With the fishes dead and the once pristine waters turned murky, the carpetbaggers returned to their own homeland. It took less than a decade to pillage the rich resources of an entire country, having collaborated with the high and powerful in their own land. It cost them little, but it gave them much to return home with. Citizens looked on and the stakeholders seemed helpless in stopping them, though the effects on the environment were devastating. They called it the second coming. The first coming was centuries ago, when virtually nothing could be done by the prey. In the second coming, the predators joined forces with the preys to still, kill and destroy their own African land.
Lest you think that to be a slice of historic fiction; rethink. It is happening in Ghana now and would be told to future generations. It would be the story recounting how illegal mining is causing many to die, destroying lands and marring futures as some security officers, chiefs, and landowners are providing the Chinese and other nationals with land and security to engage in galamsey (illegal mining) in Ghana.
Investigation carried out by The New Crusading GUIDE (as part of the ongoing Africa Investigates series on Al Jazeera), brings to the fore fresh evidence of how illegal mining (galamsey) has led to the death of many galamsey operators and how some Chinese citizens have taken over illegal mining in parts of the Western and Eastern regions. This has resulted in the death of many miners, ruined farmlands, pollution of large rivers, and destruction of aquatic life.
To effectively tell the story, this reporter went undercover as a galamsey miner, mechanic, a traditional chief and a businessman to uncover the multi-dimensional levels of destruction being brought about by galamsey mining activities. Undercover video footage obtained during the investigation indicates that this illegality is usually facilitated with the aid of some local chiefs, landowners, and police officers. Many traditional rulers have gone into the business of providing land for illegal foreigners for pittance; while some security officials get paid by the illegal miners to offer them protection from higher authorities and officially composed task forces.
At the heart of this phenomenon is a high level of exploitation and poor service conditions for the many menial hands who have been engaged in galamsey. They are often promised a better deal in the beginning, but these promises remain pipe dreams.
A Grave of Dashed Dreams
Dressed in her mourning clothes, Abena Antiwaa appears frail, bitter, and devastated. Though more than a full year had passed, the tragic event of June 27, 2010 has cast a lingering shadow over her entire life. Each mention of the word “galamsey” incited a tear of rage from her swollen eyes. Between these muffled sounds, she recalled, “One Sunday, he said he was going to work and I went to church. I was coming home and people said some miners had just died. They said the mining site had collapsed on my brother. I just fainted. People helped to bring me home.”
Abena struggled to recapture the incident that crushed some 150 miners in Dunkwa-on-Offin that tragic Sunday. Only 17 dead bodies, marred beyond recognition were recovered with an excavator under rubbles of dirt and grit.
“When you finish school, you need to take care of yourself and the choices for young men are limited,” Adjoa Pinnamang told The New Crusading GUIDE of the motives of some galamsey workers. She continued, “They make a lot of money, they get hooked, and refuse to stop.” For Pinnamang this isn’t just speculation, this is personal. Her husband, Isaac Amoabeng, was among the 150 who perished in June last year.
Stories like Abena’s brother and Adjoa’s husband are just examples of the many horror stories that continue to result from illegal mining activities in recent years.
This year, there have already been over 30 reported incidents of death involving galamsey miners. Among the most recent five casualties are four women who took their last breath after a boulder collapsed on them in a pit. That was less than a week ago. The death toll continues to rise making the mining pits a grave of dashed dreams.
Some two decades ago, these kind of fatalities were unheard of. Galamsey used to be done independently by local artisans who dig small pits manually. The ever-soaring price of gold has however brought many carpetbaggers into Ghana; they stay in mining communities and illegally mine gold with impunity – a total violation of the laws of Ghana.
The World of Galamsey
Although the laws of Ghana make room for small scale mining, where local miners acquire license to mine on allotted concessions of land, galamsey remains illegal. Galamsey miners often employ crude methods such as the use of dynamites, pick axes and manpower. This threatens the environment, creates untold health problems to locals in mining areas and often leads to the death of some of these miners.
Undercover footages obtained during the investigations show how men, women as well as young children are engaged in the practice across many communities in Ghana. It is more widespread in the Western and Eastern Regions of Ghana, where gold can be found in large quantities.
In the narrow and deadly galamsey pits are children as young as 7 who illegally work as manual hands in mines. “The law does not permit children below 12 to work at all” explains Sylvia Hinson-Ekong the Executive Director of Rescue Foundation Ghana. “From age 15, a child is allowed to take employment but they are not allowed to do hazardous work.” Galamsey operations come with the attraction of daily pay.
