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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.

ALSO READ: Delegates at UN Habitat Assembly Take on Rapid Urbanization, Find Solutions to Tackle Climate Change

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)

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Innovation and Startup Culture Thriving in Ghana

Ghana is seeing a spurt in Innovation & Technology

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A worker using his innovation inside Nelson Boateng's Nelplast Factory
Inside Nelson Boateng's Nelplast Factory in the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, a worker creates bricks from recycled plastic and sand. VOA

ACCRA – Ghana is regarded as a West African hub of invention, with growing numbers of young people looking at local solutions to local problems.  In December, Ghana is hosting two conferences on innovation and technology.

Alhassan Baba Muniru, co-founder of the Recycle Up company, wants to clean up the natural environment in Ghana.

But he also wants to educate, empower and support young people to pursue conservation – and to make money while doing it.

At the December Innovation Africa summit in Accra, he plans to advocate for more support for young inventors, especially those looking to do green business.

“Even while we are in school we are already entrepreneurial so, for me, I can be able to do a formal job but the freedom of being able to bring my own ideas into action and really take charge of doing something practical and something which also makes society better – it’s much more fulfilling,” said Muniru.

Alhassan Baba Muniro talking about Innovation
Alhassan Baba Muniro wants to clean up and create jobs for young people. VOA

Part of Recycle Up’s work includes collecting plastic from schools to sell to people like Nelson Boateng, whose company mixes it with sand to create bricks.

Muniru and Boateng walk through the factory in the outskirts of Accra, where plastic from across the city is shredded, melted, mixed and then molded into bricks to be used for roads, pavements and buildings.

Boateng, who also manufactures plastic bags, said the bricks are his way of helping to clean up the environment and to provide jobs.

But while Ghana is seeing a spurt in innovation, he said the country needs a lot more infrastructure to support environmentally-friendly business.

“For innovations in Ghana, it’s very, very difficult if you don’t really have the heart.  You will lose hope because honestly speaking when I was doing my polybag that is polluting the environment, I was having a lot of money.  I have money, there wasn’t any problem. When I started this, when you go to the bank they don’t know this, they want something that the money will be flowing, not something you people don’t know –  and not something you say you are trying to save the environment, nobody will mind you on that,” he said.

Supporting local technology startups is expected to be discussed at another December conference in Accra – the second annual Ghana Tech Summit.

ALSO READ: India: Innovation Holds the Key to Job Crisis.

Ghanaian inventor Andrew Quao is working to ease the burden on hospitals with technology that allows pharmacies to diagnosis and monitor chronic and tropical diseases.

Andrew Quao, Co-founder of 'Red Birds' helps in innovation and startup.
Andrew Quao, Co-founder of healthcare tech startup ‘Red Birds’ works with pharmacies across Ghana. VOA

He said African healthcare sectors like Ghana’s are ripe for innovative solutions.

“I think it is growing in the right direction, I think the climate is good, you have got a good mix of local talent and experience and expats coming in and seeing Ghana as a good point to start, so that also works.  We have the ‘brain gain.’ The diasporans – people like myself who schooled in the U.S. – coming back and trying to bring innovations in country,” said Quao.

While both public and private sectors are backing innovation, entrepreneurs hope to see a swell of support from the Innovation Africa and Ghana Tech summits. (VOA)