When President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo redirected national focus towards the canker by making a bold pledge to tackle illegal mining, popularly called galamsey, head-on, many thought a time had come to curb the menace. But not much has changed. The fight against the menace has proven tougher than envisaged, as the destruction of the environment, water resources, and crop farms continues unabated.
In this report, some members of the second cohort of the Media Foundation for West Africa’s Next Generation Investigative Journalism Fellowship (NGIJ) highlight the impact of illegal mining on the health, agriculture and education of people in five mining regions of Ghana.
Death and ill-health
In September 2022, six-year-old Ama was returning from school when she fell into a pit near her home at Maafia, a galamsey-torn community in the Western North Region. It was a galamsey pit filled with stagnant water. She did not survive the fall.
Ama is just one of the growing statistics of people who have lost their lives in such a tragic accident in a number of mining communities in Ghana.
At Adjeikrom in the Aowin Municipality of the Western North Region, it is no surprise to hear that a child has drowned in an uncovered galamsey pit.
An elder in the community, Nana Boakye, told The Fourth Estate that he lived in fear.
“Uncovered pits all around our community scare me so much. I do get endless nightmares of children drowning in these abandoned galamsey pits,” Nana Boakye said.
In the Western Region, the collapse of uncovered mining pits has caused flooding, resulting in loss of lives and injury. Residents say a few days before The Fourth Estate’s visit, a similar incident had occurred killing seven illegal miners.
Recurrent mining-related disasters have also claimed the lives of many young people in the Upper East Region, especially at the Gbane mining site in the Talensi District.
The worst of these disasters occurred in 2019 when 16 people, including Junior High School (JHS) pupils, lost their lives. The latest disaster resulted in the death of a 31-year-old man.
Lack of safety measures and non-adherence to mining regulations by mining entities were found to have triggered these disasters.
Drug abuse is common at Manso-Nkwanta in the Amansie West District of the Ashanti region. A pharmacist in the community, who pleaded anonymity, told The Fourth Estate: “Illicit drugs are regularly acquired by illegal miners, and tramadol makes the best sale at my chemical shop and for most pharmacies here. They said it makes them active, and they do not feel tired.
According to the mother of a young illegal miner called Agyemang, the tramadol her son takes has made him violent and dull on some days. “Sometimes he sits unconcerned, his mouth drooling, but he won’t notice unless you draw his attention to it,” she said.
In the Bosome Freho district of the Ashanti region, there were open pits with stagnant water serving as breeding grounds for mosquitoes, posing a threat to lives when the reporters visited. Health data available to The Fourth Estate from 2017 to the second half of 2022 indicates that malaria was the most prevalent disease in the district.
The Senior House Mistress at Bosome Senior High Technical School, Patience Boatemaa Simms, blamed the situation on the impact of the galamsey activities on water bodies in the area. According to her, even the filters procured from the Bosome Freho District Assembly to purify the water are not enough, adding that typhoid was one of the most common diseases among students.
According to the Bosome-Freho District Health Director, Francisca Esinam Ahiavih, 116 cases of typhoid were recorded in the first quarter of 2022. The district also recorded 21,006 intestinal worm illnesses between 2016 and the first quarter of 2022.
A community health nurse who works at the CHPS compound in Adjeikrom in the Fanteakwa District of the Eastern Region said there were increasing cases of cough and skin diseases in the community, which she attributed to uncovered galamsey pits.
Data acquired from the Ghana Health Service through a right to information request indicates that malaria, respiratory tract infections, diarrhoea, and skin diseases are the top five diseases in the district.
Illegal mining operations have contaminated water bodies with dangerous chemicals like mercury, cyanide, lead and arsenic. The Medical Superintendent at the Kade Government Hospital, Dr. Stephen Quarcoo, called for extensive research to be carried out on the impact of illegal mining on people’s health.
“Even though we know it’s happening and the health implications are dire, we don’t have specific data to back it. We also record incidents of people drowning in the pits, but they’re not significant. We need to do quantitative and qualitative research to be able to do a better assessment,” he said.
From classroom to galamsey pit
Two boys, Lescot and Assemblies, are the youngest in their mining group. On a Wednesday afternoon when The Fourth Estate visited Maafia, the two were covered in mud and desperately removing gravel on the mining board and washing the sand in search of gold.