Though many are exploited by their employers, children who get introduced to the world of galamsey find it hard to quit. Many have run out of school as a result of the attractions of galamsey. Classrooms have become empty in galamsey operation areas. Teachers and opinion leaders appear helpless at stopping this trend.
Many of the children who have been held in the grip of galamsey have fallen prey to insidious vices. Teenage pregnancy is on the rise among young girls, whiles the young boys engage in the usage of hard drugs such as cannabis, heroine, and marijuana.
Sometimes, whole families are engaged in the practice, making the effects of galamsey an established tradition among generations. Afia is a nine-year old girl who quit school to join her mother and other siblings. Each day, she wakes up to a galamsey site where she works for 8 hours shoveling and carrying sand in the pit. She earns an average of GHC25 daily.
For many others, it has become the only means of survival. Pregnant women sweat and labour in these pits of death. Many more virtually live in the deadly pits, eating, bathing and nursing with no choice but to withstand the dangers involved.
In the process a generational cycle of hardship, danger, and vice is being set in motion.
Destruction of Farmlands
“The consequences of illegal mining on farming communities are huge,” says Mrs. Angela Ama-Tutuah Mensah, Head of Public Affairs at the Environmental Protection Agency. “People lose their livelihoods.”
The story of Kofi Peprah is one illustration of the devastation farmers can face. Located in the Sefwi-Bokanso, a village in the Western region, in 2009 Peprah was greeted with a personal disaster which has left him financially strained. Over 20 years of his hard work, fulfillment and personal dreams were brought to a sudden end by some Chinese miners who rammed through his farm with an excavator and destroyed his cocoa, cassava, oil palm and other valuable foodstuff.
No compensation was ever paid to him; as the Chinese moved away immediately they discovered the land was not good for mining.
Kofi Peprah has had to start his farming life all over again. His wife and three children still look up to him to provide for the household. Things have however not been the same. He is currently in a quagmire but hopeful for a better life. “Galamsey is the last thing I would do”, he told the New Crusading Guide in an interview.
Like Peprah, many farmers who have decided to earn a living through honest means have suffered untold hardships from galamsey operators. Their only means of survival is taken away by these illegal miners through the destruction of their farmlands. Many are left with no means of livelihood, desperate and crying for help.
Galamsey operators usually move on after destroying farmlands. Gaping holes are left uncovered; as the move on to locate virgin lands, which they further deplete with impunity.
This has been a major cause flooding in many of the mining communities, a situation which recently saw the President of Ghana’s visit and intervention to some parts of the Eastern Region in July this year.
Mrs. Mensah also paints a portrait of the health effects this activity near farmlands can have on residents. “We realize that they dig deep to get the oil and the gold from these farms and they leave these holes without any scientific filling. When it rains, water actually fills these holes attracting mosquitoes. Thus, this leads to an increase in malaria.”
During his visit, President Mills noted the devastating effects of galamsey on the general landscape. He made calls for a cessation of acts which bring destruction to the land. “What this means is that we have to tackle the issue of galamsey rather seriously. Let’s see how we can solve that problem because this is a clear indication of some of the effects, yes, of galamsey”.
Far from being tackled, however, galamsey is now so widespread; miners are moving onto the river itself. Strange new boats and sophisticated machines are appearing that can suck up silt from the riverbed, sidestepping the need to dig pits along the riverbanks.
This constant churning has turned once pristine waters murky. The shorelines are scarred and this brings up another dimension of cost to the general livelihood of residents in terms of potable water for daily use.
Pollution of Water Bodies
The World Health Organization (WHO) establishes a level at which water is acceptable and ideal for consumption. This process, known as turbidity, is a measure of the degree to which the water loses its transparency due to the presence of suspended particulates. A Turbidity Unit of below 1 is acceptable for human consumption, since the more total suspended solids in the water, the murkier it seems and the higher the turbidity.
Galamsey operations however leave the rivers in a murky state, which increases the turbidity of water. Aside the health risks this poses to most residents who depend on such rivers as sources of water for everyday use, pollution of water also poses economic challenges to the entire country.
General Manager of Ghana Water Company in the Western Region, Daniel Muomaalah, indicated that the murky state of the water brings an extra cost to the average consumer of water in the country. He bemoaned the activities of galamsey miners, citing it a significant contributor to the rising cost of water production [and distribution].
“The water we treat must be of a certain quality before we send it to town; and if the water is polluted like it is now, there is an added cost for treatment. This is eventually passed on to the average consumer of water”.
