With no prior experience in grassroots organizing, Jonathan Deal led a successful campaign against fracking in South Africa to protect the Karoo, a semi-desert region treasured for its agriculture, beauty and wildlife.
The Karoo, a dry, desert-like rural area in South Africa, boasts the richest diversity of succulents on earth, and is home to many unique species of lizards, tortoises, scorpions and the riverine rabbit—one of Africa’s most endangered mammals. Especially treasured among artists, photographers and outdoors enthusiasts for its beauty, the Karoo is criss-crossed by a fragile network of gravel roads that deliver its bounty of fruit, vegetables, meat, wool, olives, wine and honey to the cities of South Africa.
Threatening the Karoo is hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking”—drilling for natural gas through shale rock with a highly pressurized mix of water and chemicals. The region is rumored to contain large deposits of shale gas, and in January 2011, Royal Dutch Shell and other companies announced plans to apply for exploratory drilling permits.
The ruling party of South Africa (ANC), with shareholding interests in Shell, has been put in the conflicting position of being both a player and referee in regulating fracking permits. The relationship between the industry and government is close; in fact, one government official has called shale gas a “gift from God.”
For Jonathan Deal and his wife Sharon, it took all of 15 minutes to fall in love with and buy a pristine piece of the Karoo. They turned the property—not within the areas eyed for fracking—into a place where they could enjoy nature and share it with others. Deal’s love affair with the Karoo grew into a book titled “Timeless Karoo,” published in 2007 after three years of research, writing and photography.
In 2011, Deal read an article in the local newspaper about Shell’s plans to apply for exploratory permits to drill for natural gas in the Karoo. While he had heard about the term “fracking” before, this was the first time he became aware of its threats to the region—and went from being a nature lover to an environmental activist.
His deep knowledge of the Karoo convinced him Shell’s plan wasn’t something that should be pushed through in haste, without careful consideration of its environmental impact and consultation with a diverse spectrum of local communities—many of whom have been historically left out of these conversations. Fracking would require large quantities of water not available in the area, and the boom-and-bust cycle of gas development would hardly provide a sustainable solution to South Africa’s energy and job challenges.
With no prior training in grassroots organizing, Deal immediately got to work, starting a Facebook group to educate the public about the risks of fracking. The page quickly gained an active membership of more than 7,000, some of whom Deal convened at a meeting to form Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG). Over the course of a few short months, they built a viral online presence and coupled it with on-the-ground efforts to inform rural communities about fracking.
Deal led a dedicated team of scientists, legal experts and volunteers to prepare a comprehensive report, delivered by TKAG to President Jacob Zuma, that called for a moratorium on fracking. The team also supported Deal in going head-to-head with Shell executives in public meetings and in the media, challenging them to debate the merits of fracking.
All this work has come at a great personal cost for Deal. He poured his family’s life savings into the campaign, and his business suffered as he devoted all his time to his advocacy work.
Deal’s sacrifices paid off in April 2011, when the government announced a national moratorium on fracking. Shell immediately launched a high-profile media campaign to convince the public that fracking is safe; however Shell was ordered to retract those claims as a result of TKAG’s appeal to the South African Advertising Standards Authority.
The moratorium was short-lived. The government lifted the suspension in September 2012. However, it also commissioned new studies from its science and technology department, signaling a serious approach to examining fracking’s environmental impact. Deal and his team have successfully kept fracking out of South Africa for more than two years, and are preparing to appeal any permits approved by the government under South African laws that guarantee its citizens the right to live in a safe and healthy environment.