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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

Ghana Preparing for it’s First Digital Population, Housing Census

The census is expected to cost $84 million, around 50% more than the last census

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Ghana, Digital Population, Census
A government official tests an electronic questionnaire in Old Fadama, Accra’s largest slum, ahead of Ghana’s first digital population and housing census in 2020, May 24, 2019. VOA

In Accra’s district of Old Fadama, the largest slum in Ghana’s capital, a government official interrupts a group of men playing cards. The official carries a tablet and asks if anyone has time for a few questions to test an electronic questionnaire.

Ghana is preparing for its first digital population and housing census next March, joining Swaziland, Malawi and Kenya as one of the first countries in Africa to collect data electronically.

Long-time resident Mohammed Basiru volunteers. He was missed out of the head count during Ghana’s previous census in 2010 because he was traveling overnight from the northern city of Tamale.

At that time, questionnaires were on paper. It took months to gather and assemble the data, and around 3% of the population was left out of the survey.

Ghana, Digital Population, Census
Satellite imagery shows the growth of Accra’s urban area between 2010 (above) and 2018 (below). The government is using satellite technology to prepare for its first digital population and housing census in 2020. VOA

Now the government will be going digital, using tablets and satellite images to improve the reach of enumerators and make sure everyone in Ghana is counted on census night.

Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia said the data would help fight inequality.

“We must count everyone and make everyone accountable to pay their fair share in taxes that would be used to target assistance to those who may not have had access to critical social services previously,” said Bawumia at an event last week.

The census is expected to cost $84 million, around 50% more than the last census. The government has contracted around 60,000 enumerators, but is still working with the United Nations on how best to source the 65,000 tablets required to conduct the surveys.

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Officials say Kenya may be able to lend out the tablets after it completes its first digital census later this year.

Araba Forson, chief statistician for the Ghana Statistical Service, said technology would prevent enumerators from under-staffing densely populated areas — a problem encountered in 2010 because the population maps they used were out of date.

“Satellite imagery will tell us that there are people living in this part of the country that the enumerator may not have visited,” she said. “Using electronic data collection, we will be able to make sure that everyone has been covered.”

Ghana’s urban population has more than doubled during the past two decades, rising from 7 million in 1997 to almost 16 million in 2017, according to the World Bank.

Ghana, Digital Population, Census
Informal settlements in Accra’s Agbogbloshie slum, where residents were evicted by city authorities to make way for a railway track in Accra, Ghana, May 26, 2019. VOA

Many people have moved from poorer rural areas in search for work, joining the millions of street vendors and waste pickers who make up most of Ghana’s informal economy.

Together with the homeless, they are the “floating population” whom government statisticians want to capture better in their database.

And the stakes are higher this time, as the census will play a key part in the nationwide rollout of biometric ID cards launched by President Nana Akufo-Addo in 2017. The new Ghana Card requires a digital address code, many of which will be generated by enumerators during the census.

In Agbogbloshie district, notorious for housing a toxic junkyard of electronic waste, community member Naa Ardo-Acquah said some slum dwellers were suspicious of the ID registration process.

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“In the Choko community, they thought the card means to tax,” she said. “The authorities didn’t sensitize them on it.”

Ardo-Acqhua hopes the new digital address system will stop city authorities from removing slum dwellers from their homes.

But distrust remains an issue, and officials testing tablets and marking houses in poorer areas said some of their numbers were later removed by informal residents who feared eviction.

“Our publicity and communication team has developed communication materials, both print and audiovisuals, that will be used to educate the people,” said Omar Seidu, a social statistician for the Ghana Statistical Service.

Ghana, Digital Population, Census
A church in Agbogbloshie slum hosts a registration center for a biometric ID card launched by Ghana’s president in 2017. VOA

Seidu said his team would be working closely with community leaders before the census to make sure the process is understood.

Ardo-Acqhua has said she still worries the government will not send enough staff to Agbogbloshie. She spent days helping people register for their ID cards at centers set up by the National Identification Authority, and said many were discouraged by long lines.

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“They only came for three days and less than half the community was able to sign up,” she said. “I don’t know what they are going to do about that.” (VOA)