Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mining in Ghana – paradox of profits, pollutions and poverty

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

Mining in Ghana has been going on for over 100 years now. And 100 years of any business venture is long enough to show visible signs of progress and understandably positive returns, both economically and socially.

But whatever benefits mining in Ghana has brought the country, can best be seen mostly in the mining entities. Not even Ghana as a nation can boast of any appreciable return on investments in mining, having invested lands, people and to some extent the humanity of some of its people including their culture and traditions.

The mining companies rake in huge profits from their activities in Ghana. For in stance, in 1995 a mining company operating in one of Ghana’s mining towns made a profit after tax of US$105 million.

The mining sector in Ghana earned an unbelievable US$ 2,099.43 million in 1999. But these huge earnings were made at the expense of lives and property belonging to ordinary Ghanaians whose peaceful and subsistent lifestyles had to be sacrificed on the altar of national economic expedience. But these benefits in terms of their national dimensions remain, ever questionable.

What is however, interesting about the contribution of mining to the national economy shows glaringly when it is compared to the agriculture sector.

Between 1993 and 1997 mining contributed just 1.5% to Ghana’s GDP as against agriculture’s 40%.

It is estimated for instance, that since 1985 Ghana has attracted external investment in the gold sector alone to the tune of over US$ 3.2 billion in new mine development and expansion.

Despite these huge figures, it is widely believed that only about 10% of the value of gold comes to the country.

Unlike agriculture though, the mining sector is spiced with so much incentives for investors, making it the most attractive and lucrative sector to invest in.

But strangely, Ghana is an agricultural country. However, the country doesn’t seem to pursue a vigorous agriculture expansion programme, at least not for the moment.

Mining as a sector, makes minimum contribution to employment and offers very high wages than the local average. Yet less than 8% of Ghanaians are in formal employment in the mining sector.

Meanwhile, over the last decade, mining has significantly added to the country’s ecological destruction amounting to around 7% of the country’s GDP.

Enter any mining community in Ghana, and what hits you right in the face is abject poverty.

The first middle aged man you are likely to meet might look older than his actual age. He is obviously hit, knocked about and tossed around by poverty. He is listless, and despondent. He might also be suffering from a disease resulting from mining pollution.

These people strut around hopelessly in their native lands, and they are typical examples of casualties resulting from the uncontrollable urge and penchant for profits by mining companies.

These companies have the unflinching support and backing of the governments in power. They needlessly carry on their operations with impunity and gross disregard for human life and right to property.

I have had the privilege of working in some mining communities in Ghana. It is not only appalling poverty and resignation that greets you, but also grim pessimism of local people.

While we are it, every year government declares how much profit the country has earned from mining activities. But even then, the suspicion among mining industry watchers is that, government does not declare the true figures. The figures that governments declare are not the true reflection of how much is made from the venture.

Royalties that are paid to stools in these communities hardly reach their intended target, but no one cares. To most of the people in charge, it is only important that the royalties are paid. They care less if any one benefits from the income. This meager royalty that is paid to local people is supported by laws, laws that seem to only favour the multi-nationals and protect their supreme interest for profits.

A few individuals are believed to pocket royalties meant for communities. And often these monies are shared in phony contracts of some sorts. Some of the roads and schools that are constructed from these monies do not last, because they are hurriedly and poorly constructed to cover up the greed and corruption of the few soulless individuals for whom the majority are a bunch of weak ignoramuses whose plight one must exploit to make some money.

The effects of mining on Ghana as a nation have been downplayed over the years. The profits are used to placate a restless populace. We are told to shut up when some of us want to cry foul and demand proper accountability.

Interestingly, for the most part, some of the people who speak for the mining companies are powerful fellow Ghanaians. They are catered for very well by these mining companies, their heels are well oiled. They are often noble Ghanaians who have spoken so loud about equality, justice and a fair country for all some time past, but they have suddenly turned coat and joined the powerful miners.

And when they do, they unleash on the rest of us a cacophony of raucous tunes that persistently jar our ear drums. They do these with unmatched alacrity in impeccable Queen’s English, making the rest of us look like less mortals, who must acquiesce and believe everything they are telling us.

But all that glitters is not gold. It is not all that is said in faultless English that is the truth.

Agriculture in Ghana has suffered the most palpable neglect and slow development including the adoption and adaptation of modern technology.

And that is not withstanding the fact that the agriculture sector is the single most important sector of the country’s economy. The sector employs about 70% of all Ghanaians employed in the country and contributes about 40% to GDP.

It is the main source of sustenance for the country. But mining is favoured against agriculture.

So many cocoa farmers have had to reluctantly give up their ancestral farmlands spanning four to five generations to mining companies. It is usually the case that when mining companies acquire a land in a community for prospecting, that local farmers are required to abandon their farms. They are paid some compensation, though, but these compensations never meet any economic or moral requirement for such huge losses.

Pittances are paid to these farmers and their cocoa trees and other crops are destroyed to make way for mining.

That would not be the end. And once the mining itself begins, there appears more serious challenges to contend with. The modes of operation of these mining firms dispose most residents to health and environmental risks.

Usually, these companies involve in surface mining instead of the better option of underground mining. They do because surface mining is cheaper.

The process of gold mining involves the blasting of rocks, which is accompanied by deafening noises, vibration of the ground which sends dust and particles in the air and water.

To extract gold, toxic chemicals such as cyanide, arsenic, sulphur dioxide are used and other gases are produced with serious health consequences - these chemicals leak into underground sources of drinking water, exposing local inhabitants who most of the time lack potable drinking water to danger.

Local people might drink water from poisoned streams or even eat fish from polluted rivers.

Large craters resulting from blasting are left to collect stagnant water, and these breed mosquitoes leading to high incidents of malaria in these areas, part of which the country spends over US$77 million yearly to treat. Skin diseases and diarrhea are common in these areas.

Following in tow are sexually transmitted diseases, pulmonary tuberculosis, acute conjunctivitis, poverty and a rising crime rate.

The pull factors of mining communities are not only the lure of gold, but also the attraction for other jobs, which are often non-existent.

Prostitution is very common in these areas also because not only do both men and women troop there to grab a share of the hard cash that is to be made, but even local women and girls whose husbands and fathers have lost their sources of livelihood, which used to be the farmlands they once owned, tend to become merchants of the flesh. They are both compelled and attracted into the sex trade.

The cost of living in these areas is so high because there is expatriate money to be made, and local people are forced to live like paupers in their own land.

They fall prey to all kinds of NGOs who hold claim to their salvation. While some of these groups are genuine and they fight relentlessly for the rights of these people, there are charlatans among them who feed fat on the misfortune of local people like leeches.

They sometimes exaggerate the real issues without particularly having a good understanding of the situation on the ground. They make so much noise and in some cases they even attract the attention of the international community. But in the end, they benefit at the expense of the victims of mining.

Local people are dispossessed, displaced and divided. The few who know what ‘is good’ for them betray the majority and side with the merciless exploiters.

As we all watch in dismay, some mining companies play the corporate responsibility card and win a few favours and applause from the absent minded crowd who only watch at a distance, but see only these ‘kindness’ of the mining companies.

In any case, should we as a country continue to favour mining at the expense of agriculture? When in reality the mining industry has a very short life span? When all the deposits are mined, the mines close down and often the towns and villages are deserted turning them into ‘ghost’ towns.

What are often left behind are degraded lands that can not be reclaimed or farmed on, and with these, a dark cloud of uncertainty, pollutions, poverty and even death.

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