Ghana | Dire Prospects

Locals struggle after a crackdown on illegal mining in the country’s gold-rich regions

In May this year, the Ghana government began a crackdown on illegal sites like this one, operated by Chinese miners. CHRIS STEIN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 September, 2013

MUSA KAREEM LEANED against his taxi, a 1997 Daewoo Tico, looking in the direction of a large house in the mining district of Dunkwa in Ghana’s Central Region. It was normally his favourite spot for picking up passengers. A group of over 20 Chinese immigrants lived in the house, and unlike his Ghanaian passengers, they never asked for a discount in his fares. “They keep their word and always give you the amount they promise to pay,” he said. “The Chinese are different from some of the people who live in this town.”

On this Sunday morning in June of this year, however, two single-decker buses were parked in front of the house, with some Chinese immigrants on board. More than a hundred other Chinese were inside the house, waiting to embark. Soldiers from the Ghana Armed Forces, together with officials from the Chinese Embassy, were supervising them, checking their passports and luggage. These Chinese were being forced to leave the mining district for Ghana’s capital, Accra. From there, many would depart for China, and Kareem would never see them again.

The immigrants were among more than 200 Chinese citizens arrested in Ghana the previous week in a raid aimed at breaking up small-scale gold-mining operations. The country’s president, John Mahama, had put together a task force in the middle of May to stop non-Ghanaians from engaging in such mining, known locally as galamsey. By the end of the first phase of the exercise, in mid-June, the task force had arrested 218 Chinese citizens, 6 Russians and 57 individuals from other West African countries.

In Ghana, galamsey is typically carried out on plots of land measuring less than 25 acres, leased from local chiefs. While Ghanaian miners may obtain licenses from Ghana’s Minerals Commisson to carry out small-scale mining, it is completely illegal for non-Ghanaians , who can only engage in large-scale mining, after acquiring a license from the Minerals Commission.

But since the uptick of international gold prices in 2009, a large number of miners from China and other countries arrived in Ghana to mine gold without licenses. “There was a time when galamsey was associated with homelessness and youthful rebellion,” Kareem said. “Only a few young boys did it, by digging the ground in search of precious metals. But it all changed when other people started coming in.”

Working within a land tenure system largely controlled by traditional rulers, these immigrants allegedly paid large sums of money to local chiefs to acquire acres of land to clear and dig up in search of gold. While small-scale mining once relied on inefficient human labour to manually wash and sift sand, the immigrant miners brought with them new technologies and methods. With heavy sand pumps, they sucked up mud from river beds and treated it with cyanide, lead and mercury to extract the gold, before dumping the mud back into the river. Dynamite, excavators and other heavy equipment were also used to dig up forest areas and farmlands in the search for gold.

Many Ghanaians joined the immigrants in their efforts—some partnering with them to start new mines, others working as labourers for daily wages of about $6. Although official estimates are not available, before the crackdown, the number of galamsey operators (Ghanaian and non-Ghanaian) in the Central Region was reported by the media to range from 10,000 to 20,000.

Forty-year-old Kareem once farmed a plot of land leased to him by a local chief in Dunkwa. He quit in late 2009 to become a labourer on a small-scale mining field owned by Chinese miners. “Farming doesn’t bring money like galamsey,” Kareem said. “Even though galamsey work is dangerous, it brings money quickly.”

The increase in mining also brought with it massive environmental damage, and exposed workers to a litany of dangers. Beginning in 2009, news of destroyed farmlands, polluted rivers and accidents in uncovered mining pits filled the airwaves across Ghana. The River Pra, one of the main sources of drinking water for people in the Western and Central regions of the country, turned murky due to the use of electric generators, water pumping machines and dredgers for mining inside the river. In the Western Region—one of Ghana’s ten administrative regions—pollution by these miners caused such a spike in the turbidity of water that the region’s two main water treatment plants malfunctioned in September 2011, and again in February 2013.

In November 2011, Al Jazeera International aired Ghana Gold, a video documentary on illegal gold mining in Ghana. It featured a Ghanaian undercover reporter, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who worked covertly as a labourer on mining fields to uncover the truth about foreign ownership, the use of Ghanaian labourers, and the destruction of farmlands and water bodies. It captured scenes of senior police officers taking bribes from galamsey operators in return for protection, and of young children working as labourers on the mining sites.

The documentary also told the story of some 150 miners in Dunkwa who were crushed to death one Sunday in June 2010, after a river overflowed its banks and filled the pit in which they were mining gold. It was the highest death toll recorded in a single mining tragedy in the country’s history. The following year, over 30 incidents of death involving galamsey miners were reported across the country. Over the past three months alone, more than 50 Ghanaians have died on mining sites in various communities. In most of these cases, the victims fell into pits dug and left uncovered by galamsey miners.

Six months after he began working as a miner, Kareem quit because of the risks inherent in the work. “Galamsey is promise and fail. It is a gamble and a lot of people die from it,” he said. Deciding against a return to farming, in 2011, he took a loan from a credit agency to buy a taxi. “You see, you have to make good of every opportunity,” he said. “I studied the people and I knew where I could make some money even if I don’t work on a galamsey field.”

Across the country, as more information came to light about the damage that galamsey was wreaking on the land and its people, many stakeholders in Ghana’s mining sector and civil society organisations started calling on the government to act against illegal mining. As a result, Mahama initiated the task force, whose arrests have had major impacts on galamsey.

Despite the crackdown, the governments of both China and Ghana are treading carefully. With an estimated $5.43 billion in bilateral trade between the two countries in 2012—a 56.5 percent increase over the previous year—this is one of the best examples of Sino-African relations, and both governments are keen on maintaining it. The Ghanaian government has insisted in statements that the crackdowns have not targeted Chinese miners in particular. China, meanwhile, extended its support to Ghanaian measures to prevent illegal mining, with the Chinese ambassador to Ghana, Gong Jianzhong, condemning the actions of illegal Chinese gold miners in the country. “We are doing our best to stop illegal mining by Chinese nationals in Ghana,” he said in a news conference in June. “We are opposed to any illegal activity done by Chinese in Ghana.”

As Kareem looked in the direction of the house that Sunday morning in June, he wondered about his uncertain financial future. Although not miners themselves, people like him made a livelihood off the miners by providing transport, and food and other supplies to them. “It is true that they are destroying the land with galamsey. But they also help our businesses grow,” Kareem said as he watched the buses fill up. After they had pulled away from the house, Kareem left for his afternoon prayers at a nearby mosque.

I met Kareem again two weeks later, at a taxi stand in a small market in Dunkwa. With him was Kwame Adjei, a labourer who once worked with the Chinese on mining sites. “Now, there is no work for us,” Adjei said. “All the boys who used to work are just sitting down. We’re waiting to see what God will do.”

Kareem, too, was faced with a significant dip in his business after the departure of his favoured Chinese customers. Meanwhile, the piece of land he once farmed on has been given out to another farmer—another plot may become available only after the government completes a land reclamation exercise of farmlands destroyed by galamsey. “It’ll take about five years before we can go back and farm on the lands,” he said. With a wife and three children to support, and the still unpaid loan to the credit agency, Kareem is uncertain how he will survive. “Only Allah can shower his blessings,” he said, with a forced smile.