They are not the only children who prefer silver and gold to education. Some headteachers here in the Western Region are worried that their classrooms may soon be empty. The Headteacher of Maafia D.A. primary, Paul Antwi, said since he assumed his position, there had been “a drastic decline in the number of pupils in the school because of galamsey.”
Most of the pupils serve as helping hands to illegal miners. After getting some experience, however, they form groups and start their own mining activity.
In Omanpe, residents say the involvement of their children in galamsey instead of schooling is to stay afloat in a sinking economy.
“Most of these children are the breadwinners of their families,” Akurugu, a resident of Omanpe, said.
In the Datano Basic school, only 30 pupils registered for the 2022 BECE, according to a teacher. Datano is the most populous town in the Amansie South District in the Ashanti region. It was, however, discovered that most of the students abandoned school to work at galamsey sites.
Some students said the behaviour of some teachers encouraged them to go into illegal mining in order to make money. They said part of the money they made from galamsey activities was used to settle their teachers whenever they fell foul of the law.
“In other schools, you are caned or asked to do some other punishment when you are late, but here in Datano, we are asked to pay money based on the class we are in. Form two students pay ₵2, and form three students pay ₵3 each.
“You can be in the classroom and a teacher will call you to go and buy him food or water without giving you money. And they do not like sachet water; they drink bottled water. So, imagine being called twice to do this. They are really benefiting from us because we work at the sites to make our money.”
The discovery of gold at Chango at the Ghana-Burkina Faso border in the Upper East Region has rendered some classrooms in Nakolo, Boania and Kuliya in the Kassena-Nankana West District almost empty.
Pupils had abandoned their education and trooped to the site to help their parents illegally scout for the rich mineral resource. Others stayed home to take care of the farms of their parents. The situation became a concern to community leaders and other stakeholders in the district, prompting an intervention by the District Education Directorate.
“We engaged the community, the chiefs, some opinion leaders and even the miners. They were all at a meeting we organized to see how best we could address the issue,” the Head of Supervision and Monitoring at the Kassena-Nankana West District Education Directorate, Moses Wopugi, said.
The mining site has become a litigation site between the Ghanaians and Burkinabes in the area, and with the rising insecurity in Burkina Faso, Ghanaian security agencies are concerned that the activities could trigger a terrorist attack on Ghana and expose the miners (mostly students) to other violent attacks.
There are also fears that some of the students could be recruited into these terrorist groups, a concern that compelled the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) to visit the communities to educate them.
Down south, the situation is worse at some galamsey sites. Aikins, Ansah, Ebenezer, Harrik, and Adams, are all second-year students of the Prestea Catholic Junior High School. They double as mining contractors who hire the services of labourers to mine at their sites.
The high school students have their own mining setups consisting of a Changfang machine(a machine used by illegal miners to wash the ore during mining) to grind the mineral rock known locally as load.
“If I show you the kind of houses these kinds of illegal small-scale miners have built, you would tell me to stop teaching and engage in that as well,” a teacher proudly said and called out to the students to share their stories with The Fourth Estate team.
Aikins explained that he mines on weekends to support himself and his family.
“I stay with my grandmother. I am not supported by either of my parents. And so, on weekends, I go to the pits and help with the washing. After this, I am paid a sum of 50 cedis per site. I usually work in at least 5 sites a day. In the end, I make 250 cedis,” he told The Fourth Estate.
The cost of galamsey on agric
Adwoa Ntiriwaa, a resident of Manso Nkwanta in the Ashanti Region, grabbed her machete into her basket and slogged through about a hundred acres of dry land. Through the threatening pits of muddy water, no cocoa tree was spotted in the former evergreen land. The chirping of birds had been replaced by the loud and booming melody of excavators, washing pumps, and Changfangs.
She said illegal mining activities had destroyed their roads, making farming difficult and unattractive.
“Farming in Manso Nkwanta here is very difficult. This river here called Subin is what we depend on for farming. But we can no longer use it for irrigation or for drinking due to pollution. I have to carry a gallon of water for about 3kilometres to the farm for drinking and spraying crops,” Adwoa said.
Adwoa said farmers in the community were compelled to carry their harvests from their farms to their homes because the roads could not be accessed by motorbikes and tricycles. This, she said, had increased postharvest losses.
