Ghana is Africa’s largest gold producer, the sixth globally. It produced approximately 129 metric tonnes in 2021.
Gold mining in Ghana stretches back over 1000 years. It first served as a cultural heritage for decorating kings and queens from the Ashanti region. Gold also played an important role during the colonial era. In the early half of the 1890s, it became an official trading commodity. Currently, gold contributes 12% to Ghana’s Gross Domestic Product.
Over the years, a new form of mining known as artisanal and small-scale mining has emerged in Ghana and has become a source of revenue and income for poor people living in rural areas. But it’s dangerous for residents in mining areas and also to illegal mining operators. And operations continue to wreak havoc on the environment. Artisanal mining also affects farming, cocoa production, and freshwater fishing.
In the late 1980s, the Ghanaian government regularised artisanal mining to allow citizens of 18 years and above to obtain licenses. Today, artisanal mining exists in two forms: licensed and unlicensed operations. Licensed artisanal mining is also known as small-scale mining, whereas in local parlance, unlicensed mining is called ‘galamsey’, to wit, gather-to-sell.
Artisanal and small-scale mining employs approximately 1 million people in Ghana. An additional 5 million peoples’ livelihoods depend on its proceeds.
Artisanal and small-scale mining also accounts for 40% of gold produced in Ghana, making it an attractive sector for revenue generation.
A major problem with unlicensed mining is government’s inability to enforce mining laws. About 85% of artisanal and small-scale mining operators have no license to operate. This is because of the long hours it takes to process mining license applications, and the exorbitant fees charged by the minerals and mining commission.
The difficulty with enforcing mining laws prompted my research. I set out to understand why past and present governments have been unable to enforce laws, and to consider solutions to the problem.
Why it matters
Artisanal and small-scale mining is attractive to an average Ghanaian for a number of reasons.
Firstly, artisanal and small-scale miners can generate an income averaging $3 daily (GHS30) versus farming’s $0.6 (GHS7). Mining income is double the daily minimum wage of GHS15. In the wake of high cost of living, people will choose mining.
Secondly, the increasing demand for gold has led to a global price increase.
Thirdly, artisanal and small-scale mining generates income all year round, whereas farming takes place three times a year in line withe country’s three rainy seasons.
Nevertheless, people living in artisanal and small-scale mining areas remain the poorest, with no access to education and good roads. In addition, artisanal and small-scale mining is the major driver of environmental, safety and health problems in most mining areas.
Between 2015 and 2018 alone, artisanal mining contributed to more than 40,000 hectares of deforestation.
An additional 19,000 hectares of cocoa farms have been destroyed by artisanal mining operations between 2021 and the first half of 2022.
In some areas, illegal mining operators have reportedly taken over cocoa farms by force.
Illegal mining operations also cause 60% of the pollution of major rivers.
Illegal mining also affects people’s health. It is responsible for more than 40% of mental health cases in some mining areas. Most illegal miners use dangerous chemicals such as mercury to separate gold from its ores, leading to the contamination of the land and rivers. Mercury causes neurological disorders.
The illegal mining crisis has been exacerbated by the entry into Ghana of undocumented Chinese nationals. They import heavy equipment such as excavators, intensifying the environmental impact of artisanal mining in most areas.
Ghana has a broad and comprehensive legal framework for mining, with overlapping responsibilities for state institutions. This gets in the way of implementation.
I found that since 1992 parliament has enacted approximately 30 mining regulations. There are also a host of environmental laws, with various government agencies being responsible for enforcement.
Most importantly, the minerals and mining commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resource, could not enforce mining laws due to corruption, regulatory capture and clientelism.
Political influences and informal connections are the major obstacles to enforcing mining laws in the country. This includes politicians being either directly involved in illegal mining or having links with people in government.
Recent studies have shown that artisanal miners do not own most of the gold they mine, which raises concern over the potential involvement of politically exposed persons in illegal mining.
The ‘partisan’ composition of the minerals commission also makes it difficult for them to enforce mining laws. Over the years, the appointment of party members into these institutions has ‘neutralised’ its ability to perform their enforcement functions effectively .
My findings also show that politicians heavily control the decision-making processes in Ghana. This top-down approach to decision-making has led to lack of cooperation by local residents or communities in addressing illegal mining.
Ghana has tried several times to address some of the problems associated with illegal mining. For example, in 2017, Citi FM launched a campaign against galamsey. In response, government deployed military personnel in illegal mining areas under operation vanguard and operation halt initiatives to evict operators forcefully.
The army seized, destroyed or burnt mining equipment.
But this jackboot approach failed. It triggered unrest which led to confrontations between the officers and some local residents.
My research suggests that operation vanguard resulted in the relocation of some illegal mining to areas where there was no army.
A more sustainable solution is required. Here are its elements.
The first is enhancing the administrative capacity of the Environmental Protection Agency by, among others:
involving it in the award of mining concessions. This would place it at the heart of the system for enforcing mining regulations.
developing a robust reporting system to allow citizens to file complaints directly to the agency about individuals and companies engaged in illegal mining; and
empowering the agency to compel mining companies and individuals to provide periodic feedback on their mining activities. It must also have a quasi-judicial unit that can surcharge offenders and determine those that are liable for prosecution. This would reduce the long periods it takes to prosecute environmental-related offenders.
Ghana must also implement multilateral environmental agreements to which it is a signatory. This requires political will and commitment to reduce the current implementation delays.
Much of the problem with illegal mining has to do with how mining licenses are issued. The current practice where the minister grants concessions is discriminatory.
The creation of the community mining scheme is designed to reduce unfairness in the award of mining licenses and to encourage local-level participation in mining administration. The recent small-scale mining consultative forums organised by the Ministry of lands and natural resource also has the potential to promote citizen participation in decision-making.
But to sustain these initiatives, government must demonstrate that its commitment to citizen participation is credible and is not part of a rudimentary check-list.