Prospecting for Ghana’s gold

Ghanaian and Chinese authorities have been busy talking to each other in recent times. But the talks have nothing to do with the anticipated US$3 billion China loan which government is seeking to use to invest in infrastructure. Rather, the talks are about the involvement of Chinese nationals in illegal gold mining operations.

Authorities in the country this week arrested 168 Chinese nationals in illegal mining crackdown. The arrest follows series of pit collapses leading to dozens of death. It also highlights the devastating effect the activities are having on the social and environment of most communities.

Chinese miner with a gold bar.
Chinese miner with a gold bar.

In a week-long operation, immigration and police officials arrested several Chinese nationals in the Ashanti and western regions. The exercise, officers explained, was part of a crackdown to flush out illegal miners in the country until their activities are brought to an end.

“We have arrested 168 Chinese nationals, all of whom are being detained and processed for court,” according to Michael Amoako-Atta, a spokesman for the immigration service.

Each of the arrested persons is to be fined an amount in excess of 1,000 Ghana Cedis for illegally working in the country with permit. A high court last week deported more than 20 Chinese nationals arrested for illegally working in the country.

A similar operation in March led to the arrest of 120 Chinese nationals working in similar conditions.  They had in their possessions guns and cartridges officers said  were used to terrorise persons who opposed their (Chinese) illegal activities.

“Our enforcement unit mounted surveillance in these fourteen communities in the Central Region on December 8-10, 2010, and arrested these forty foreigners for engaging in illegal mining. Our investigations revealed that they were working without proper working documentation,” Francis Palmdeti, Head of Public Affairs of the Ghana Immigration Service, told journalists.

Government has given indication it is determined to clampdown on the illegal mining operations in the country. A presidential taskforce was in May setup to assist in that direction, and report say members of the force are jointly working to bring the situation of illegal mining under control.

“I am sending a clear signal to the offending individuals and groupings that the government will not allow their activities to cause conflict, dislocation, environmental degradation and unemployment when in fact the sector should rather benefit our communities and our country,” President Mahama told journalists in May.

Ghana is one of the leading gold producing countries in Africa but it has made very little impact in the lives of her people.  Income levels in the country are very low and despite claims of being a middle income economy, more than half of the country’s budget is donor funded.

Foreign companies such as Newmont Mining Corporation have huge investments in the country’s mining sector, with very little local involvement. The situation has given rise to the growing menace of illegal mining operations. Most local people involved in the operations justify their activities by insisting rich mining companies have deliberately refused to employ them to work.

Obuasi, one of the oldest mining enclaves in the Ashanti region, is noted for its rich mineral wealth, but the revenue has not made any significant impact in the lives of the people. It has rather, according to the Wassa Communities Against Mining- working to protect the rights of residents in mining communities, impoverished the people.  Executive director Daniel Koranteng once told me in an interview “several farmers have been rendered jobless after their farmlands were possessed by rich mining firms.”

But the Chinese involvement in the sector is however seen as a major threat to the country’s environment and until something is done to stop it, Ghana will be the ultimate loser. Their operations involve heavy duty equipment that ordinary Ghanaians engage in the activities are not in a position to purchase.

“Illegal mining in Ghana has assumed alarming proportions and has got to the point where it is threatening the survival of our water bodies,” Charles Wereko, spokesman for the ministry of lands and natural resources told the British Guardian newspaper.

He told the paper “Foreign nationals, especially the Chinese, have made the problem a lot worse. Unlike Ghanaians they have access to huge funds which they have been using to bring an enormous number of excavators into the country, which can destroy large areas of forest in just one day. The rate of destruction is such that, if it is not stopped, Ghana will not have any forest left.”

According to him, “ most of these illegal miners use very dangerous substances like cyanide and mercury in processing their ore, which are not biodegradable and leach into the water bodies creating serious problems for the communities who use these sources of water as drinking water.”

The activities are having adverse effect on river bodies that remain a source of drinking water to several communities.  The Birim River in Akyem Abuakwa in the Eastern region, a major source of drinking water, is facing threats of pollution due to galamsey operations (illegal mining).

“The extent of this illegality is so bad that now the state agency for processing water to provide clean drinking water for most of the communities in Ghana is not able to do their work, because the cost of cleaning up water has become too expensive,” Charles Wereko said. “This operation is going to continue until all illegal miners are removed.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in Ghana has issued a statement on the recent arrest of her nationals. Spokesperson at the embassy Yu Jie told the Xinhua News Agency his fellow nationals must “strictly abide by the related laws and regulations”.

There are fears the recent arrests could spark tension between the two countries but government has played down such suggestions.

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