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Field Notes

On Ghana’s gold, “galamsey” miners and government action

Small scale gold miners in Ghana | Used under Creative Commons License

Small scale gold miners in Ghana | Used under Creative Commons License

By Iain Marlow

ACCRA, GHANA—There’s a lot of gold in Ghana’s hills. Problematically, there’s also a lot of “galamsey.”

Mining, of course, is much older than modern Ghana. Long before the colonial powers arrived and named this stretch of West African shoreline the Gold Coast, the powerful and sophisticated Ashanti Empire traded the gold mined in their vast territory to traders from various African states.

Today in Ghana, Africa’s second biggest gold producer, mining looks a lot different – and high gold prices on the international market make it more popular than ever. Gigantic international mining firms, such as AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., hold formal mining concessions, smaller companies are engaged in exploration, and dozens of Ghanaian partners and companies service the industry. Most of this, with some exceptions, is pretty above board, according to Revenue Watch, an NGO that monitors extractive sectors.

Then there are the estimated 200,000 small-scale miners engaged in so-called “artisanal” mining, scraping away at Ghana’s red dirt and rock with pick-axes and shovels and using small rock-crushers to eke out a living on gold dust. Since 1989, this type of mining has been legal, but the process of actually getting a permit is extremely bureaucratic, so many simply don’t. Those miners operating without a license are engaging in “galamsey” – a pidgin English formulation of “gather them and sell.”

Ghanaians are divided on galamsey (which makes it a juicy subject for journalists and radio talk shows here, like “divisive” issues elsewhere, such as immigration). It provides a lot of jobs in poor, rural areas where farming looks pretty silly when everyone else around town is digging up gold rather than yams. But unquestionably, it’s incredibly destructive to the country’s natural environment, poisoning rivers and lakes and leaving gaping pits across the landscape. And “small-scale” often doesn’t describe the sprawling, organized nature of some of these operations. Moreover, it is very dangerous: pits collapse on miners all the time, and miners often work with no protections whatsoever, standing barefoot as they pan for gold in pools of water. There are also a number of Chinese nationals working illegally after, in many cases, arriving illegally, as well – a fact that really riles up Ghanaians. And clashes between armed Chinese worker and Ghanaian villages are common, as are fights between galamsey miners and security forces. The whole situation is a mess, in other words.

Galamsey miners obviously face a host of problems, but respiratory illnesses from the dust and various chemicals used in the extraction process are particularly common. It was reports of a new respiratory illness in early May – a “strange” and “mysterious” illness, according to one media report – that prompted journalists here at Citi FM to look more closely at the matter of galamsey, yet again.

Betty Kankam Boadu, a reporter here, was assigned to look into it. We discussed the story and she decided it was best to contact the station’s reporter who works in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region and the ancient seat of power for the Ashanti Empire. We waited. He was busy. The next day, he went out and interviewed some of the miners where the disease had broken out and filed his interviews back to the newsroom in Ghana’s capital, Accra. Editors here, though, were skeptical about just how “strange” this “disease” really was, and whether it wasn’t just superstition mixed with the grim reality of toiling over chemicals in a cloud of rock dust. Faced with a vague angle, and well aware that recent mining deaths and the involvement of Chinese miners was adding tension to the subject, we decided to use this news hook to do a more comprehensive story on illegal mining. Martin Asiedu-Dartey, the Weekend Globe’s editor, was prepared to make it the cover story. We began digging.

On Monday, Betty and I went to the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources for an interview with Minister Inusah Fuseini, discussing the story on the way in a taxi. Betty, who is from the Ashanti region, grilled the minister with a serious of thoughtful question – on concrete steps the government was taking, on how Chinese involvement was affecting ordinary Ghanaians as well as the government’s response, and on the use of child workers on many of the mine sites (in blantant violation of Ghana’s very clear but in many cases very unenforced laws on child labour). He also gave us a lot of information and a scoop: He revealed that a delegation of Chinese officials, including the ambassador to Ghana, had recently visited the ministry and expressed frustration at their own inability to stop the flow of illegal Chinese immigrants (many of whom apparently fly into neighbouring Togo and are then driven across the border).

Armed with the miner interviews from the Ashanti region and the minister’s interview, we interviewed some NGOs on the government’s plans (one of whom thought it wasn’t going to work because of corruption and nepotism), and then began the process of planning the story. I explained a traditional feature story structure and began helping Betty slot the information we had talked about into various sections of a preliminary story structure. An early draft was followed by in-depth discussions and more planning and a bit more reporting. At around 1,500 words, this was the biggest story Betty had ever written. And she was doing it while balancing other newsroom duties. Eventually, Martin and other Weekend Globe staff started designing a big front page splash.

Galamsey: The Untold Truth.

galamsey papers

The paper was printed and other journalists started mentioning how good the story was and preparations were made to make galamsey the focus of Citi FM’s flagship breakfast program.

On Tuesday, Ghana’s president, John Dramani Mahama, announced a five-member ministerial task force to tackle illegal mining with a special focus on arresting and deporting Chinese miners who were working here without work permits. Who was the chair of the task force? None other than Inusah Fuseini, the minister at the centre of Betty’s big front page story.

Was she responsible for the government’s action? It’s difficult to say; galamsey is an issue that’s dealt with a lot in the Ghanaian media, and it’s an ever present problem for various governments, not just Mr. Mahama’s. No one’s patting themselves on the back, either. On Wednesday, it was back to work – there was just one more day before the weekly Weekend Globe goes to print on Thursday, after all.

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