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Feature Article of Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Columnist: Adu-Gyamfi, Yaw

Ghana at the crossroads,

as mining activities threaten sustainable development efforts

By Yaw Adu-Gyamfi

Increasingly, Ghana has been caught on the wrong side of mining activities from almost every corner of the country. Week in and out, news filters in about pollution of streams which serve as sources of drinking water to many, death of miners from collapsing pits and huge pits that have been left uncovered from excavation activities.
In Ghana, there are over 300 registered small-scale mining groups and they constitute a major source of employment especially for small-scale gold and diamond miners, and contribute some foreign exchange to Ghana’s economy. However, there are a lot more of such groups that are not registered, often referred to as ‘galamsey’ engaged in gold mining.
Small-scale mining is often poverty driven and located in rural areas. Miners are generally unskilled and earn little. Individuals may be involved in a number of different types of mining activity: Gold or diamond rush, this is characterized by unstable communities, which are often saddled with environmental degradation from crude methods used. In Ghana, the Birim and Densu Rivers in the Eastern Region are examples of rivers that serve as a source of drinking water for several communities but have been gravely affected by small-scale mining activities.
The Atewa forest reserve which protects the headwaters of the Birim and Densu rivers and declared by local and international conservation groups as a Special Biological Protection Area also contains many plant species such as two unusual kinds of tree ferns and six butterfly species, which are found nowhere else on earth. Coincidentally, it is also the most mineralized of all the forest reserves in the country and hence, stands threatened from the activities of not just small scale miners but also big mining conglomerates which have been given licenses to engage in surface mining.
Surface mining requires the removal of massive amounts of top soil in order to gain access to the minerals, which can cause erosion, loss of habitat, and dust pollution. It can cause heavy metals to dissolve and seep into both ground and surface water thereby erupting marine habitats and deteriorate drinking water sources.
Aside the environmental impacts, there are socio-economic effects for which direct communities and surrounding ones are exposed to. At the start of such mines, communities benefit from amenities such as electricity, clinics and resettlement packages, but the sudden closer of such mines leaves communities reeling under the lack of maintenance of such facilities and wider implications of income disparity. The closure of Dunkwa Goldfields in the late 1980’s brought to an end the boom economic periods and in its wake, huge environmental and socio-cultural consequences.
Environmentalists and human rights activists, increasingly disturbed by the trend of events, have spoken out strongly in recent times with the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining-WACAM being the most vocal. To them, issues of biodiversity loss and increasing deforestation at an alarming rate with the prospect of surface mining stretching the carrying capacity of the ecologically fragile reserves, watershed and fresh water systems cannot be compensated by the revenues accruing from the mining activities.
So, in the midst of the agitation, continuous pollution and the need to harness mineral resources for sustainable socio-economic development, what then is the way forward? I attempt to answer by proposing the following interventions; firstly to curb the challenges inherent in small scale mining and then those of the big mining conglomerates.
A principal development issue with small scale mining is how to provide support through a triple helix approach of collaboration among academia, private sector and civil society (media included), to ensure that operations have the environment and the larger community interest in mind. To this end, small scale miners should be assisted with legal and organizational support to streamline their activities and hence ensuring conformity to regulation. Additionally, they should be offered prospective lands that are outside of forests reserves with clear guidelines on how to conduct their operations to ensure little or no environmental harm. Training and application of technology can be made available through support from academic/research institutions as well as businesses to enhance effective operations. Further the availability of business management training, dissemination of best practices and availability of micro-credits and other development instruments and use of revenues will ensure that, challenges with such mining activities are curtailed.
Government should also put in place as a matter of urgency, environmental courts and a polluter pay policy as well as build the capacity of law enforcement agencies and state attorneys on environmental issues to aid prosecution of offenders who contribute to environmental degradation.
Mining firms such as multinational conglomerates with interest in undertaking mining operations in the country and those already in existence should be made to undertake comprehensive environmental impact assessments with clear mitigation actions to limit impact on the immediate and surrounding environments. Since most of them already undertake such exercises, monitoring and evaluation should be enhanced and offenders duly punished publicly. In doing so, government should engage the media/civil society, private sector and the academia on comprehensive measures aimed at first halting further land degradation and planning on combating future threats.
Capacity building of individuals and communities through targeted training, education and support mechanisms would ensure community interest. While the development of active and true partnerships with civil society groups, communities, industry, government and academia will ensure that effective land and environmental care policies are developed and most importantly, the continuous building of capacity of the Environmental Protection Agency-EPA, Forestry and Lands Commissions among others and the provision of adequate tools and equipment, enhances prospects at sustainable environmental protection.
The Africa Mining Vision which seeks to promote transparent, equitable and optimal exploitation of mineral resources to underpin broad-based sustainable growth and socio-economic development, presents the country with an opportunity at making use of best practices and knowledge aimed at sustainable and well-governed mining sector that effectively garners and deploys resource rents and that is safe, healthy, gender & ethnically inclusive, environmentally friendly, socially responsible and appreciated by surrounding communities and interested parties.
For Ghana, streamlining of operations, training, application of technology and policy development can reduce the negative environmental impact so as to boost investment, create jobs and also support initiatives at sustained community and environmental development.
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About the Author:
Yaw is a Sustainable Entrepreneur and Director at Kumasi Center for Life-Long Learning, a center for skills training and entrepreneurship, research and advocacy based in Kumasi, Ghana. Yaw is also a trained Cluster Facilitator and member of the Pan-African Competitiveness Forum-PACF, working to strengthen the competitiveness of local organizations through shared best practices, and an Atlas Corps Fellow 2011. He can be reached via email at yaw@kumasicenter.org

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