Ghana | Crude Beginnings

For the surf town of Busua, the discovery of oil off the coast has brought a wave of change and uncertainty

A surfer rides a wave in Busua. Promise of an economic boom here coexists uneasily with the prospect of environmental damage. PATRICK WRIGLEY FOR THE CARAVAN
01 August, 2012

UNLIKE THE WAVES along the majority of Ghana’s coastline, those off of Busua, a picturesque bayside village 250 km west of the capital Accra, do not pass unnoticed. When a darkening swell on the horizon begins to gather force, hoots and screams encourage its arrival. In the sea on nearly any day, a clutch of young men can be seen straddling surf boards like kids clinging to tree branches. They pivot back towards shore and begin to paddle rapidly. Just as you think the wave is about to consume them, taking them into its frothy throat, they jump to their feet, angle left and slide down its face, teasing and flirting with the hungry water.

“Nobody taught us to surf. We just picked up an old broken board and practiced,” said Obed, a 20-year-old local with a broad Mohican and a skeptical, almost hostile look on his face. His friend, Clement, considered by most to be the best surfer in the village—and by that measure probably the best surfer in the country—sat next to Obed with disinterest. “It looked really nice watching them surf, so I decided to give it a go,” Clement said, shrugging. “We’re pretty much surfing every day if the waves are good.”

Clement, Obed and about 10 other locals have been riding the waves in Busua ever since the Black Star Surf Shop, Ghana’s first store of its kind, was opened by New York native Peter Nardini in late 2006. Nardini, who had come to the country earlier that year to work in a hospital in a neighbouring village, partnered with a Busua native, Frankie, to set up the shop. The arrival of the shack was followed by a number of initiatives, including a community tourism centre to help villagers take control of tourism development and a new environmental organisation, the Ahanta Environmental Club.

“Now it’s improving the reputation of the village,” said Ebenezer Bentum, or Ebe, another surfer from Busua. “People come all the way from Europe to surf in Ghana.”

Six months after the Black Star Surf Shop opened, another set of Europeans arrived in Busua—with their eyes set on developing an entirely different industry. The UK-based global oil and gas exploration company Tullow Oil discovered Ghana’s first sizeable oil reserves 60 km off the coast just west of Busua. Although the extent of the reserves is still unclear (estimates range from 600 million barrels to 5 billion), it quickly became apparent that Ghana would be able to lift oil in commercial quantities. Sure enough, 42 months after the discovery, Tullow and its partners began pumping the black gold—it was the fastest turnaround from discovery to production in the modern history of the energy sector. The Jubilee Field, named for the country’s 50th anniversary in 2007, currently produces 85,000 barrels per day (bpd) and is expected to reach a production level of 120,000 bpd by 2013.

The find has dramatically changed the tenor of political debate in Accra. Headlines in local newspapers warned of the potential for spills while heralding Ghana’s capacity to become “an African Tiger”. The government, meanwhile, has stressed the need to avoid the fate of Nigeria to the east, a country where oil has stained the brittle ecosystem of the Niger Delta and led to a low-level insurgency by local militants. However, Vice President John Dramani Mahama, amongst others, speaks of oil as a vehicle that will transport Ghana to middle income status.

In Busua, the oil appears mostly as signs. Sometimes literally, as on the main road into town, where a small white board labelled “Schlumberger”, for the world’s largest oilfield services company, peeps out from amongst coconut palms, as though it does not want to be seen. Sometimes, it comes more esoterically, as in the form a T-shirt with a logo for Total, one of the six largest publicly owned oil and gas companies in the world, that has found its way into the wardrobe of a local boy. For villagers, though, the most obvious sign of the oil is not on land, but in the water. “It has brought a lot of trash to the beach, like grasses and foamy leaves,” Ebe said. Most locals speak of seaweed that wasn’t here before the oil. One volunteer, a surfer who didn’t wish to be named, said he occasionally sees oil in the water.

Further west, fisherman have reported strange occurrences. Nine whales have washed up on the shores of the Western Region since the discovery of oil, an event that previously happened once every 20 or 30 years, according to Solomon Kusi Ampofo, a program officer at Friends of the Nation, an environmental NGO based in the port city of Takoradi. In Axim, an hour’s drive west of Busua, I spoke to a number of fishermen who said they had seen slicks of oil in the sea and that their nets were thick with tar when they returned to shore. Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency and Tullow Oil have remained largely silent on these issues and did not respond to requests for comment.