He also explained the effect of chemicals such as mercury, which most illegal miners use to pollute sources of drinking water. “For instance, mercury has a level that is unacceptable for treated water. So if it is detected and the level is high, it would be a danger for us”.
The use of chemicals such as mercury and cyanide, which are often discarded into the rivers contaminate drinking water and kills fishes in the rivers. Many have died. Several others have been handicapped as a result of this. Along the Pra River and many others in mining communities across the country, this is evident in the large amount of dead shell fishes on riverbanks. These health effects and risks to life notwithstanding, the practice of galamsey continues in the mining communities. Its attraction to minors and the elderly is growing at a phenomenal pace. Now, foreigners have also taken over.
Machines of Destruction
A huge machine, situated in the middle of the Pra river is supported by four big water hoses pumping water at high pressure onto a flat board. This flat board serves as an island for the illegal miners. Water is pumped downstream and this moves by a big pipe through a mechanically-operated mill hitched to the flat board. At one end of the board are laborers who simply pick up stones to avoid it chocking the water pipe.
As part of the undercover beat, The New Crusading GUIDE’s Anas Aremeyaw Anas went undercover as a mechanic and a labourer to study a sophisticated machine which has been constructed by some illegal Chinese miners. The beat, which involved the picking of stones which might choke the pipe, provides a clear view of how the river is stirred and dirty water dispensed back into the river.
At another end of the river, gold discovered by the Chinese is attracted to mercury, and until it’s heated up, it has a silvery hue. The mercury and silt are then dumped back into the river when the miners are done. This is the same water local people use for washing and drinking.
It is a daily exercise, carried out by these Chinese galamsey miners. The Chinese have used heavy-duty equipment and earth-moving equipment to destroy their bridges and culverts, leaving the roads more deplorable.
A few years ago, the Chinese started their operations at Kutukrom, near Prestea and move along the Ankobra. They were on the Offin and Pra rivers as well. They move in the bushes looking for concession. The Chinese in collaboration with some Ghanaian counterparts have polluted and destroyed the water sources in more than 10 communities in the Amenfi East District alone.
This brought about the unnatural diversion of the course of river Ankobra in many areas; a key reason for the numerous cases of unprecedented flooding anytime it rains in these areas. These operators also leave behind huge mining pits which now serve as death traps.
The New Crusading GUIDE’s investigations has revealed how some chiefs, policemen and key traditional rulers have provided land and security for some of these illegal Chinese miners.
Agents of the Apocalypse
Ghana’s security agencies have over the years displayed a commitment to fight galamsey operators. Forces within the Ghanaian Army, have translated these into action; with the seizure of some mining equipment and arrest of many illegal miners.
Rumors however abound on the mining fields of how some officials of the Police Service have gone to bed with illegal miners – especially the Chinese – by providing security assistance and tipping them off anytime there is a planned operational swoop by a government task force. These officers undermine the work of their own colleagues in order to enrich themselves with the booty they allegedly share with the Chinese miners.
DSP Damoah, a District Police Commander who lives in Twifo Praso was captured on an undercover footage collecting bribe from Anas (posed as a businessman) to outline plans of building three large canoes for mining on the rivers. He sought his support in the galamsey activities to offer protection against other security sting operations. Here are excerpts of the recorded video:
Reporter: What happened to me, I would never want it to happen again.
DSP Damoah: So where are you going to be?
Reporter: For now, I would base myself within your territories
DSP Damoah: Why?
Reporter: I want to mine this area.
DSP Damoah: Here, we are not permitting anyone to build. This is a national issue; it is beyond us. How many boats have you built?
Reporter: With the support of some foreigners, I am building four.
DSP Damoah: So it’s not a small thing?
Reporter: That is why the one casualty I had, I could not stand it; let alone four. They [foreigners] are bringing in some flexible terms.
DSP Damoah: Stand here while we talk. Two things you must know are that the activity is illegal and galamsey is a risky venture. If you try to engage with the galamsey, then I am supposed to arrest you. Do you still want to do something?
Reporter: I want to do something small here. Very small.
Video then shows reporter handing DSP Damoah 200 Cedis. He smiled and promised to do his best and help.
Following a hint that most traditional rulers are giving away to the Chinese illegal miners at very low costs, this reporter further posed as a local chief and visited some Chinese illegal miners with a gold sample. He informed the Chinese about the land he oversees as Chief, which has gold potential. The Chinese expressed interest and reveal that they only pay compensation for the land after they find gold. They planned to visit the area and clear any farmlands which might be in the way.
This confirmed how land is given freely to these foreign miners by landowners. They eventually settle and destroy the land and its people.