Ghana’s illegal gold mining industry

From ToxicLeaks

History of ‘galamsey’ in West Africa[edit | edit source]

An estimated 100 million people across the globe engage in artisanal mining to support themselves and their communities in some 80 countries. World Bank figures suggest that these miners produce 20 percent of the world’s diamonds and 20 percent of its gold. The practice is common in countries across sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. The informal mines, often located on the margins of industrial mining operations or at abandoned sites, provide a meaningful economic opportunity that global organizations, advocates and many governments – South Africa among them – seek to support as regulated and legitimate activity.

Far too often, however, illegal mining operations are implicated in catastrophic environmental impact, conflict and human rights violations, and the loss of revenue to countries in which they operate. The lack of robust regulation and oversight contributes to child labor, human trafficking and worker safety issues. The public health impacts are significant, not just for workers but for neighboring villages – and even neighboring countries. Ghana is home to the second-largest gold mining industry in Africa and gold provides about half of the West African nation’s revenue, but in May 2017 the adjacent nation of Cote d’Ivoire sent a diplomatic mission to Ghana to discuss how illegal mining is polluting its own waters.

Known locally as “galamsey,” the illegal mining operations in Ghana have existed for decades but in recent years have accelerated because of Chinese investment and control. President Nana Akufo-Addo has promised to end galamsey in Ghana, which cost Ghanaians $2.3 billion in lost revenues in 2016.

Ghana and the environmental impacts[edit | edit source]

The economic and financial costs of galamsey are sobering, but so is the environmental price tag. In the past, almost all of Ghana’s gold output came from the Ashanti region, where equipment and mining practices are modernized and more environmentally friendly. Yet the explosion in small-scale, illegal mines contributes to air, water and ground pollution, and in some areas, soil erosion and desertification.

Damage from the lucrative minefields are harming the top cash-crop cocoa industry in both Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s leading producers already faced with commodity market pressures; the mines are impacting Ghanaian forests as well. Mercury, cyanide and other chemicals are commonly used in illegal gold mining, and discharged into the soil and water resulting in risks to public health as well.

A recent study by the International Growth Centre mapped the presence of artisanal mines in 11 of the 22 districts in the Western Region of Ghana, which borders Cote d’Ivoire and the Gulf Of Guinea. It is home to four main rivers – two of which flow through Cote d’Ivoire to the sea – as well as critical wetlands, rain forests and savannah. Ten of 14 registered large-scale gold mining operations are found in the region, and with them the adjacent illegal miners at the epicenter of Ghana’s galamsey problem. The mapping, designed in part to identify where environmental remediation efforts will be necessary, found 1,845 abandoned sites, and 5,532 still in operation. It also distinguished between the different types of galamsey mines (alluvial practices, underground tunnels and pits, surface “chamfi” mines).

The report finds that “environmental and financial costs of the devastations are likely to be borne by the government and the whole of society (and) affected communities continue to live with the severe harm to health and well-being associated with galamsey legacy pollution, which threatens the social fabric.”

All regions of Ghana are affected by illegal mining. The Tano River in Brong Ahafo has dried up for the first time in 40 years, a development blamed on galamsey. The Brim in the Eastern region has been muddied. Ghana Water Company warns the nation may import water by 2020 if something is not done.

Public health and poverty[edit | edit source]

Tragically, the West African mineral wealth that the world knows as the “Gold Coast” has never reached the lives of many ordinary Ghanaians. Ghana is rightly perceived as a model African nation on measures that include its relatively stable democracy and economic development, but nearly a quarter of all Ghanaians still live in poverty. Two-thirds of its citizens live in rural regions, particularly in the north.

What Ghana’s gold has created for many of them, especially young people lacking education and alternative employment opportunities, is galamsey. In April 2017, the Ghana National Association of Teachers (GNAT) warned that even school-age students are being pulled out of the classroom to work in the galamsey mines, and cited poverty as the reason. A GNAT campaign against illegal mining includes focus on the health risks for young students, noting that some have already died because of galamsey.

Health problems range from skin rashes and irritation to long-term concerns over cancer and birth defects, caused by river and soil contamination that threatens the safe food and clean water supplies. Clergy and faith groups – themselves impacted by the practice – join civil society in demanding action.

Ghana, China and efforts to control illegal mining[edit | edit source]

Calls for Ghana’s government to end the multidimensional damage caused by galamsey increased in recent years as gold prices – at a May 2016 spot price of USD$1,226 per ounce – soared and attracted foreign miners and investors. They include a diverse mix of Togolese, Malians, Nigerians and Burkinabes, but also Italians, Germans, Indians and above all, Chinese. The ICG report found that because of the Chinese influx, “the operational dynamics of galamsey have completely changed” from being local, low-profile and low-tech operations driven by poverty to sophisticated businesses motivated only by profit.

In March 2017, Ghana issued an ultimatum to halt all illegal mining operations and began arresting Chinese operators and Ghanaians alike who are behind the galamsey mines. The Chinese government has warned Ghana to be more diplomatic in its handling of Chinese nationals who have turned Ghana’s artisanal mines into large-scale illegal operations complete with heavy machinery and worker housing.

Chinese ambassador Sun Baohong, responding to hostile and xenophobic media coverage of the galamsey crackdown in April 2017, advised government guidance on “objectivity” before risking damage to Ghana’s “environment for further development of our bilateral exchanges and co-operation.”

Yet continued arrests of Chinese nationals have opened up questions of scandal and corruption among Ghanaian members of parliament, traditional tribal chiefs and leaders, and the Ghana National Army. Investigations also have raised questions about how Ghana’s established, regulated and “legal” gold mining companies are connected behind the scenes with galamsey operations often at their doorstep. A 20-page Bureau of National Investigations report leaked to media in May 2017 that lists names of the government officials, corporate heads and security officials allegedly involved has sparked controversy.

Meanwhile, some experts argue that the best way to end the dangerous practices of illegal mining, and its damage to the environment and public health – in Ghana and elsewhere – is to create a regulatory framework for artisanal mining. Efforts to control mercury pollution and poisoning, or death rates some 90 times higher in the small-scale setting when compared with large-scale mining in industrialized nations, can create conditions for harm reduction while protecting an important economic opportunity.

Ghana’s Mineral Commission, corporations including AngloGold and Ghanaian activists agree that small-scale mining and illegal mining are not the same thing, and the former can be supported without engaging in the latter. As Ghanaians work on policy solutions to protect health, human rights and the environment, developing a regulatory framework for artisanal mines remains a top consideration.