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Ghana: The murky world of galamsey

Under the Neem Tree

Ghana: The murky world of galamsey

My country Ghana is naturally well-endowed with fresh water sources – causing envy in parts of the world lacking this rare resource. But shamelessly, right under the noses of the authorities, illegal miners are busy destroying it.

Environmentalists and climate scientists consistently warn that the climate change-induced loss of fresh water sources is a potential threat to peace and development in many regions of the world.

To ensure that their populations can survive if water became scarce or dried up, foresighted leaders in some parts of the world are taking precautionary measures – one such is seawater desalination.

But I wonder what countries experiencing “water stress” due to where nature has placed them, would say if they were to be told that there are some countries in the world – like my own country Ghana – where nature has been kind enough to endow its inhabitants with rich natural water sources, but whose populations are deliberately destroying them by recklessly excavating “get-rich-quick” minerals, such as alluvial gold, which lie in the water. It is sad to contemplate how some sections of the Ghanaian population are so shamelessly destroying their water resources: springs, rivers and water tables. I have, for example, seen the destruction at first hand in Asiakwa – the East Region town where I was born, and through which the River Supong runs.

The once mighty river that used to give us cool, clean and extremely refreshing water to drink, has today been turned into smelly yellow mini-ponds, filled with mud, algae and weeds. My hometown now depends entirely on a plant that pumps up and treats water from a well!

My mother would turn in her grave if she learnt that we could no longer drink and taste the nectar-like liquid of River Supong.

So much gravel has been dredged from the Supong riverbed by illegal miners (known as galamsey operators) looking for precious stones. And as it is dumped on the banks, it has become such an extreme environmental and health hazard that it poses a threat to life. The most recent fatality happened on New Year’s Day 2015 when a 24-year-old man tragically drowned after falling into one of the illegal miners’ “pits”, according to the Daily Guide newspaper.

What is particularly sad is that everything happening in this wanton destruction of an important natural resource and the serious hazard to life that is created, happens with the full knowledge of local inhabitants, as well as government officials.

“Strangers” (including Chinese nationals) make secret contacts and pay local people to provide them with accommodation and “scout” or “stake out” target areas for potential gold spots, which if found can be lucrative – sadly, lucrative for the strangers”. They then bring in dredging machines, locally known as to-to-to-to (because of the noise they make) and set to work churning gravel out of the riverbed. They sift the gravel to look for the gold; however, they use dangerous chemicals such as mercury, lead and even cyanide, to help speed up the process. Inevitably, this dredging not only causes destruction to the river, the chemicals wash back into the riverbeds, killing any fish and destroying the river’s habitat. A lot of the chemicals also sink into the soil, to pollute the underground water tables and the open environment around the area.

So much gravel has been dredged from the Supong riverbed and dumped on the banks that making one’s way round them is considered dangerous to human life, too.

But it is not only in my home town that this illegal gold digging occurs. Galamsey – a corruption of the English phrase, “gather-them-and-sell” – has become big business in many of the fertile areas of Ghana, where hitherto, natural forests and water-tables have enabled the people to carry out subsistence and even part-commercial farming for generations.

Galamsey is illegal; a licence is needed to mine gold in Ghana. The government has set up a Task Force made up of military and police personnel to end the menace. But sadly it appears that the Task Force was set up by the government, mainly for propaganda purposes; in other words, to make the population think the government is doing much more about the destruction brought by galamsey than it really is.

Caught on camera
Three recent films have shown the scale and damage caused by galamsey: Edem Srem’s Trading Ghana’s Water For Gold, Afua Hirsh’s The Price of Gold: Chinese Mining in Ghana, and Anas Aremeyaw Anas’ Illegal Mining in Ghana.  

Trading Ghana’s Water For Gold, which won first prize in a competition organised by Agence France Presse (AFP) for African filmmakers, compares government and traditional rulers’ words against galamsey with what actually happens on the ground.

Government and the Task Force
One would have hoped that these acclaimed films would have motivated the government to ensure the immediate cessation of the illegal and horrendous harm being inflicted on its rivers. But NOT in Ghana! The films have been greeted with a very loud silence. As Edem Srem says: “In Ghana, many leaders make public statements about action they plan to take in particular issue areas, but then don’t deliver on their promises. Unfortunately, some journalists simply report these claims as fact”.

Srem listed a number of “unfulfilled promises” made by “Ghanaians in authority” (traditional rulers and elected political officials alike), to “eradicate galamsey”.

For instance, President Mahama, on his visit to the gold-rich Kibi area in January 2014, expressed shock at the amount of destruction of water resources that he had observed from a helicopter. Against protocol, he indirectly attacked the traditional rulers of Kibi, whose source of water, the once-mighty Birem River, has been ravaged by galamsey operators, by saying that the area was the “headquarters” of galamsey.

However, he then undermined efforts to tackle galamsey by deploring the “brutal force” used by the Task Force to do so. Those engaged in the practice, he claimed, were “only doing it to earn a living”. Who is to take the ruthless action to stop galamsey when the president of the country himself has described operators as people “only trying to earn a living”?

But interestingly, Srem discovered that back in 2010, the traditional ruler of the district, Osagyefuo Amoatia Ofori Panin, had himself vowed to clamp down on illegal mining there. But there is little to show for it.

Srem also discovered that in May 2013, another of Ghana’s influential traditional rulers, Otumfuo Osei Tutu of the gold-rich Asante Kingdom, similarly promised to lead a fight against galamsey. That same year, as Srem tells it, the government of Ghana got on board, with the president setting up the anti-galamsey Task Force.

Barbara Serwaa Asamoah, Deputy Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, said the government was working to eradicate the practice: the Task Force from the land and water ministries were working with the police and the military to apprehend illegal miners, she claimed. A year later, the minister of lands and mineral resources, Inusah Fuseini, himself told Srem in an interview that the Task Force had “shown success”.

But Srem’s team shot film footage showing that “all of these promises” had been nothing but hot air. “Our investigation into the truth of these claims showed a very different picture: galamsey operations were, in fact, on the rise. Our investigation took six months to complete…in the Kibi traditional area, we discovered that the King’s promises had never materialised; worse, galamsey had increased. The Birem River, which serves Kibi Township and its environs, had become so heavily polluted that it was difficult for even the Ghana Water Company to draw water from it to its water treatment plant.

“In the Asante Kingdom, the Offin River had suffered a similar fate, debunking the King of Asante’s promise of clamping down on illegal miners…in all the areas we investigated, illegal mining on water bodies had increased, proving the claims of the minister of lands and natural resources to be false.”

Srem further elaborated: “After our documentary was aired, the president and his ministers visited some of the areas where we had shown illegal mining activity to be on the rise…But galamsey is still taking place in various areas, including Twifo Praso, Bempong Agya, Appiah Nkwanta, Kyekyewere, Diaso, Bawdie and Dunkwa-on-Offin.”

Srem affirmed: “I believe that such misleading claims can kill [the inhabitants of the areas affected]. They also hold back a nation’s development. Where this occurs, journalists have a responsibility to fact-check their stories and find the truth behind the statements of the nation’s leaders…The citizens of Ghana have a right to know the truth about illegal mining activities in the country and their effect on our common water resources.”

Attempts in other parts of the world to preserve native habitats appear to go unnoticed in Ghana as far as the authorities are concerned. If it were not so, they would have drawn a lesson to avoid the destruction of water bodies, which if left untamed will eventually impact the wellbeing, even survival of the country’s current population of 25 million.

Galamsey in Ghana is unconcern that simply defies reason.

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Written by Cameron Duodu

Cameron Duodu (born 24 May 1937) is a UK-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a notable novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist.

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