Mining threatens last of Ghana's forests

Posted: 24 March 2003

Two million acres of forest land is lost annually to mining in Ghana, with mining concessions taking over 70 per cent of the total land area. Now gold mining companies threaten to destroy much of the remaining forest, according to a report from the World Rainforest Movement.

The report by Mike Anane claims that the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) - the private lending arm of the bank - have provided start-up capital and cajoled African countries to deregulate, liberalise and privatise their extractive sectors to attract foreign direct investment.

Now, five multinational mining companies operating in Ghana - Chirano Goldmines Limited, Satellite Goldfields Limited, Nevsun/AGC, Birim/AGC, Newmont Ghana limited - will soon cut down several thousand hectares of forest of the Subri River Forest Reserve, Cape Three Points reserve, the Supuma Shelterbelt, Opon Mansi, Tano Suraw and Suraw Extension in the Western region, and the Atewa Range forest and Ajenjua Bepo in the Eastern region.

The companies found huge volumes of gold deposits beneath the lush forests when the previous National Democratic Council (NDC) government gave them free rein to search the forest reserves for gold. Now the NDC is no more in power and they want the present New Patriotic Party (NPP) government to enable them to move into actual mining.

Surface mining

Environmentalists and human rights activists say granting permits for surface mining in these ecologically fragile reserves will aggravate thealready alarming rate of deforestation and forest degradation in the country and wreak havoc on freshwater systems and watersheds. Also, concerns about surface mining and spoil heap leaching have been triggered by the use of cyanide which, it is widely believed, could have serious health effects even at low levels of exposure.

The reserves contain the only significant blocks of forest remaining in the country. They hold back fires, maintain local rainfall and humiditylevels, and provide sanctuary for a stunning array of species listed as internationally threatened with extinction.

If the present government grants the mining companies their wish, they will blast roads deep into the heart of the forest reserves, build camps and excavate vast stretches of top soil together with the age old trees. Tons of earth and rock debris avalanching down hill in some cases will also blanket rivers and streams and smother the spawning beds of fish.

The heavy influx of mine workers and roads that are etched into previously inaccessible areas may also bring boomtown conditions and attract more squatters, loggers, galamsey boys (traditional miners who pan for gold on a small scale), Lotto kiosks and container shops into the reserves. The expatriate staff of the mining companies is likely to chase the bush meat for their dinner tables.

Huge fortunes

A key argument of the hard-line proponents of mining in the forest reserves is that "the country needs money". At the heart of this argument lies the economic theory that suggests that developing countries should exploit their natural resources to develop, and that pollution and the displacement of communities are necessary and inevitable side-effects.

Huge fortunes have been made by all kinds of foreign firms operating in Ghana but the returns do not remain in the country, says the report. According to Lambert Okrah of the Institute of Cultural Affairs: "It is not a case of whether we should go hungry while the gold sits beneath the trees. Gold Mining has been going on in Tarkwa, Prestea and Obuasi for so many years; now, are the people there not hungry? These places are so desolate that you will never believe they have gold."

The mining sector also has a relatively limited capacity to generate employment because surface mining operations are technology intensive, relying on a small number of highly-skilled workers who in many cases are expatriates.

Valuable historical and archaeological sites in some of the reserves including sacred groves will be destroyed, the report's author warns. Agricultural lands and important watersheds will also be endangered and the magnificent reserves turned into an industrial eyesore, blighted by roads, pipelines, construction debris, discarded sardine tins and plastic bags. Even the Environmental Impact Assessment of four mining companies operating in the area gave a total number of people to be displaced as 22,267, from 20 communities.

Degraded sites

Detailing the impact of mining in the Wassa area, lecturer and writer Thomas Akabza points out that: "While mining companies and centralgovernment reap the benefits of mining,if any, very little benefits go to the people in the mining communities. These people who mostly practice traditional and subsistence agriculture are displaced from their land on which they farm leading to loss of livelihoods and the breakdown of social ties. Additionally mining has led to growing conflicts among communities displaced by mining operations as well as serious mining related health and social problems such as malaria, tuberculosis, conjunctivitis, skindiseases, prostitution and drug abuse".

Friends of the Earth's Abraham Baffoe said: "We can prosper as a nation without having to raze down our forest reserves for mining. We know very well that after the mining there will be no forests. They're trying to tell everyone that they can reclaim degraded sites but we should not deceive ourselves. It's not just a matter of planting grass and trees here and there but the fact is that plantations do not make forests."

Networked with each other nationally, regionally and even globally, mining affected communities in Ghana have stepped up the struggle for humanrights, self-determination and social and environmental justice, the report says. They have also called on private lenders to reject mining projects that create problems for communities. However, human rights violations continue to rise with several cases of arbitrary arrests, violations of the right of access to food, forceful evictions, inadequate compensation and demolishing of villages.

"When the forest reserves are destroyed, the rivers will dry up and so will our lives," they declare. "When we went into the forest to plantcocoyam, plantain and pepper to feed our families, government people chased us out and told us not to farm there again..." said Sisi Nana, a 30-year-old mother of four at Bibiani.

Excerpted and adapted from Golden Greed: Trouble Looms Over Ghana's Forest Reserves, by Mike Anane.