- In Ghana, illegal miners known as galamseyers are carrying out an increasing share of the country’s gold production.
- In recent years, these miners have been sourcing machinery from China.
- The mechanization of gold mining is accelerating the destruction of forests and farms, as well as polluting waterways in northern and eastern Ghana.
“I come here to find gold. First we cut down the trees, then we burn them. Then we start digging the soil to open the pit,” says a young man in the middle of a cocoa plantation in Ghana’s Ashanti Region.
“We have to open the pit, then once the soil has been turned, we use electric pumps water with heavy speed to spray water over the land to reach where the gold is.”
The young man, who requested anonymity since his practice is illegal, is just 25 but has already spent 10 years working in artisanal and illegal mining. “Galamsey,” derived from “gather them and sell,” is a local Ghanaian phrase that means illegal small-scale gold mining.
Around him, the once lush cocoa trees have given way to craters filled with muddy water. The chirping of birds has been replaced by the roar of excavators, tearing the soil open so the artisanal miners can extract the precious ore.
Currently, Ghana is the second-largest gold producer in Africa and eighth-largest in the world, with a reported output of 117 metric tons in 2021. Gold production in Ghana includes both large-scale mining, which is largely dominated by multinational corporations, and small-scale mining, which by law is restricted to Ghanaians only. About a million Ghanaians engage in a practice that supports about 4.5 million of the country’s 32 million people. However, only 15% of these miners legally declare their activities.
The mechanization journey begins
Traditionally, small-scale miners in Ghana have used manual tools like pickaxes and sieves. In the early 2000s, miners from China began to migrate to Ghana. James Boafo, a lecturer at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and his colleagues documented the phenomenon in a 2019 report published in the journal Sustainability. “Chinese miners imported more sophisticated machinery such as diggers, water pumps and bulldozers, which gradually replaced the crude methods and tools used by Ghanaian miners.”
“The Chinese miners outcompete existing self-employed Ghanaian artisanal miners, resulting in loss of livelihoods of the latter, forcing many local miners to seek employment under their Chinese counterparts,” according to the report.
According to Daryl Bosu, director of the Ghana branch of A Rocha, a group of Christian organizations working on conservation issues, “One pound of gold sells for an average of 5,180 Ghanaian cedi [$420]. It’s not much, but since they don’t have to pay for restoring degraded land, they think that whatever amount they get from that gold is fine.” A pound of gold on the Ghanaian market is worth around $30,000.
Ghana is currently experiencing an economic crisis, with recent record inflation rates of more than 50% as well as the collapse of the local currency. And even if gold is selling for well below market prices, it’s still profitable work for miners.
“I know that this job is destroying the forest. When I was a kid, there were plenty of trees and rivers everywhere. Now that’s all changed,” says another miner in his 30s. “But what can I do? There are no jobs. I’d love to be a driver or open a store, but it is not possible. Gold mining is the only way to make money.”
Mining’s impact on forests
Mechanized mining is causing severe damage to local ecosystems, says Reginald Guuroh, researcher at the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana and specialist in land reclamation after illegal mining. First of all, clearing the topsoil causes deforestation. The landscape has changed and there is an effect on biodiversity,” he tells Mongabay. “The digging operation destroys the soil’s original nature profile and minerals as the different ground layers are mixed up. The life in the soil disappears. It becomes difficult for plants to survive on this land.”
“The forest in Ghana, I would say we would have wished for a better landscape than we currently have, and we want to change that. But work is being done to rehabilitate them. Illegal mining, or galamsey, definitely leads to the destruction of forest areas. Once degraded, these forests can no longer store carbon dioxide. If illegal mining continues at this pace, the forest will disappear. This will create a crisis because people rely on the forest for their livelihood, for pharmacy, food, energy sources, firewood. … If no action is taken, we will lose the forest.”
Legal gold mining is also a cause of deforestation, but Guuroh explains the difference. “Galamsey mining is more damaging because the miners are unregulated and after using up the land they usually do nothing to rehabilitate it. They don’t refill the pits after digging, so the soil can’t regenerate. This is what makes the galamsey more destructive than the formal mining.”
Refilling the craters left behind is the first step toward soil recovery, but it is not enough.
“If you notice there, the ground is whitish,” says Eldad Ackom, a coordinator of the Green Africa Youth Organization. “What’s actually happening is that the miners are washing out all the nutrients from the soil with high-pressure running water.”
Ackom explains that it will take time for the land to recover. “We did research in Bogoso [a mining town 300 kilometers (185 miles) from Accra] and found that refilling the pits was not enough. Each layer of soil is normally a different color,” he says. “Each layer is different; this is called the soil profile. There [at Bogoso], the color of the soil is uniform, and only plants with shallow roots like maize are able to grow.”
The cocoa industry under threat
Illegal mining also damages land that has not been mined, mainly due to the water used to clean the gold.
“Mining is affecting the community a lot. There used to be clean rivers here, that we used to spray our farms,” says Sefah Abdul Razak, secretary of the community of cocoa growers in Agroyesum, about 50 km (31 mi) from Kumasi. “Now, the mines have turned our water bodies muddy and toxic. Because of that, we can’t get water [for our farming] activities. The water is spoiled. We use the community reserve now. We fill up our car with water and use that to water our cocoa trees, but that costs a lot of money. When you add it all up, the [expense] is more than [what] you get.”
Guuroh says the situation is not unique to Ghana. “Miners use toxic products like mercury to amalgamate gold, leaving the water dirty and polluted. Even if they only work in one area, the pollution will spread downstream. So, the pollution affects everyone.”
In 2022, the National Food Buffer Stock Company Limited (NAFCO), the state-owned company responsible for managing the government’s emergency food security reserves, said galamsey activities had affected or destroyed more than 19,000 hectares (46,950 acres) of cocoa plantations (2% of orchards according to similar sources), leading to loss of income for farmers and less investment for the company and Ghana in general.
According to NAFCO, Ghana Cocoa Board managing director Joseph Boahen Aidoo said destruction of cocoa farms by galamsey was most common in the Eastern, Western and Ashanti regions of Ghana, home to more than 90% of the country’s total cocoa production. These findings threaten the sustainability of the cocoa sector, which generates an average of $2.5 billion in foreign exchange every year, as well as its associated multibillion cedi cocoa processing subsector and more than 800,000 jobs. A real blow to Ghana.
Abdul-Garafu Abdulai. (2017). Competitive clientelism and the political economy of mining in Ghana. Retrieved from Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre website: https://www.effective-states.org/wp-content/uploads/working_papers/final-pdfs/esid_wp_78_abdulai.pdf
Boafo, J., Paalo, S., & Dotsey, S. (2019). Illicit Chinese Small-Scale Mining in Ghana: Beyond Institutional Weakness? Sustainability, 11(21), 5943. doi:10.3390/su1121594341
This article was first published in French here on our Mongabay Français site on Jan. 23, 2023.
CORRECTION: On Feb. 15, the first sentence of this article was amended to clarify that the Ashanti Region is not in northern Ghana