Galamsey - The good, the bad and the ugly
Mining is a major economic activity in many developing countries. In Ghana, mining activities in gold-rich regions can be traced to back to the days of colonialism when the nation was called the Gold Coast. Ghana’s huge mineral wealth is well known as the country is ranked ninth in the world for recognised gold deposits. By Daniel Nonor
Mining is a major economic activity in many developing countries. In Ghana, mining activities in gold-rich regions can be traced to back to the days of colonialism when the nation was called the Gold Coast. Ghana’s huge mineral wealth is well known as the country is ranked ninth in the world for recognised gold deposits.
Small-scale mining was once a respected traditional vocation. When the government officially legalised the practice in the late 1980s, it brought to the fore some challenges, including the mechanism by which the government granted mining concessions to peasants. The process was cumbersome and slow and therefore forced many people to mine illicitly.
Today, illegal mining, popularly known as ‘galamsey,’ has become a major source of livelihood for persons living around legal mining communities, mainly due to the continuous rise of the price of the commodity on the world market.
According to the online reference source, Wikipedia, a galamsey is a local artisanal gold miner in West Africa also known as orpailleurs in neighbouring francophone nations. Galamseys are people who mine gold independently of mining companies, digging small workings (pits, tunnels and sluices) by hand. The word galamsey is derived from the phrase “gather them and sell” which is what many unskilled labourers must do to survive. Kweku Siaw, 36 abandoned farming to join a group of five friends to engage in illegal mining at Prestia in the Western Region. Siaw is among hundreds of people who come from different parts of the country to earn a living through illegal mining.
At a typical galamsey site, able-bodied youth mostly men turn up muddy soil while the women tend to provide less labour intensive services such as fetching water for the washing of retrieved gold.
He told GB&F that he abandoned farming because it was not yielding enough to cater for his family of three. He explained that although the revenue opportunities are better, the work remains treacherous.
“First we trail landmarks of mining companies who have done prospecting in the area. We dig pits until we get to a layer of rock we refer to as the cross layer. Beneath the cross layer is often the ore bearing rock.” This stage in the process alone could take weeks with a labour force of five - two persons to do the breaking of the rock while the others carry the pieces out of the pit.
Another interesting aspect of this business is how the spoils are divided among the workers. As there is no overt owner of the mine, the mechanism for sharing the booty can lead to discontent among the parties involved. However, there is a sponsor of the illegal activity and this individual tends to establish the rules of the game. The tools of such miners are usually quite basic but can range from simple implements along streams and rivers to a more complex set ups. Where more machinery is needed, the sponsor enters the equation as the largest shareholder and provides for the workers.
The increasing number of people mining illegally across the length and breadth of the country is alarming and the trail of environmental destruction left behind by this practice has assumed a position of national concern
Siaw continued, “The sponsor provides us with all we need in terms of equipment and food but at the end of the day he buys the gold we get from the pit at a very cheap price. We, the ‘lokos’ (labourers in a mine), are entitled to two sacks of stones out of every ten sacks. The rest is then shared among the other partners. We then take the rocks to a machine to be grinded into a powder form.” After the powdered rock is soaked in water, it is processed and the water is used to wash the mud off the gold.
“At the end of every week, we are able to get about 100 to 150 blades of gold.” One blade of gold is equivalent to a gram of the precious mineral.
These mining activities, whether on a large or small scale produce enormous quantities of waste that most often leave behind detrimental impacts for decades. The increasing number of people mining the illegally across the length and breadth of the country is alarming and the trail of environmental destruction left behind by this practice has assumed a position of national concern. The environmental deterioration caused by mining occurs mainly as a result of inappropriate and wasteful working practices.
On occasion, even some rehabilitation measures are just as detrimental.
A joint police, military and immigration operation tasked to flush out illegal mining operators led to the arrest of 27 Chinese nationals who were mining for gold in the Ankobra River in the Western Region.
At a news conference held after the operation, the Western Regional Police Commander DCOP, Ransford Ninson noted that, “Our water bodies are being destroyed by these galamsey operators. And purposely, we have observed that it is the Chinese who have brought the machines are in the Ankobra and Pra rivers excavating and processing the alluvial gold in the rivers. So the Water Commission brought this to our attention. We are sending them to court for them to be remanded then we will continue with the investigations. We are taking them to the High Court because we have now found out that such cases are adjudicated at the High Court and not the Magistrate or Circuit Courts.”
Destructive floods in parts of the country recently were blamed largely on the activities of illegal miners. Generally, many social commentators and environmentalist have advocated for a stricter regime to flush out the activities of illegal miners. It is also feared that illegal mining activities could have serious repercussions for the safety of the formal mines and the environment as a whole. Illegal mining for example, affects the geological balance of other mines. “Illegal miners have shifted their activities to the Adansi Shaft Pillar, a rock that serves as a support system to keep the shaft on its feet,” noted John Owusu, AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) Corporate Affairs Manager has stated.
In Ghana, many sociologists extend the scope of damage that mining can produce to include potentially adverse impacts on society and cultural heritage and the health and safety of mine workers. Apart from the destruction these illegal mining activities cause the environment such as pollution of water bodies, the activity also involves great risks to the miner’s life. There are regular incidents of a pit may caving in and burying miners alive. Siaw summarised, “It is not an easy job, sometimes people go down there and do not return. At other instances we do not get anything and that is why there is a lot of theft in this area.”
Yet, these deadly trends are not ones that deter people from descending into the earth’s deep shafts in search of ore bearing rocks. Their motivation is attached to a desperate need for income. Anytime lives are lost in the mines, those who survive are able to potentially secure more minerals for themselves. The mine operators are rather spurred on to engage in their illegal activities by such accidents.
The Obuasi mine of AngloGold Ashani, according to management, is under threat by the activities and operations of illegal miners. The activities of these illegal miners have heightened the insecurity in the area for their employees as the illegal miners have resorted to the use of sophisticated weapons to protect their operations. “It is worrying the manner in which the illegal miners competed with company workers underground, using offensive weapons like cutlasses, clubs and guns to put fear in the legitimate miners. There have been several occasions where AGA workers resisted going to work, because of the risky environment created by these illegal miners”, said Mr. Owusu.
The government in collaboration with multinational mining companies has on several occasions expressed worry about the trend of galamsey operations in the country and has tried alternative ways to wean practitioners off their dangerous trade by introducing alternative livelihood schemes in all mining communities. However, this approach seems to do little to discourage adventures into the pits especially when gold prices have resumed their surge.
Alternatively, there have been calls on the government and mining companies to release concessions to the illegal operators since these adventurous miners are now impacting formal concession arrangements without the mining company reaping any benefit. Illegal mining is creeping dangerously close to the mining company's areas.
Whatever solution is adopted, it is clear that the root of the problem is a mix of social and economic considerations. Low income, lack of regulatory enforcement, perverse incentives to avoid obtaining official land concessions for mining, as well as a lack of education on environmental issues has morphed into a very hazardous practice in Ghana’s mining sector. The government and civil society must put their hands to the wheel to fight it otherwise legitimate private sector operators may be deterred from investing in the sector which is one of the chief foreign exchange earners in the economy.