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Ghana Grooving Surface of Illegal Gold Mining

"The mission is to reduce it to the barest minimum," said Ali. "We cannot eliminate it completely, unless the citizens themselves police it"

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gold mining
Workers separate gold without toxic chemicals such as mercury and arsenic in a formalized small-scale mining in southeastern Ghana, May 23, 2019. VOA

Only the chirping of birds and insects break the silence at a gold mining site in the Eastern Region of Ghana, right at the foot of the Atewa forest reserve. Caterpillar excavators stand still, as the two Ghanaian companies operating them wait for a new mining permit a process that has been in the works for months.

But a fresh pile of sludge spilt over a patch of vegetation suggests the mine is being operated illegally. Felix Addo-Okyreh, who works for Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says the sludge — referred to as slime’ in mining jargon — is dirty waste water created when gold is separated from sediment, sometimes with the help mercury. It is stored in dams on the site.

“It rained heavily last week. The embankment of the dam was weak. It got broken, and this is the result,” he says. The toxic slime landed a few meters away from a stream that flows into the Birim, a river supplying water to millions of people in the capital Accra.

Ghana cracked down on illegal small-scale gold mining in 2017, after the national water company warned that the chemicals discharged by what is locally known as galamsey could force the country to import all its drinking water within the next two decades.

gold mining
Excavators lie still at a small-scale gold mining site at the foot of the Atewa forest reserve in southeastern Ghana, May 23, 2019. VOA

That year the government set up a military task force to dismantle illegal mining sites and imposed a 20-month ban on all small-scale mining to give nature a breather. Satellite imagery and digital technologies are being used to better monitor mining activity.

Yet Global Forest Watch data released last month shows the rate of deforestation in Ghana increased by 60 percent in 2018, faster than in any other part of the world. The country lost 1.13 percent its primary forest last year, in part due to gold mined illegally and often siphoned away by Chinese buyers.

Daniel Kwamena Ewur, an officer for conservation group A Rocha, said the ban pushed more small-scale miners to work within the protected Atewa forest, operating at night when security officials are off duty.

Local authorities and NGOs have started training illegal miners to learn alternative livelihood skills such as soup-making and farming bees. But critics doubt these activities are economically viable.

gold mining
Toxic sludge split over from a dam at a small-scale mining site in southeastern Ghana, May 23, 2019. VOA

“It’s kind of scratching the surface of the core issues of livelihood driving people,” said Nafi Chinery, Ghana country manager for the New York-based Natural Resource Governance Institute.

Chinery believes the anti-galamsey campaign has been more about politics than impact. “We don’t have enough data about who is actually involved in galamsey,” she added. Around 1.1 million Ghanaians were estimated to work in small-scale mining before the ban, which was lifted in December, accounting for around 30 percent of the country’s annual mineral production.

EPA’s head of mining Michael Ali says the government is now going to great lengths to “sanitize” the gold industry by formalizing galamsey sites, being stricter with paperwork and cracking down on the use of mercury. “The mission is to reduce it to the barest minimum,” said Ali. “We cannot eliminate it completely, unless the citizens themselves police it.”

The EPA has reclaimed ten acres of illegally mined land around the Atewa forest, near the southeastern town of Kyebi. Trees were planted to encourage residents to take initiative and help meet an ambitious reclamation target of more than 7,000 square kilometers of land by 2022.

gold mining
Communities around Ghana’s Atewa forest reserve in Sagymase have been affected by a ban on small-scale mining, which employs more than 1 million people and accounts for around 30 percent of the country’s mineral output. VOA

In the nearby town of Sagymase, 65-year old cocoa farmer Janet Achampong does not know what to do about the gaping pit left on land she leased to illegal miners five years ago. She cannot afford to fill the hole herself and reconvert it to farmland.

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The government has acknowledged money is short and says it is seeking support from the international community. In Sagymase, Norwegian donors are funding the reclamation of six acres of galamsey land over the next four years.

A Rocha’s Ewur is facilitating the project, but is wary of planting trees and food crops in soil that has been mixed with chemicals. “There is some quantity of mercury in the belly of this land,” said Ewur. “I would not eat the mangoes that grow here.” (VOA)

Next Story

Uncontrolled Illegal Activities Threaten Ghana’s Fishing Sector

In Ghana, about 2 million people rely on these fish for their food and income

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Fishermen in the Nungua area of Accra wait for canoes to come in with their catches. (S. Knott for VOA) .VOA

On a beach in Ghana’s capital, Accra, fishermen from the Nungua community are waiting for the vibrantly painted canoes to return from sea with their catch of small fish to be sold at the local market.

In Ghana, about 2 million people rely on these fish for their food and income.  But trawlers, run almost exclusively by Chinese operators using Ghanaian front companies, are illegally targeting this staple catch and selling it back to local communities at a profit in a practice called saiko, according to a report from local NGO Hen Mpoano and the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Kofi Agbogah, director of the NGO, says saiko used to just be a regular practice where fishermen would meet trawlers at sea and exchange the trawler’s catch for goods they were carrying.

“Today it has become a multimillion-dollar business where trawlers are harvesting fish that they are not licensed to harvest and sell it back to some canoes — I will call those canoe business people,” he said. “They are not traditional fishers. They just go out there without nets, they buy the fish from the trawlers, and come and sell it in some designated ports.”

Illegal, Ghana, Fishing
On a beach in Ghana’s capital, Accra, fishermen from the Nungua community are waiting. Pixabay

Destroying livelihoods

The report found that in 2017, industrial trawlers caught almost the same amount of fish as the local fishing sector when illegal and unreported catches were taken into account. It also found the practice of saiko also destroyed the livelihoods of local fishermen.

Fisherman Frederick Bortey wants the government to banish those behind illegal fishing.

“My children are not getting money to go to school,” he lamented. “So it is very painful that we are talking about it. They can try and sack those people for us. We would like that, so we can fish, too, in our own country.”

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Bortey and his colleagues say they also face fellow fishermen undertaking illegal practices using fishing lights, where a light is beamed into the water to attract fish.

Ghana’s government says it is focused on tackling such issues. But if nothing happens soon, Agbogah warns that ordinary people will suffer.

“What happens if the fishermen don’t fish anymore?” He said their homes will become “coastal ghost towns” as young people “begin to move across the desert in an attempt to go to Europe.” (VOA)