These reports, which slowly drift east to Busua like the Guinea current, lend the surf town a fragility. The village has always had an intimate relationship with the sea. Although many of its 2,000 inhabitants work on the rubber plantations or in the artisanal gold mines that are cleaved like scars into the palm forest not more than 30 miles from Busua, fishing has been the main source of income here for generations.

The west end of the beach, where the fishermen berth their canoes and tend to their nets, is noticeably different from where the surfers and volunteers congregate. Crossing a hollow, carved out of the mustard sand by sewage washing into the sea, I saw a committee of vultures looking for scraps, waddling along the beach like wide-hipped matrons. Next to one canoe lay a blue shark with a cartoon smile, blood trickling from its mouth. Out of the water it looked like an oversized rubber toy.

Here one Sunday morning I met Benjamin Pre, who had been fishing from Busua for 10 years. When surfing had come to town he had given it a try, but he soon gave it up. “I need to work,” he said. He was drunk when I spoke to him and his speech took on a staccato quality, the effect of the alcohol adding urgency, as though if he didn’t speak now he wouldn’t be heard. He told me of the destruction the oil had wrought: “The kind of fish we used to catch, we don’t get anymore. This is because of the oil.” He also said that they couldn’t go to their normal fishing grounds anymore because the oil companies warded them off with guns.

The district level government claims the oil will transform the region favourably. Ahanta West, the district in which Busua is located, has drawn up a 20-year development plan with the support of South Korean consultants. “Actually, these projects came as a result of the oil find,” said Seth Ankoma-Say, a district development planning officer. “We wanted to avoid the situation where certain developments took the district by surprise.” I asked him about the negative impact of the oil, about reports of environmental threats, but he denied knowing anything of this.

The Ahanta West plan predicts that the oil will bring Ghana foreign investment and create as many as 14,000 jobs in the district’s tourism industry by 2030. The government is also contemplating altering the beach to reduce the intensity of the waves and make the sea friendlier to swimmers. Most locals are unaware of these plans. Josiah Nkrumah, who prefers to go by the name Steve, had never heard of them, but said, “It’s just paper stories—don’t mind them.”

A 23-year-old with a swagger, Steve was determined to succeed. Like other locals, he had briefly tried surfing, but decided he wasn’t very good and turned instead to singing. Steve let me listen to songs from his album—what sounded like highly addictive pop reggae—including one of his favourite numbers, ‘I’m Going to Make It/ I’m a Hustler’. As the track played and we tapped out the beat, Steve told me of his plans, how he was going to break out and become rich. First it would be through his music—his songs would get picked up in the West. Then he spoke of going to Nigeria to “oil school”, as he called it, so he could come back and work on the rig. Finally, he would buy some rubber trees and start his own rubber plant. He talked of these goals as if they existed in another world, places on the outside, my world, not his.

At the end of my trip, I decided to get out in the waves. A novice with a surfboard, I found the sea to be temperamental. A strong drag angered the waves, turning them in on each other. In this maelstrom, with charcoal skies above, and the fishermen’s stories in my head, I kept seeing an imaginary rainbow shimmer of crude varnishing the surface.

I described this sight to many district officials and energy industry employees and they all said it was impossible. Among them was Jo, a fresh-faced man, who looked no more than 40 years old. Born and raised in Takoradi, he had recently gotten a job in an oil services company. This was his first time in Busua and its beauty surprised him. He was here at the expense of Tullow Oil, which was hosting a party at Busua’s disheveled five star beach resort for employees of its service companies. Wearing his ‘People With Energy’ T-shirt, Jo answered my questions amicably, talking of Tullow’s stringent health and safety requirements, and insisted that you would never see oil wash up on this beach.

As I continued probing Jo, however, I began to lose him; his gaze kept turning to the sea. About 50 yards from where we were standing, someone was slipping down the face of a wave, before languidly rotating his hips to push the board back up the steepling bank of water. Jo’s face broke a smile: “Wow, I never knew a Ghanaian could do that.”