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Opinions of Tuesday, 6 April 2004

Columnist: Awortwi-Mensah, Paul

Invasion Of Miners

Activities of mining companies in Ghana have become another source of worry. Almost every year, some chiefs and people living in mining communities express their dismay over the environmental degradation caused by mining operators. Though these protests have been rampant nothing has been done to safeguard the environment from further degradation.

Exploitation of mineral deposits, especially through surface mining technology, inevitably results in some changes in the environment, and affects the economy.

The desire to exploit mineral deposits should, therefore, be weighed against social , national considerations, and alternatives when appropriate. Subsequently, economic and technological aspects of the project should be critically examined, so that wrong decisions are not taken from the onset of a mining project.

With the proliferation of mining activities in the country, most communities are left at the mercy of mining companies, especially illegal mining operators popularly known as "galamsey" (gather them and sell) causing environmental pollution and reversing developmental efforts of the people.

For instance, the technology used in "galamsey" by illegal miners is very cost-effective but the method is not safe, sound and friendly to the operators as well as the environment .It also affects any meaningful sustainable development in the communities. Apart from rendering vast stretches of land waste and infertile for farming activities, most residential areas are encroached upon due to the scramble for land.

It is worth noting that much of the washing of the gold ore in "galamsey" operation is done in streams which also serve as the main sources of drinking water to millions of people.. The activities of the miners pollute the air with dust, as well as mercury vapor which is toxic and hazardous to our health.

In dealing with these, basic issues such as agriculture, land use, socio-economic parameters, health and safety, tourism, roads, landscape, ecology and wildlife, noise and vibration, archeology and heritage should engage the attention of policy-makers and stake holders in the economy.

The aerial extent of the soils that are affected by mining activities must be determined so as to ascertain what type and area of soil would remain available for any agricultural production and which area will be used up for mining activities.

The extent of forest reserves to be destroyed must be estimated. This is because forest degradation leads to low yields, of good crops . Timber and ecosystems are also destroyed.

Meat supply and other nutritional needs as well as medicinal sources are severely affected.

Such a situation can be averted by reclaiming degraded areas through afforestation of mined-out sites when the deposit depletes. But are we doing enough?

It is unfortunate, that mineral royalties established to be used in supplementing regular development projects in mining communities through the district assemblies and traditional rulers have not been well utilized to benefit the people.

The idea was to help communities grossly affected by mining operations to achieve some development that can serve as compensation for the inconveniences suffered. Since its establishment, nothing significant has come out of the arrangement to help the people.

In such districts as Adansi West, Wassa West, Nzema East, Mpohor-Wassa East, Aowin Suaman, Lower and Upper Denkyira and recently the Ahanta West where operations of gold and diamond mining companies are hugely vibrant, the people have been consumed by problems, of air and water pollution resulting from the blast of rocks and use of chemicals. Farming activities have been low , while mining-related health problems are common, the visible commitment of some mining companies to operate within internationally acceptable environmental standards notwithstanding.

Judging from mining companies? environmental efforts in the areas of expanded air sampling, ecological maintenance, the vegetation, of farmlands , and the initiation of cyanide detoxification plant, the effects of the companies? activities on the communities might even be softer than the communities with endowed mining companies. These, make it essential, even obligatory, for mining companies operating in Ghana to be responsive to prompt payment of royalties and taxes to enable the government to remain committed to the special fund set up to help compensate communities by way of providing them with good projects.

Unfortunately, as both the government and the mining companies remain loyal to this duty, concerns of chiefs and people of some of the communities, as well as lack of evidence of development other mining communities suggest that the payment of mineral loyalties is being abused. Most of the mining communities have not benefitted from any development project from the mineral royalties simply because the district assemblies and the chiefs have not channeled their shares of the mineral royalties to initiate or support projects in those communities.

They tend to forget that the people are directly suffering from the activities of the mining companies, though this is not to say that the district assemblies are misusing the funds. What needs to be done is that priority should be given to the very communities for which the royalties were released.

Environmental assessment should always be undertaken whenever a development activity, such as mining which has environmental consequences, is to be undertaken. Environmental development had received a great deal of attention in recent years although there remains a considerable amount of resistance to an environmental perspective, mainly because it is perceived as an obstacle to development.

It is preferable to alert decision-makers about positive environmental problems rather than to ignore them completely.Illegal miners should be made aware that gold and other mineral mining communities are both environmental and security risk areas, and that these areas just have natural resources which should not be abused, destroyed or degraded at the expense of sustainable development.

Mining is a lucrative enterprise, but when it becomes a disincentive, an agent for destruction of fertile lands, degradation and poor health, the fear is that, the very people that jobs are being created for, become losers, a community of desperados emerges where poverty stares every family.

Investment is key when economies are to record steady growth. In the same way, it should not be detrimental , a process through which the people incur displeasure for an income-generating/ job-creation venture.

What a sad end to efforts aimed at environmental protection when future generations would remind their leaders: "You have borrowed environmental capital from our grandparents, this is the time to pay us back, give us the jobs, free our world from pollution and degradation, give us our lands, fertile lands, so that we can grow enough food to feed ourselves".

They would say: "food aid and indiscriminate mining are not the answers". When we fail to give them the right answers posterity would judge us.

The author, an environmental activist, was a former court correspondent , Daily Graphic ,Accra , Ghana. He now lives in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.