Illegal Mining in Ghana: Genocidal or Just Destructive?

by Kwabena Opong and Kofi Ayim

Since the 15th century gold has been a major export from Ghana, a country that was aptly named the Gold Coast by the first Europeans who stepped on its shores. Indeed Edina in the Central Region of the country, the first port of call of the Portuguese in 1492 was renamed El Mina – the Mine – by the visitors because of the abundance of gold in the area.

According to Akabzaat and Darimani in a study made for SAPRI, the Gold Coast between 1493 and 1600 accounted for 36 percent of the world’s production of gold at 8,153,426 fine ounces. Production figures now indicate that gold production has fallen considerably, and that has been the case since the period when the industry was systematized into national economy from the early 1900s.

Ghana now is the world’s number six largest producer of gold and number two in Africa after South Africa. Gold mining therefore is a major industry in the country and the employer of a substantial number of people. There are, however, two levels of production of gold in Ghana: legal and illegal. The biggest miner so far is Anglo-Gold Ashanti, which bought up the Ashanti Goldfields Corporation at Obuasi in the Ashanti Region. Among the big boys is Newmont, an American conglomerate, which operates two surface mines in Brong Ahafo and the Eastern Regions respectively. New- mont is relatively new to the industry in the country. Other investors from Australia, Canada and Britain are also involved in the industry. It is difficult to estimate the amount of gold mined illegally but illegal mining employs a sizable number of people, most of who happen to be young and otherwise unemployed. What is galamsey? It is the vernacularized version of “gather them and sell.” Galamsey is small scale mining scattered across gold mining areas in the country. There are three kinds of illegal mining: small scale galamsey utilizes primitive tools and is essentially the traditional methods that have been in use since gold was discovered by the people. There is also the galamsey carried out with modern equipment; and then river galamsey.

None of the three categories is, however, legal, and their methods are destructive to the environment and to the miners. Unlike legal mining where premining prospecting is conducted to confirm or invalidate the existence of the mineral, galamseyers dig on mere speculation. Pits and trenches left from past mining operations in some gold mining areas are considered as indications of the presence of gold by current operators. Small scale galamsey work is limited by the manpower and man hours required, but the introduction of modern earth-moving machinery at sites has added a new dimension to the illicit practice.

A single standard mining plot in Ghana is currently about 25 acres and can roughly accommodate six pits of an average depth of between 15 and 20 feet. An operation of this level would employ about 100 people. An excavator machine can accomplish its work within matter of weeks, with its attendant pollution of the air, land and nearby water bodies. In complex operations, pump machines are used to run water to the site to facilitate washing away sediments of rocks. The used water may be pumped back into the river to make room for nearby excavation. Both small and big galamsey operations have one thing in common: pits, tunnels and trenches are al- most not covered after work is accomplished, especially where no mineral is found. The reason is simple: it makes no sense for the operators to reinvest resources in a barren pit.

Uncovered man-holes called “nkomena” in the Twi language always pose potential danger to man and beast. Further, uncovered pits filled with rain water have the tendency to drift into nearby waters with their attendant toxic chemicals. Francis Kokutse in an article in IPS observes that some farmers have had to join the ranks of the galamseyers further to the resulting destruction of farming lands. Perhaps the worst offenders are the water galamseyers, popularly known as “Chan-fan” or its variations thereof. In this operation, a portable powerful drilling machine is placed in a flowing river to dig deeper sucking sand and gravel from the river bed unto a surface to begin the  process of separating mineral from dirt and grit. Such operation may be accomplished within a matter of hours with just few people. Because the equipment is mobile, “Chan-fan” operators can go deeper into a forest undetected to carry out their work and retreat. Lack of the needed safety logistics makes illegal mining prone to several dangers. Pit collapses and land- slides are common and several fatalities have occurred.

In a report on galamsey that appeared on www.azibo- pres.org, Mohammed Ilyas writes that on November 11, 2009, an estimated 30 illegal miners (Galamseyers) lost their lives as a result of a landslides and pit collapse at Dopaose in the Wassa Amenfi East District of the Western Region – 14 out of the 18 corpses retrieved were women. The fear of a further landslide prevented the retrieval of the rest of the remaining bodies. Such incidents are normal occurrences in the illegal mining business, but which are obviously disregarded by the operators.

In 1989 the then PNDC headed by former President Jerry John Rawlings passed a law (PNDC law 218) to legalize galamsey. It was intended to curb and/or check the ille- gal operation. Not much was achieved by the law. Ac- cording to a report by the Ghana Chamber of Mines in 2008, galamsey operations have increased several times since 1989. Ilyas writes quot- ing the Ghana Chamber of Mines that the number of op- erators had increased to be- tween 300,000 and 500,000 by 2008. Further to the fatalities involved in galamsey operations are the associated environmental and health-related issues. The contamination of water bodies by such deadly chemicals as arsenic and heavy metals as mercury used to extract gold from the rock and mud has been reported severally in Ghana media. As a result such rivers as Ankobra, Birim and Pra among several others, which have sustained life along their banks for generations, have been heavily polluted, Mohammed Ilya writes quoting Ghana Business News (GBN), March 13, 2010.

