Politics of Poverty

Troubled waters: Artisanal mining and livelihoods in Ghana

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Fishing boats on the Pra River in southern Ghana, which has been polluted by nearby mining projects. (Photo: Julie Kim / Oxfam)

The problems with artisanal mining in Ghana are well-known, and I saw them first-hand. What’s missing in finding a solution?

This is the image I saw as soon as I got out of the car. We had just arrived in one of the coastal communities of Shama District in the Western Region of Ghana. As I looked around, I saw rows of fishing boats and canoes bobbing in milky brown water with men waist deep unloading their fishing catches from the boats. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, at least not right away. But when I squinted into the sun, I saw in the distance a thin, bright line of turquoise blue – like an underscore to the blue sky.  My Ghanaian colleague leaned towards me and said, “The river is starting to pollute the ocean. The water is brown from illegal small-scale mining.”

We were there to visit local community members to hear about their experiences working with the local district government on social accountability of local funds. What we also heard, however, were concerns about mounting pollution in the local waterways and its threat to their livelihoods as fishermen, fishmongers and farmers. “What can the local government do for us?” they asked.

Shama District is home to where the River Pra meets the Atlantic Ocean. One of the main rivers in southern Ghana, the Pra River flows through rich cocoa and farm land and is hugely important to Ghana’s ecosystems and to the people who live along its banks and estuaries. The river is relied upon for drinking water, agriculture and fishing which are the bedrocks of their survival.

Artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) is not new in Ghana. Known as galamsey, artisanal mining has been going on since pre-colonial times and the number of artisanal miners is believed to be in the tens of thousands today. It is an important source of income generation for rural Ghanaians, especially women and youth faced who lack opportunities in other sectors.

Despite its historic roots, galamsey is not without its problems. Recently, small scale mining has intensified due in part to the massive influx of illegal Chinese miners and in some cases the presence of large-scale gold mining operations, which attract small-scale miners to their concessions, tailing dams, and downstream areas. Hard economic times, driven partially by the government’s overly-optimistic reliance on petroleum revenues, are driving even more people into informal, illegal mining.

Not all small-scale mining in Ghana is illegal. In fact, Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to pass legislation regulating ASM back in 1989. Currently, the Minerals and Mining Act of 2006 contains provisions for small-scale mining including registration, permits, health and safety, and environmental management. However, the procedures required for registration and licensing are time-consuming and burdensome, providing strong disincentives for miners to formalize. So despite the legal provisions, the majority of the ASM sector remains illegal.

Chinese sign at an airport in Ghana warning against illegal mining. (Photo: Julie Kim / Oxfam)
Chinese sign at an airport in Ghana warning against illegal mining. (Photo: Julie Kim / Oxfam)

So, sadly it is no surprise that the mighty Pra River runs sullied. The cause has been known for a long time now and the effects are obvious now too. Metallic mercury, which is commonly used in gold extraction by the artisanal miners, is highly toxic, and other cancer-causing chemicals have been found in the river – toxins that eventually contaminate the fish and drinking water that local people depend on. Officials have warned against the severe health and environmental impacts for years.

If the cause and the effect are known, why hasn’t there been a solution? A few reasons:

  1. Transboundary problem, decentralized governance: Ghana’s decentralized governance structure makes it extra challenging to tackle the transboundary nature of river pollution. The Pra Basin Board consists of assemblies at three different administrative levels (Metropolitan, Municipal and District) plus a range of government agencies, community organizations, NGOs, and traditional leaders; but the Pra basin covers 41 administrative districts across 4 different regions, making the body unwieldy to say the least. On top of this, the Board needs to coordinate with the mining sector, both large and small-scale operators, and with the regulators of other sectors like land and natural resources, environment, and security – making the collective effort needed very difficult to achieve.
  2. Limited enforcement: Effective enforcement of existing regulations on small-scale mining activities has been largely inadequate. The problem is not new and the government has tried to put regulatory measures in place. A few years ago, a Task Force was established to address the issue. However, it has disappointed many for its inability to affect real change. Law enforcement is weak and security measures are patchy. Some argue that it is the lack of political will – both amongst government officials and traditional authorities – not capacity that is letting illegal mining go unchecked.
  3. Poor investment: A lack of investment in social services and non-extractive sectors is driving poor people to seek alternative, more dangerous, sources of income like illegal mining. Major offshore oil and gas operations have already put local fishermen on edge about the security of their future. Coupled with the toxic pollution from the Pra River, fishermen and farmers are forced to seek other means to provide for their families. Pollutants in the water are threatening the agricultural sector, which vitally supports a large proportion of Ghana’s population, particularly women. Without support to these more conventional economic sectors, communities will continue to be pushed to join the ranks of those further upstream, panning for gold.
  4. Lack of options: Alternative livelihood strategies alone are not enough to move people away from illegal mining. Not all miners see ASM as a last resort and very few are eager to pick up agriculture as their new way of living. In terms of improving ASM practices, some past attempts by the government and international donors like the World Bank at providing galamsey miners with technical assistance have failed, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the realities of the small-scale mining community.

When I arrived back in Takoradi later that evening, just a few miles away from the fishing village, I mulled over my dinner options. Thinking back on that murky polluted water, I decided against having the “Catch of the Day”.  Unfortunately, those living here don’t have a choice.

Oxfam’s Extractive Industries team is beginning a new body of work to address some of these issues related to ASM globallyLearn more about what what we’re doing.

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