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Galamsey: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In recent times the sector has almost been taken over by Chinese miners. Conservative sources say about 50,000 Chinese miners have flocked to Ghana over the past decade and have been illegally mining gold.

Mining has been with humans since the beginning of civilization. Historically, all great empires evolved around mineral extraction, African countries being no exception.

Research by the Galamsey Committee of Diaspora Patriots in Ghana (DPG) says the Ghanaian small-scale mining industry is over 2,000 years old.

Ghana’s wealth of gold was largely responsible for the wealth of its ancient empires and cultures in the 15th and 16th centuries, hence its name, the “Gold Coast”.  Ghana’s role on the continent as one of Africa’s largest producers of gold is buttressed by the contributions made by small-scale mining and galamsey operators. It is estimated that one million small-scale miners, comprised mostly of miners informally operating without any formal permits, are responsible for up to 30% of Ghana’s total gold output.

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“Galamsey” could be defined as the practice of illegally mining and/or extracting gold found either below soil or water surface in Ghana. Galamseyers are people who perform illegal gold mining independent of mining companies, digging small, working pits, tunnels, and sluices by hand. It is said that the word galamsey is derived from the phrase “gather them and sell”, which is what these artisanal miners do to survive. Traditional gold mining in Ghana involved the washing or ‘panning’ for gold along the banks of streams and rivers and ocean shores.

Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM) exists as a highly informalized industrial sector that exists with a lack of regulation. In recent times, the sector has undergone the process of mechanization, whereby operators within the sector, have increased their usage of modernized equipment. For example, galamsey operators typically use basic tools such as pickaxes, shovels, and sluice boxes; but also, more mechanized machines such as water pumps, explosives, excavators, and bulldozers.

Many economists believe the mining industry in many ways has greatly contributed to the socio-economic growth and development of many countries with mining activities, especially Ghana. They say almost all traditional gold ornaments of chiefs were obtained by ecologically friendly artisanal mining.

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ASM is widely presented as a poverty-driven mining branch that is taking on increasing economic importance in several resource-rich developing countries. A report by the “Artisanal and Small-scale Mining Knowledge Sharing Archive, 2018” estimates the sector provides direct employment to 45 million people across 110 countries, with over 150 million people purported to derive their livelihoods from it indirectly.

In some areas, ASM is encouraged and widely viewed in a positive light — providing direct and indirect economic benefits, a source of employment and positive community development outcomes. These views are supported at the local level by reports that formal miners, and to some extent informal miners, have contributed to building school classrooms, and health clinics, repairing roads and other community development projects through partnerships with, and requests from, the municipal assembly, assembly members and local chiefs.

Similarly, some local stakeholders suggest that formal (and informal) ASM had contributed to more community development and infrastructure than either the local government or large-scale mining exploration and operations

Studies show that there are varied degrees of visible impacts of artisanal mining on the environment. They include soil depression; the creation of water pools in abandoned unfilled mines and diversion, and turbidity of local streams. Increased employment in the sector has significantly impacted the environment, removing vegetation and soils and interrupting ecosystem service flows, resulting in biodiversity loss and water and soil pollution.

In recent times the sector has almost been taken over by Chinese miners. Conservative sources say about 50,000 Chinese miners have flocked to Ghana over the past decade and have been illegally mining gold.

Two main reasons explain the influx of Chinese miners. First, China’s economic liberalization led many Chinese migrant workers to come to Africa for work in a range of industries. With its ample unprotected gold reserves, Ghana proved attractive to Chinese gold diggers. Second, the majority of the Chinese miners in Ghana come from the Guangxi autonomous region in China, a region with a long history of gold mining and expertise in advanced mining techniques.

The arrival of Chinese miners has also led to increased prostitution and sexual exploitation and abuse. Some women provide sexual favors to miners in exchange for money. In so doing, they expose themselves to arrest, as prostitution is illegal in Ghana. As a result, they become vulnerable to extortion and corruption. Equally worrisome is the sexual abuse of women employed by Chinese miners. These women, as well as their children, are discriminated against and ostracized by local communities.

The ASM sector is also commonly associated with conflict. This usually manifests itself in many forms, from community unrest due to the dispossession of ancestral land and the awarding of extensive concessions to large-scale mining, to localised violence over access to and the control of land, resources and gold.

Though Artisanal and small-scale mining has a long history in Ghana, it was only in 1989, however, that government recognised its legitimacy through the Small-scale Mining Act (PNDCL 218), later integrated into the current Mining Act 703 (2006). The act provides a blueprint for its formalisation. It also reserves small-scale mining for Ghanaians. The law requires prospective local miners to apply for a license to mine up to 25 acres of land in designated areas. The government’s intention to formalise the sector, however, has had very little success.

The lack of government success in curbing galamsey is due to a variety of reasons, key among them being the corruption of government officials and heavy-handed crackdowns by the security forces. Other reasons include a weak judicial infrastructure and complicit local populations that directly benefit from illegal mining.

A factor in the government’s failure is that the formalisation blueprints fail to adapt to the conditions of the majority of local miners since the blueprints make it very difficult or too costly for small-scale miners to comply.

Another factor that pushes up artisanal mining is low capital. As it requires low amounts of capital, the activity may become more attractive during periods of adverse weather. Adverse weather may act as a ‘push’ factor, and alternative livelihoods from artisanal mining will be more likely to be available in gold-suitable cells.

Galamsey continues to be a great threat to forest and water resources in Ghana. Even though the practice is not new in Ghana, the use of heavy machines such as excavators and bulldozers, and chanfans are a recent phenomenon causing destruction to forests, farmlands and river bodies.

A recent visit to Denyasi and its environs in the Bekwai Municipality of Ashanti Region, showed galamsayers at their best, destroying forests and water bodies. According to Nana Adutwiwaa Bonin III, Denyaseman Hemaa, the issue is a great headache to her and the people of Denyase Traditional Area, and passionately appealed to the government to come in to ensure that the destruction going on in the area is put to an end.

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