Although often overlooked by outside investors, small miners play a central role in Ghana’s gold industry. Counting groups and individuals, both regulated and unlicensed, they account for nearly 35% of total production, according to 2013 figures from the Minerals Commission. As the Ghana Chamber of Mines (GCM) points out, this is 10 percentage points higher than Gold Fields Group, the largest mining firm. Local small-scale miners are known as “galamsey”, which comes from the English phrase “gather them and sell”. Their activities encompass legal employment, designed to allow local people easier access to the nation’s resource wealth, and illegal mining, widely regarded as a blight. Legal small-scale miners also play an important role in community development, as more of the money they generate stays in mining areas. According to Amponsiah Tawiah, manager of monitoring and evaluation at the Minerals Commission, they help put a brake on rural-urban migration, one of Ghana’s great demographic, social and economic challenges. “Artisan mining is very, very important,” Tawiah told OBG. “Smaller mining does create headaches, but it is also very beneficial.”
Since it is unregulated, unmonitored and free of international requirements, illegal mining causes environmental damage, is risky to the miners themselves and, legal miners say, leaves a toxic legacy in mining communities. Unofficial workers can be easily exploited, and usage of chemicals is haphazard. Illegal mining is therefore not merely a nuisance to legal incumbents and the authorities, but also dangerous and detrimental to the country as a whole.
There has been an upsurge in illegal activity in recent years, with Chinese miners in particular active. According to the GCM, the surge in illegal mining was focused primarily in the “cocoa belt”, hence the problem could affect cocoa sector revenue if further measures are not taken to tackle it. Illegal miners have also often been found to be armed, have fired on police attempting to apprehend them and have reportedly harassed Ghanaians in mining communities. In 2013 President John Dramani Mahama said illegal mining had resulted “in the killing of miners, murders [and the] degradation of the environment” and in “forests being degraded, farmlands being destroyed, water bodies being polluted and the resultant health implications for the people”.
In May 2013 President Mahama launched an inter-ministerial task force to tackle illegal mining. It brings together five ministries: Lands and Natural Resources, Interior, Defence, Foreign Affairs, and Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation. The body’s establishment is seen as a serious step in tackling the problem and seeks to ensure the implementation of laws that had been disregarded. Catalysing the task force’s establishment was the increasing participation of foreigners and the use of heavy equipment – and the implications of this for employment levels, national security and the environment. President Mahama is keen that the small-scale mining segment remain the preserve of Ghanaians. “Government is not against small-scale mining; what we want is for those who are engaged in small-scale mining to follow the required procedures,” President Mahama said.
The task force’s powers include the right to seize equipment used by miners failing to comply with licensing directives; arrest and prosecute anyone involved in illegal mining; deport foreign illegal miners; and revoke the licences of Ghanaians subcontracting and subleasing to foreigners in contravention of the law. It can also hold metropolitan, municipal and district chief executives and their respective security committees accountable for any illegal mining activity in their areas of jurisdiction. Some in the sector question the activities of officials under the task force’s aegis. In March 2014 the Artisanal and Small Scale Mining Africa-Network (ASMAN), which had welcomed the organisation’s establishment, sent a petition to the minister of lands and natural resources complaining of abuses by security personnel, including the violence, harassment and destruction of property. ASMAN claimed that legitimate galamsey miners had been targeted by mistake.
Nonetheless, the task force had an immediate impact. In July 2013, just two months after its establishment, the organisation reported on its first phase, which saw the arrest of 1568 foreigners and 51 Ghanaians, with 40 vehicles, 85 pieces of earth-moving equipment and 49 weapons. Almost 3900 foreign miners were deported, including some who gave themselves up for repatriation.
At the time of writing, the task force was in its second phase of addressing the damage done by illegal mining, including reclaiming devastated land and cleaning up heavily polluted rivers. Local press reports in late 2013 suggested that more funding would be needed for this, citing as an example the Upper Denkyira East District in the Central Region, where 2000 acres of land had been degraded by mining and needed to be reclaimed, and where the course of a river had been altered by miners, affecting the area’s water flow. “2013 saw the expulsion of many miners working without permits. However, we have yet to see any land reclamation and remediation following these expulsions,” Kwaku Effah Asuahene, CEO of AA Minerals, told OBG.
The government’s crackdown is seen as having been fairly effective. However, there are questions about how sustainable the measures are – particularly the stationing of troops in mining areas. In a country with already stretched resources, maintaining a permanent military presence in the swathes of land affected by illegal mining is likely to be impossible and perhaps not desirable either. Even when foreign illegal miners have been pushed out, they often sell their equipment to Ghanaians who continue mining.
There is increasing pressure for the authorities to address the roots of the problem. This entails identifying both the sources of demand for illegally mined gold and the sources of financing for illegal operations, rather than focusing only on the miners, who are the middle of a long international supply chain. Specific solutions for how to do that are in short supply. Even within Ghana, a wide range of people are linked to illegal mining beyond just the miners and their managers – these include local chiefs, unscrupulous businessmen and even politicians.
There are positive signs on bilateral cooperation. In February 2013 Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China was taking the issue of Chinese illegal miners in Ghana “very seriously” and that the two countries should work together more closely to tackle the problem. Wang said that the Beijing government was encouraging Chinese financial institutions to invest in the legal mining sector in Ghana.
The GCM sees rooting out illegal mining as only one part of the solution, asserting that more miners should be brought under the umbrella of the formal sector, where they can be better regulated and taxed. “Small-scale mining is legal in Ghana, so the focus isn’t on legalising small-scale mining but on formalising it,” Toni Aubynn, former CEO of the Ghana Chamber of Mines and CEO of the Ghana Minerals Commission, told OBG. “At the moment there are many groups of non-Ghanaians who are mining without a licence – not just the Chinese but also those from Niger, Mali, the US and Spain. It is important for these small-scale miners to get a licence because this ensures a lower environmental impact and assures the miners themselves of better health. The chamber is working closely with government and NGOs like Solidaridad to sanitise illegal mining.” In this context, the GCM is lobbying the government for further moves to formalise small-scale mining and bring more of its activity into the regulated sector. One of the challenges that small-scale miners face, and which encourages some to operate illegally, is the accessibility to unencumbered mineable lands and the cumbersome procedures in licence acquisition, rather than the cost of obtaining licence. This explains why some prefer to break the law.
Over the longer term, arguably the best way to promote a clean and regulated small-scale mining sector that supports community development is to ease the red-tape burden on galamseys by making licensing cheaper and more straightforward, and providing better access to both technical support and funding.
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