Digging Deeper

Chinese Illegal Mining in Ghana

By Nicolas Jimenez

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ur Jeep first pulls up at an open hole, the size of a grave, where around twenty Ghanaian women and men sift through the grey minerals and rocks using plastic and metal bowls. Similar small scale mining sites are common in northern Ghana, near the Burkina Faso border. We are on a search for a Chinese mining site in the province of Nangodi, East of Bolgatanga. From the reports describing the site, I expect something of much greater scale. When we ask if there are any larger mining sites in the village, our guides nod and tell our driver to keep going.

As we drive through into a village, we notice that young men are lounging around, laying down in shade to be protected from the sun. It looks as if everything is at a standstill. Our guide tells us, “the men used to work at the Chinese mine but since it was shut down the men have been out of work”. He is referring to a six-month long ban on all types of mining, which the government had instituted early in 2017 as part of a concerted effort to curb illegal mining. During the 2016 presidential elections, now-president Nana Akufo-Addo promised to put a halt  to illegal mining, an issue that had been under the spotlight of widespread media coverage.

Finally, on the opposite edge of the town, we see the looming metal structures of the Chinese mine we have been looking for. It looks desolate; blue cranes and mountains of rock rise far above the small clay and mud huts. The mine covers an area at least half as large as the village itself. We also see a greater number of parked motorcycles in the mine’s premises than we saw in the entire village.

Although we are barred access from visiting the mine – it requires a permit from the Human Resources office – we get a chance to speak to one Chinese worker, who, to our disappointment, tells us almost nothing about his work, and where the rest of the Ghanaian and Chinese miners are. “Because of the ban, Chinese miners are all on vacation,” he insists.

Skepticism in the air, we look at the stark contrast between the new industrial mining structures and the impoverished village. Nangodi’s mine, the largest of its kind in northeast Ghana, stands as a symbol of many of the economic and environmental consequences of irresponsible mining.

Mining in Ghana has a history that dates back to colonial times. After the British government made deals with several European mining companies to start extracting gold in Ghana, Ghana’s southern coast became known as the ‘Gold Coast.’ In northern Ghana, on the other hand, “the first mines were established by Germans, and these mines were taken over by the English and the French after World War II,” explained Nangonaab Asaga Yelzoya, the Chief of Nangodi province. Nowadays, most illegal mining happens in the country’s southwest, around major rivers and small streams; in the country’s dry northeast, where we were, miners must dig holes deep and large enough to reach the groundwater. These holes are often left uncovered at the end of the operation.

Officially, the Ghanaian government recognizes two types of mining: small-scale, carried out through sifting the ground by hand, and large-scale, which uses industrial equipment. “The problem is that although people sell their concessions to small-scale mining, those who buy the [small-scale] licenses use heavy equipment instead” explains Bernard Avle, Ghana’s most popular radio host and pioneer of the anti-illegal mining Citi.FM media campaign. “Large-scale mining tends to have certain protocols which the state can check, but small-scale mining is trickier because you cannot even confirm the identity or location of the miners.”

The lines that separate small- from large-scale, and legal from illegal mining, are indeed blurry in Ghana – an academic study in Resources Policy has shown that the formal and informal mining sectors have become interdependent, and at times indistinguishable. 85% of small-scale miners do not register for permits that allow them mining rights, and even those who register often violate other regulations. Yet, the fault is not wholly the miners’: the registration process is long and highly inconvenient, a problem exacerbated by the fact that most miners are illiterate.

An even larger problem is the meager, inconsistent and unenforced regulatory framework. Aside from the paperwork that documents its legal status, an illegal mine is almost indistinguishable from a legal one; in both, mine-owners use the same equipment with little control, maintain low standards for health and safety, and use mercury without complying with environmental regulations. Even in registered small-scale mines, one can find countless legal violations including the unsafe use of explosives, extension of operation beyond allotted land, and informal labor practices.

While these concrete problems have somewhat clear solutions, the underlying causes of the advent and magnitude of illegal Chinese mining in Ghana are much harder to pinpoint, and resolve. Dr. Mamudu Akudugu, a researcher and professor at the University for Development Studies, in Tamale, notes that “Chinese illegal mining is simply a manifestation of core economic and political issues which happen upstream.” The question of which structural problem predominates, however, is an open one.

There is, of course, a lack of economic opportunity and high unemployment in rural villages, which pushes young men to work in illegal mines. In such mines, workers are paid around $5 to $10 per day, which is more lucrative (though the work is much more dangerous) than the alternatives, namely working in agriculture. In our visit to Nangodi, we talked to two young men who had worked in the mine before the government ban had been instituted. “It’s the highest paying job ” said one.“Given the severe drought the region has been going through, mining had a stabilizing impact”, said the other. They were hoping that the mine could resume operations, but they had little idea when this would happen.

For some – like Patrick Stephenson, the Head of the Centre for Economic Governance and Political Affairs at IMANI, a prominent Ghanaian think tank – it is the country’s institutions that need to be fixed. “On the problem of galamsey, small-scale illegal mining, I have a very bleak outlook; it’s a systemic issue that has been built on bad property laws,” he explains. He believes that the existing system unfairly awards licenses to large mining companies. Imagining the perspective of a rural family, he continues: “there is some guy who lives in Accra, and doesn’t own any property in rural areas. But that guy issues licenses for mining in my village, my community, in a land that my family has owned for centuries, to some Chinese guy.” The company itself usually does not have the resources to verify each of their land acquisitions, argues Stephenson, so the responsibility falls more on the government official awarding the licenses.

A lack of dialogue with local communities is indeed a central piece of the problem, and in finding a solution, the chiefs of different communities should play a major role. Yet, Asaga Yelzoya, the Chief of Nangodi, tells me that this has not been the case. “We chiefs are not really in control,” he says in frustration, citing instances when Chinese companies  began mining without seeking his consultation. Dejected, he adds: “I have tried to resist, but have failed. If you are wise, the best thing to do is to cooperate with them.”

Given the region’s subverted traditional authority, unfair legal structure, and entrenched economic and political interests, a comprehensive and long-term solution seems almost inconceivable. Any further step in resolving this problem, however, must be framed around the rural communities most affected by excessive and unregulated mining. As Stephenson, Akudugu, and other analysts point out, corruption at every step of the process, from ore extraction to exportation, may render the implementation of any proposal impossible. But perhaps the combination of a unified domestic media campaign shedding light on the problem with increased international media coverage can catalyze the change that most Ghanaians have been demanding.  


Nicolas Jimenez ‘19 is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics major in Grace Hopper College. Contact him at nicolas.jimenez@yale.edu.