At the Ahafo Ano South West, an officer at the agriculture department, Ali Omaru, told The Fourth Estate, “I am particularly scared for the future of agriculture, not for this district alone but for the security of the whole nation. We have plans of producing our own rice, but farmers are no more interested in rice production because they do not have enough lands to plant and no water for irrigation.”
He said galamsey had made it difficult for farmers to carry out accurate weather and farm season calculations.
“This is because the rice and vegetable farms around the galamsey sites are washed away by the floods caused by galamsey pits during the rainy season,” Ali said, adding that farmers now depended on only rainwater for irrigation purposes.
Orange plantations used to provide jobs to the people of Adansi, but that has drastically reduced. Cocoa, plantain, and cassava farms have been turned into galamsey pits.
Mr. Dawuda, a farmer, explained that leasing land to illegal miners was more profitable compared to planting cocoa and oranges. To him, the cultivation of these crops took too long to mature and most of those harvested later went bad.
Illegal mining has caused social upheaval in some communities resulting in conflicts over land and resources. At Kunsu in the Ahafo Ano South West, farmlands are forcefully taken away from people. According to a resident who pleaded anonymity, he was asked to give up his land. The farmers there do not have options than to give their lands up for the so-called “community mining”.
In the Western Region, the Boin, Sui, Bia and Tano rivers which once served as sources of water supply for irrigation and drinking are now polluted.
The town planning committee chairman of Boinso said, “Even the Adwene [mudfish] that we get from our rivers, are no longer present. When the men go fishing, they come back with nothing.”
Inhabitants of the village disclosed that a small-scale mining company that was given access to their community lands had been breaching a lot of mining rules.
“Instead of mining 100 metres away from the river Boin, they mine directly in the river,” the secretary of the Boinso town planning committee disclosed. The company also left mine pits uncovered, which he said was contrary to what they promised the community.
At Kwaebibirem in the Eastern Region, 32-year-old Juliana Effia said domestic animals were not able to drink from the streams and rivers except the cattle.
The director of the Kwaebibirem Agricultural Directorate, Joyce Kyeraa, said the directorate had initiated a series of programs to educate and sensitize the farmers on the immediate and long-term effects of illegal mining on food security.
In the Bonsu electoral area of the East Akim municipality, the story was different. The Assembly Member of the area, Jacob Appiah, praised their chief for putting an end to illegal mining in the community.
He explained that the chief, Osabarima Abeam Brakatu Ofori Aninkrah, set up a task force that consistently enforced his mandate of zero tolerance for galamsey in the area.
Jacob Appiah says there has not been any report of illegal mining activities due to the work of the task force.
He complained about how illegal mining had affected the turbidity of the Birim River. He said this had restricted Ghana Water Limited from treating and providing water to the community as the Bonsu Water Treatment Plant is not functioning to its capacity, leading to water shortage.
In Kyebi and its environs in the Abuakwa South Municipality, there were many mining sites, some of which have been abandoned by illegal miners.
A lawyer and Executive Director of Kibi Goldfields, a large-scale mining entity, Kwame Boateng, proffered some solutions to tackle the menace.
He said the government was not using the right procedure in dealing with the problem. He believes the best way to fight galamsey is to provide resources for the indigenes to own the initiative and fight it collectively.
“I believe the government is fighting this menace with the wrong procedure. You see, you cannot stay in Accra and the military manages what is happening in Acibukour. We need the indigenes to own the programme to fight galamsey and not people from Accra,” he said.
Mining in the Upper East Region is largely underground. As a result, the impact on the environment and agricultural activities are not evident. However, following the takeover of all mining concessions at Gbane in the Talensi District by a large-scale mining company, small-scale miners who lost their concessions to the company, have resorted to surface mining on their farmlands.
This, agriculturalists say, degrades the land and would render it infertile for agricultural activities.
The authors of this report: Philip Teye Agbove, Forgbe Emma Kloh, Abdul-Gafaru Ayamdoo Salifu, Sedem Kwasigah, Linda Essilfie Nyame, Diana Amoako Boakyewaa, Norah Aluayo Kwami, Vincent Nugah & Victor Jones were fellows of the NGIJ Fellowship.
The Next Generation Investigative Journalism (NGIJ) Fellowship is an initiative of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). The first two cohorts have so far benefitted early-career journalists from Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.