledged, there are a lot that haven’t and they are actually not even interested.”
Many of the roads leading to farms are deep off main roads. Sometimes you will have to travel through two or three farms to reach your destination
Marlin De-Jager’s farm Van Eckskraal
De-Jager’s drive-way, Karoo
Born in Aberdeen, 50km south-west of Graaff-Reinet, Marlin De-Jager grew up in a colored township under apartheid.
He was raised by a single parent from the age of three, after his father abandoned. After a brawl at a rugby game, while in grade eight, he decided to skip town. He found himself struggling in the Western Cape Province digging a train tunnel along the Hex River.
Last year, after 20 years of saving, he bought his own farm—a 3,000 hectare plot—for R4.2 million ($420,000).
“As an emerging farmer, I want to become a commercial farmer. One day, I want to see my son and his children also becoming commercial farmers,” he says.
“I’m only a drop in the ocean. I am trying to convince the colored community about my concerns with fracking. Our people are mostly small farmers. I sat and asked them about fracking. They said ‘we haven’t got land so why must we worry?’ That is their view. I don’t think they understand what will happen,” he laments.
The emerging farmer intends to fight. He says he doesn’t want to see the farm he spent so long saving for, destroyed, before his son takes over.
Aloe tree, Karoo
Mountain range, Karoo
Bleached tree, Karoo
Doug Stern’s family has lived on their farm, Rietpoort, since 1948. The third-generation famer, who is also chairman of AGRI East Cape, represents 3,000 farmers in the Karoo. Stern has seen the damage of fracking in Pennsylvania, United States.
“You are not only dealing with a water-scarce country, but a particularly water-scarce area. The Karoo is dependent on boreholes for our very existence. If you are going to contaminate the water it’s going to be devastating to our communities. You can do without gas, you can do without electricity but you cannot do without water. It’s the stuff of life,” he says
Stern believes that 20 million liters of water is needed to dig one hole for fracking. One well can drill up to 32 holes, he says.
“The industry to date has not revealed where they are going to access this water. They keep telling us they are going to use sea water, they keep telling us they are going to drill for gas well below the water’s surface. I don’t trust them.”
“I was rather surprised about the lack of knowledge in the cities, such as Johannesburg. What shocked me the most was when people from the corporate world didn’t even know where the Karoo was. That’s a fact. I was horrified. Most of the businessmen I talked to asked why they should care. They were told the value of getting this energy game-breaker was far more important than the value of the Karoo,” claims Stern.
Road to Doug Stern’s farm twilight, Karoo
Carcass II, Karoo: Matt Ash, director of Norton Rose Fulbright Sub-Saharan Africa energy, says the South African government wants gas to play a big part in its National Development Plan (NDP) for 2030, which estimates that the country will need 41,346MW of new power. The country has around 33,000MW.
The controversy over fracking, according to Ash, stems from the country not having any fracking regulations.
“Under the present framework, a landowner is obliged to give mineral rights holder’s free and unfretted access to the land without compensation for the unhindered exploration of mineral resources. However, only a land owner can apply for rezoning of property appropriate for the mining activity concerned. The land owner can refuse to rezone on environmental grounds.”
Road to Doug Stern’s farm sunset, Karoo
Wild cotton bush, Karoo: On the other side of the coin, in North Dakota, United States, oil-fracking is seen as a boon. From 2005 to 2011, it helped the state’s economy grow from $4.4 billion to $30.5 billion. Eight thousand wells, producing more than 820,000 barrels a day was merely the start. The number of wells will grow to 50,000.
Among the landowners of North Dakota, 2,000 new millionaires are made every year, according to Bruce Gjovig, founder of the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota. Oil royalties range from $50,000 to $100,000 a month.
The quest for oil has drawn thousands from across America to towns like Watford City, which has grown from 1,700 to 10,000, according to estimates in March.
R63 to Graaff-Reinet
Jean and John Watermeyer were children playing in the dirt of Graaf¬f-Reinet when World War II was declared. They lived to see their children and grandchildren farm in the Karoo.
“I have been here all my life; it’s a wonderful part of the world to live in. From an agriculture point of view, from a stock point of view, it’s a magnificent resource. You can breed you own stock, you don’t have to go and buy. It’s the perfect environment for farming,” says John.
“We depend entirely upon rain, and we don’t get much of it. If we have a five- or six-year drought after they leave it will be disastrous… If something comes to disturb all the growth, it’s going to break the spirit of an awful lot of farmers… If it’s just going to be used in another country, then why are we destroying this country to support them,” says Jean.
Sealed gun powder storehouse, Graaff-Reinet
Aloe tree II, Karoo
Abandoned public pool, Graaff-Reinet
From London to Perth people have been fighting police, clashing with truck drivers and super gluing themselves to fences all against fracking. In South Africa the debate is still in its infancy. Fracking in Australia, Britain, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and the United States has provoked violence. In France it was banned, Tunisia soon followed.
One of the most violent protests came in Balcombe, a small town in West Sussex, Britain. British oil and gas exploration firm Cuadrilla, built a test well to take samples of rock.
The people of the Karoo are the latest to join the battle. According to Julius Kleynhans, head of environmental affairs at AfriForum, one in five South Africans have heard about fracking.
“At the moment the government is doing nothing. It’s refusing to address the public outcry. They are just power drilling their wants through,” he says.
“Why would they care if the Karoo was contaminated? What they were told was the value of getting this energy game-breaker gas was far more important than the value of the Karoo. The fact that the Eastern Cape has a third of the country’s livestock population; I cannot tell you how important this part of the country plays in production. We also produce more wool, mohair and ostriches than any other party of the country and 25% of the citrus in the country,” says Stern.
You can be sure this time next year many more Africans will know what fracking is and how it could shake their lives.