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Atuabo – A town in Ghana about to change, after oil and gas

The advent of oil and gas, and how the industry is going to boost revenue for the nation is already old news. But what we are yet to come to terms with is how communities in the catchment areas are going to be affected. The truth of the matter is that the face of some communities has already begun to change.

Atuabo in the Western Region is one such town. Indeed, with recent developments concerning gas, this town is set to experience a big make over.

“Our town is changing. I cannot even recognise it anymore”, said Papa Osam Ackah, a 60 year old tailor who has lived all his life in the small town.

“When I was a school boy we only heard the sound of tractors in the bush now we know what a traffic jam is,” he said.

Though it is quite remote, Atuabo could also be of tourism importance as it is only about 4km from the waterfront that goes to Nzulezu, the famous village-on-stilt. In September I had the chance to visit Atuabo twice within a spate of three weeks. And for many reasons it seemed I saw two different communities.

On the second trip I stood at the lorry station and for every few minutes a huge truck filled with sand, stone or other construction materials drove through. Because of the heavy traffic young men have been recruited to direct traffic and help pedestrians to cross the street.

For a town of about 1000 people, with no hospital, no seniour secondary school and no bank, these are major happenings. What has accounted for the dramatic change is two gas companies setting up processing plants in the community. Yes, the actual oil action is far offshore on the high sea but Lonhro, and Ghana Gas are going to transport and harness the resultant gas for domestic use.

“They say gas is coming,’’ explained Madam Amba Baafi when I asked why her town has suddenly become so busy. Would it be good for her business? In disbelief she shook her head as she stoked the fire while seated under a tent.

Her business is the making of steamed cassava meal for sale. All is however not lost for Auntie Baafi. Her two adult sons are already engaged as driver and watchman respectively in one of the companies.

The site at Atuabo is one of the areas acquired by government in the Eastern Nzema Traditional Area of the Western Region. Surrounding communities include Asem, Besuaso, Ellembele, Jomoro and Anochie,

Another expected change is a huge clearing in the town for a new harbour. The current phase of these various projects, involves land clearing, excavations, land filling, and laying of pipelines.

What this means is that individuals and families have had their lands taken while farms and homes have been destroyed. But there is a plan which the people of Atuabo are looking forward to.

According to Mr Victor Sunu-Attah, Project Development Manager, of Ghana National Gas Company the process to evaluate land and farm for compensation is far advanced. He noted that the project holds lots of prospects as it would provide a giant economic stride for the country.

As Sunu-Attah made his point by the roadside where we stood, a huge water tank from his company slowly dispensed water on the newly gravelled road to offset the dust. The smell of the mixture of water and soil that hung in the air evoked a sense of construction which is all over Atuabo.

“You see,” he pointed to the vehicle and stressed. “We do this regularly for environmental protection,” he said.

The dust in the air at Atuabo might be under control but the entire gas operation raises a larger environmental challenge which requires a proper plan. Additionally, the tricky thing is that the whole gas project is sited within the Amanzuri area, one of the richest wetlands in Ghana.

Happily, at the local level, civil society groups such as Friends of the Nation and Nzema Youth Group are in touch to serve as watchdogs.  According to Mark Arthur, a leader of the the latter group, they are able to engage with company representatives on the concerns of residents.

In terms of information flow there are meetings with the various communities periodically. At the centre of town I saw a Lonhro notice board with notices, announcements in English and Nzema, the local language. Contact details of company officials are also boldly displayed.

On the job front, expectations are high. The magic word is ‘’local content’’ I approached one of the traffic directors, 19 year old John Blay. They call them the ‘flagmen.’ According to the young man, he is waiting for his SSS results. He said he is paid GH¢12 daily. Is his salary good? No. How did he get the job?
“I heard and I went,” he said.

In all, over 800 people are expected to be employed by the project. While some like Auntie Baafi’s sons already have jobs, others are loitering and hoping for their opportunity with good old fortune. Others have also gone out of town to train.

Hundreds of such hopefuls have been trained by  Haizel Ebo Ferguson, the CEO  of SIGMA, an oil and gas service outfit based in Takoradi. Earlier on my trip, I had called on Ferguson at his  one storey-office in downtown Market Circle. He told me for all those who are eager to reap from the industry, training is the way to go. In his opinion, the companies must be directly involved. Ferguson trains the young men and women for the companies on credit. When they do get jobs with the companies there is an arrangement to pay back.

Back at Atuabo, and in the Paramount Chief’s palace I got a closer view of how the traditional leadership views the windfall. Awulae Amihere Kpanyinli III said his people are excited but are also cautious with their expectations.

Awulae Amihere Kpanyinli called on the government and the Gas Companies to list out the implications of the project on our environment and how they could be managed. With regards to tourism, the Chief said they are going to do an inventory of their traditional and heritage resources so they can package them for marketing. At the end of the day he hoped that “our culture will be preserved, our language would remain intact, and we will continue to eat our local food like akyeke and fomfom,” he quipped.

In the courtyard of the palace I noticed the same information board that stood in town, again with messages in English and Nzema. Outside the palace I saw a 100 year old dilapidated post office which is now completely without its dignity. Atuabo has seen better days. I thought to myself. Maybe the heritage resource inventory would really work. Overall, the feeling I had was that no one really knows how this town would change.

Shortly, as I left Atuabo town I came across a site where the black giant pipelines were being laid.  A large tract of land has been cleared within the forest to serve as the pipeline route.

There were three Chinese workers busy on the job. SINOPEC is the contractor working on the pipelines. I stopped to talk to the men. But they spoke no word of English, all three of them. ‘’Heehao’’ I greeted then they showed flashy smiles. And then nothing. ‘’Shishi’’, I said to them thanking them for nothing. Very clearly, the Chinese too, are here. They live here and work here. They would no doubt also affect the change that Atuabo is experiencing.

By Kofi Akpabli

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Reporting Oil and Gas project was launched on 4th June 2009atTakoradi, Western Region, Ghana by Penplusbytes (PPB – www.penplusbytes.org) with the vision of providing a one stop online information and knowledge about Ghana’s oil and gas sector
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