Gold mining is a key part of the development strategy of the West African country Ghana. But as Anna Boiko-Weyrauch reports, there’s growing concern about its impact on local communities and the environment.
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MARCO WERMAN: The conundrum facing Afghanistan is not unique. The discovery of mineral riches has been a mixed blessing around the world. Anna Boiko-Weyrauch reports on what gold means to the West African nation of Ghana.
ANNA BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: A steady stream of gravel pours from a conveyor belt into a bulldozer at the Iduapriem mine in Western Ghana. The gravel is a dull gray, but the mine’s head of community relations. Kwamena Sekyi-Yorke, says the color is deceiving.
KWAMENA SEKYI-YORKE: You can’t visibly see the gold, but through geology they know there’s gold in there.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: The mine’s owners, the huge South African firm AngloGold Ashanti know there’s a lot of gold in those rocks. A hundred and ninety thousands ounces were extracted here last year, worth almost 200 million dollars. The mine also generated a lot of money for Ghana’s government and economy.
JOSEPH ABOAGYE: The gold sector is very, very important to the Ghana government.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Joseph Aboagye is with the government’s Minerals Commission. Mining in general, and gold mining in particular, is a key part of Ghana’s development strategy. It attracts more foreign investment than any other industry here and makes up more than 10% of government revenue. Aboagye says mining companies also bring public services to remote communities.
ABOAGYE: When the companies operate in such areas, they build schools for them, hospitals. They provide them with some basic necessities which they need.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: New schools or hospitals are vital in a country where 30% of the population lives below the poverty line and an equal number can’t read or write. But there is a cost to those benefits. Half a mine from the Iduapriem mine’s processing plant, waste rock tumbles out of a dump truck onto an enormous pile. This is where hundreds of tons of mine residue end up. Cecilia Otoo used to have a small farm here, but here land was taken for the mine. Now she runs a bar.
INTERPRETER: When the mining came, the little money I got as compensation I invested in stocking my bar.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: AngloGold Ashanti sponsor development projects here to help farmers who have lost their land to the mine. But Otoo says she was better off before.
INTERPRETER: I had everything I needed from the farm. I only went to the market to buy fish for the kids to eat. Sometimes I would even sell some of the crops to pay for their school. Now I just rely on the bar, but the farm was much better.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: In the woods nearby the shallow Awonaben river is filled with grey-brown muck. A group of local kids yell that the river is no good and the fish have died. One little boy has been playing in the water and his whole body is covered in rashes. His mom, Cecilia Mensah, blames the mine.
INTERPRETER: Before mining started here we never got rashes. We drank the water. We played with the kids in the water. We used it for everything. Now when we wash clothes in it, our hands start burning and three days later rashes appear.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Research commissioned by mining activists found this river is full of toxic heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and lead. So are dozens of other rivers in Ghana’s gold mining areas. But no one has proven that the water is causing the rashes, or that what’s in the river comes from the Iduapriem mine. The mine’s General Manager, Billy Mawasha, says the company is not the source of the problems.
BILLY MAWASHA: We believe that we are not contaminating that river based on the data we have but we are expanding our monitoring to make sure that we understand what other people may be impacting or what could be perceived to be our impact on the river.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Waste did seep out of the Iduapriem mine twice last year, but Mawasha says it was contained before it got into local rivers. And earlier this spring, concerns about water pollution led AngloGold Ashanti to suspend production at all its mines in Ghana. Across the country there have been at least 14 documented spills of toxic cyanide from gold mines since the late 1980′s including one last October at a mine run by Colorado based gold mining giant Newmont. The negative impacts have spawned a growing movement of mining activists.
DANIEL OWUSU-KORANTENG: We are prepared to do everything for mining, even though the benefits are far, far, far, far below the costs.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Daniel Owusu-Koranteng runs a human rights group called Wacam which means “I’ve been disturbed” in the local Twi language. Over the past decade the group has organized 70 communities and has lobbied the government for stronger mining regulation.
OWUSU-KORANTENG: We have made headway and we are also getting government to understand that it is important to regulate mining very well.
BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: The head of mining for Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency rebuffed repeated requests for an interview for this story. The agency says it has always regulated the mining industry tightly, but the government does seem to be increasing its oversight. For example, the recent cyanide spill resulted in a fine of five million dollars, the first ever such fine here. Lawmakers also recently hiked mining royalty payments and are considering tighter regulations. Meanwhile, gold continues to gain economic power in Ghana. According to new figures, production was up by more than 10% last year and revenue up by more than a quarter. For The World, I’m Ann Boiko-Weyrauch, Tarkwa, Ghana.
WERMAN: Anna’s story was produced with help from the investigative fund of The Nation Institute.
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