In the summer of 2011, several incidents including the flooding of many rivers in Ghana partly due to galamsey activities led to the loss of lives and property in the Eastern Region. The Birim in particular has been so polluted and assaulted with heavy machinery and other equipment that its continuous flow is in doubt. In several parts of the river’s path, galamseyers have caused illegal diversions and in some cases, lakes and pools have been created. Josh Harkinson of the Grist Magazine observes in his 2006 article that the village of Dumase in the Western Region has seen an influx of galamsey operators who were flushed out of camps elsewhere following clamp- downs by law enforcement agencies. Harkinson further writes about a pledge made by former President John Kufuor to give land to illegal miners who formed cooperatives. Even though more than 60 galamsey collectives were formed the government could not follow its plans through. In spite of the spike in eco- nomic activities in the village, a recent UNIDO study found high levels of mercury and other deadly chemicals in the main sources of water in the village. The study also found that the majority of villagers sampled — including non-miners — carried unsafe levels of mercury in their bodies. Fortunately, the hills around Dumase that used to attract galamseyers have now been taken over by Bogoso Gold, a legitimate investor that only uses modern technology and machinery without any toxic chemicals and mercury. The galamseyers have been thrown out of town, but the troubles have not ceased. The hills around the village have been pruned down and the rivers heavily polluted.

The company, however, hauls in drinking water in trucks to the village, but economic activity has reduced considerably, because only a few people are employed to use the equipment Bogoso Mines uses to extract the gold. Bogoso Gold built Dumasi a school and community center and provided it with poles and cables for electricity. To some extent, the company will be required to restore the land it has mined near the village with grass and trees. Despite these improvements, Dei, a resident in the village said he preferred life with the galamsey. “There was no disruption of our land, because we had the galamsey, but still enough land for farming,” he said. “We wish the mining companies had not come.” (Grist Magazine) PNDC law 218 as well as President Kufuor’s pledge to provide concessions to illegal miners who form collectives or cooperatives, could not materialize. The idea of galamseyers forming collectives was and is still a good idea. Government could control the activities of the galamseyers. Such could officially involve Ghanaians in the mining sector in Ghana. In a country whose economy is supposed to be growing in leaps and bounds with the discovery of petroleum and gas, there is no excuse for unemployment, neither is there any excuse for the activities of galamseyers. But illegal gold mining is a recourse taken, albeit it unlawful and dangerous, to address unemployment in the country. A recent report in the media says that more than 50 percent of new graduates from universities and polytechnics in Ghana may not be able find jobs. Most operators of Galamsey would otherwise be unemployed. Un- fortunately not much has been done by governments over the years to address the problem. Government must find a comprehensive solution to the problems posed by illegal mining.

 Truth be told, gold has been more of a curse than a bless- ing in Ghana. In a short inter- view with a former minister of finance, he said that Ghana’s gold might as well remain in the ground consid- ering the meager returns the country is making. At a time when the gold market is con- tinuously reaching up to the heavens, Ghanaians are yet to feel its impact.

While a country like Libya that relies only on oil and gas has gold reserves worth billions of dollars, Ghana with its gold, oil and gas cannot boast of an ounce of gold in reserve to support its economy in these times of global recession. Galamsey does not ensure Ghana’s environmental future and the health of is people, but it can be regulated and controlled to turn Ghana into probably the first black African nation to possess a bullion reserve. Galamsey causes loss of needed revenue to government. In the past a third of any amount of gold obtained went to the king or the absolute overlord of the land. Things have changed, of course, and within the available laws, minerals or resources underneath the surface of the land belong to the government even if the land is privately owned by an individual. Law enforcement officials from time to time raid galamseyers as was done at Dumase, but that has not been an adequate deterrent.

The sustained incidence of illegal mining questions the sincerity of the government and its commitment to the people. Like Nero, Ghana’s governments, previous and present, play dice while the nation’s wealth is being plundered and environment destroyed. Raids that often get reported in the media are mostly sponsored by investors whose concessions galamseyers mine illegally. Is government unwilling to crack the whip on galamsey activities because of the number of people employed in the illegal practice? Or has some policy/decision makers at Ghana’s Minerals Commission – the agency that has oversight powers to regulate the mining industry, including small scale mining compromised itself in galamsey activities? And what are the traditional rulers and land owners doing? How are lands leased to galamseyers? Will it be true to suggest that nananom are also involved in the practice? Considering that royalties take time to reach them, and considering also that the traditional rulers do not have as much control over what royalties to be paid as they could by galamseyers, shall we be right in thinking that the continuous practice of illegal mining is actively endorsed by nananom?

Like the chief and people of Dumase, galamsey brings wealth and is also considered as a source of economic boom in the traditional area. Galamsey is prospering because it is now a significant source of employment for an army of young people. The irony of illegal mining is the environmental devastation and the clear and present danger it poses for Ghanaians. Ghanaians know it; the leaders know it; and the miners are also aware of it but nothing is being done to stop it or even regulate it. It is genocidal and does not portend any future for the country. Major water bodies that happen to be sources of water for human consumption are polluted and have become a health hazard.

Ghanaian civil society owes it a duty to the country’s future generations to step up to stop galamsey before it renders the country’s environment utterly destroyed.It should not take foreign environmental groups to put pressure on governments to act. The floods of summer 2011; the constant incidents of deaths from galamsey; and the pollution of Ghana’s most productive farming lands call for a radical approach to stop galamsey. NOW!

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Posted by on May 15 2017. Filed under Commentary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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