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Opinions of Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Columnist: Daniel Owusu-Koranteng

Environment- The Missing Factor In Political Campaign

Political campaigns have reached a crescendo and it is a good time to assess what issues have occupied the political campaign space in the form of political promises. The long lists of political promises include but not limited to employment, infrastructural development, education, health, economy, housing. Economic issues are given prominence in the manifestoes of political parties and it is acknowledged that politicians would be forever required to resolve the bread and butter questions of the populace to merit their votes.

Politics and the Environment

The starting point of the discussion of why environmental issues should dominate political discourse in the period of our national elections should be article 41k of the 1992 constitution, which states, “it is the duty of every citizen to protect and safeguard the environment”. Political leadership is for people with a high sense of national duty .In my opinion, environmental consciousness of political leaders provide us with the basis to assess their commitment to protect  our natural  wealth for  future  generations. A political leader who is highly motivated  to protect the environment in the interest of posterity may have a high sense of responsibility towards sustainable job creation for the youth, provision of quality health care for the people, promotion of transparency and good governance among others. 

Available statistics point to a disturbing environmental problems confronting our nation. According to official statistics, Ghana achieved an economic growth rate of 14.3% in 2011 and if this is discounted by environmental degradation, which is officially put at 10% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), then we can confidently say that our economic success cannot be sustainable if we do not address the growing environmental degradation. Politicians put so many premiums on economic benefits and then forget that our development options go with environmental cost. 

The windfalls in the extractive sector especially mining and oil have propelled Ghana’s economic success story. Mining and oil exploitation are defined as highly  polluting activities which are associated  with high environmental cost and our weak regulatory framework permits multinational companies that dominate the mining and oil sectors  to push the environmental cost of their activities on our country . Our economy is increasingly becoming a mineral dependent one and we cannot ignore a political discussion of the environmental cost of our economic choice because the environmental problems of our country have resulted from political decisions.
It would be helpful to cite a few cases to demonstrate how politics drive environmental decisions. The government of Ghana has legitimised the destruction of our forest reserves by permitting mining in forest reserves. Under this arrangement, Newmont Akyem mine has been granted the permit by government to mine in Ajenua Bepo Forest Reserve and by Newmont’s own scientific assessment, Ajenua Bepo Forest Reserve is the habitat of 10 species of plants new to science.

Despite the fierce struggle of Okyenhene Osagyefo Amoatia Ofori Panin and the Akyem Abuakwa Traditional Council to protect Atiwa forest Reserve, a globally significant biodiversity forest reserve, Atiwa forest reserve is earmarked for bauxite exploitation based on immediate economic benefits and not on the long term environmental importance of the forest reserve. An official of a regulatory institution, who was questioned by the media about the rationale behind the granting of environmental permit for Newmont to mine in Ajenua Bepo forest reserve, explained that the decision to mine in the Ajenua Bepo forest reserve had been taken by Ghana’s Cabinet and the regulatory institution had to implement the decision of Cabinet.

I had worked in the civil service for about 20 years and my civil service life taught me that civil service bureaucrats   do not often ask why they should jump but how high they are required to jump. I presume that the decision of cabinet to permit mining in forest reserves had been taken based on economic considerations as if environmental issues do not matter. We forget that one tree puts about 2.5 million gallons of water into the atmosphere in about 100 years of the tree’s life which then fall as rain. Trees serve as purifiers of the air we breathe by taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and replace it with oxygen, which we need. Some researchers from US, Argentina and Netherlands put a price tag of US 33 trillion on fundamental ecosystem services which are largely taken for granted and that was nearly twice the value of the global gross national product(GNP) of US 18 trillion(Constanza el al 1997).  . It is almost impossible to quantify the benefits human beings derive from the environment.

Who speaks for the environment?

A research by Wacam, a human rights and environmental mining advocacy organisation on the impact of mining on water bodies showed that about 250 rivers in mining communities in Tarkwa and Obuasi are polluted. Further research by the Centre for Environmental Impact Analysis(CEIA) on the effects of continued ingestion of the polluted water by host communities revealed that the residents who drink from the rivers with elevated levels of pollutants from mining have very high chances of having cancers.
A report by the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) indicated that Ghana comes third after Togo and Nigeria in the global ratings of countries with very high rate of depletion of forest cover. According to the ITTO report, when a country’s annual rate of forest depletion is more than 1%, the condition is described as alarming but Ghana’s annual rate of forest depletion has reached 2.19%.

Despite the alarming environmental situation of our dear country, environmental issues have not gained political importance. The environment supports life and the electorate would have to live before they can enjoy the economic well-being promised by politicians. A critical assessment of the Manifestoes of political parties in Ghana shows a disappointing lack of clear commitments to address the growing environmental problems of Ghana.

Despite the level of aggressiveness, that has characterised our election campaigns, none of the political parties has raised any of the critical problems relating to our environment such as the alarming rate of depletion of our forest cover, mining in forest reserves, pollution of water bodies etc. I would score all political parties zero on environmental commitments if I had the power to do so. The Presidential debates organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) had been very successful but the debates failed to raise environmental issues in the various rounds of Presidential debates.

The IEA political debates touched on every conceivable topic except the environment. This indicates that elections in Ghana are won or lost on economic issues and not on environmental issues. The media does not find environmental issues attractive enough to merit front-page prominence. Who speaks for the environment?

STAR-Ghana supported Wacam to engage with political parties on issues relating to development options of mining, oil and gas and the associated negative environmental impacts. The engagement revealed that the political parties had low environmental awareness and this reflects the national psyche that nature would continue to sustain us from its generous bounties even if we abuse it. The representatives of the political parties were unanimous in the agreement that environmental issues are bigger than the rivalry among political parties and therefore pledged to work together to protect the  environment. These general commitments are important but the challenge remains at translating the commitments into political actions.

We are looking forward to the day when commitment to the protection of the environment would be the basis for deciding who is elected as the President of our dear country. Ghana is at the precipice of environmental crisis and we cannot afford to continue doing business as usual. Environmental problems require political solutions and the time to act is now.

The writer is the General Secretary of the Maritime and Dockworkers’ Union and a volunteer Executive Director of Wacam.