Obuasi is much more familiar to many people whenever mining comes into focus in Ghana. It has a stadium, well-tarred roads in the inner parts of that town, a beautiful hospital and top class school as well as beautiful workers quarters.
But many of its citizens qualm that its status is not befitting, especially when compared with California in the United States, Johannesburg in South African and Perth in Australia.
Yet, about four hours drive away into the Western Region lies an ancient mining town with virtually no tarred roads.
In this town, one of Ghana’s most priced water bodies – Ankobra River – flows tryingly across with a turbid visage, if one were to be honest, milk is more translucent than this river.
“To be frank, if I consider the nature of the water I cannot say I am happy. But because we need to make a living we have to pretend not to see the damage we are causing to the river.”
Those were words uttered by Red, an unregistered small scale miner, who joins likeminded dozens to inflict grave pollution on the Ankobra River in Prestea on daily basis.
Eric Sherwood of non-governmental organization Concern Citizens of Prestea admits that “Honestly, it is the small scale miners who are destroying the water body” but appears to absolve them of blame.
“They do not do that out of their will. Earlier on there were 5000 plus workers working underground in the mine. It is Golden Star that has pushed the people of Prestea into small scale mining, which they now call galamsey.”
Sherwood’s counterpart, Stephen Asamoah argues that “Unemployment [in Prestea] is massive but the small scale has helped a little; the rate has declined.”
Although not every small scale miner is undertaking the activity without licence, a significant number do not have proper documents to undertake the activity.
For all the destruction they cause, sometimes they are looking for just “one blade” weight of gold. That will fetch 82 cedis from the local gold dealer.
And as Red confessed, there are days he toils without anything. On other days, business can be so good that he can strike “30 blades” weight of gold.
Meanwhile, as illegal as the activity may be, the investment that goes into this business can be massive, rising above 8000 cedis for a locally made mining boat that sucks in the river bed and throws mud back into the water within minutes, conferring on the water an almost indescribable colouration.
“We see the consequences of our work but it is because there is nothing to do for a living, says Red who has migrated from the northern part of Volta Region to join locals in Prestea in search of money to fund his education. “It is not because we think that this is the best work for us to do. It is just that considering the difficult situation we find ourselves, we feel we can do this to extricate ourselves temporarily.”
Between 2010 and 2012 Red was in Prestea to mine and raise money to re-sit some of his senior high school subjects. “I then went to rewrite my Science and Mathematics subjects. I’m back to make more money to go and continue school at the tertiary level.”
There are influential personalities like Nana Nteboa Pra IV, Divisional Chief of Himan-Prestea in the Wassa Fiase Traditional Area who do not condone the ongoing activities but they are caught between a rock and a hard place.
“It is the illegality that started earlier, that has given birth to the illegal mining we all see around,” he said apparently in refering to Ghana government’s decision some two decades ago to consent to surface mining. “I don’t think any of us will be happy to see the river being polluted like this. I always say that if you want us to fight against such activities, we need multidisciplinary approach. If I am the source; if I started it, let me stop so that the water will be clean.”
The chief’s headache is that dissuading his subjects from the debilitating activities sometimes attracts criticisms from community people who say he does not want them to work. “They will say you don’t want them to enjoy what they have on their land while others are enjoying the wealth.”
For such people, there is no meaning to the inter-ministerial task force on illegal mining set up a couple of years ago by President Mahama to clamp down on illegal small scale mining.
After all, in the Obuasi suburb of Anwiam too, a small group plies their trade and causes comparable level of damage to the environment and the Ataa Ne Ataa stream, in particular.
The commonality between Prestea and Obuasi is not limited to the activities of illegal small scale miners. Both are ancient mining towns. Both have had the main companies which undertake large scale mining resorting to “care and maintenance” measures as a mechanism for dealing with difficult times.
In each company’s case, more than 5000 regular mine workers were laid off, resulting in the loss of livelihoods which in turn drove scores of children out of school.
While Prestea’s main mining firm, Golden Star Resources, was expected to resume regular large scale underground mining in 2013 after undergoing a temporary shut down during the last decade, AngloAshanti’s Obuasi Mine has just commenced its own temporary shutdown that is anticipated to last 24 months.
One of the people who lost their job at Golden Star Resources is Nurudeen Salifu, now Chairman of Stone Crackers Association/Head of Technical Committee of the District Small Scale Miners group. For ten years now, he has mastered the art of crushing gold-bearing stones – a business that requires 12000 to 15000 cedis capital – for others to wash for gold. And, his work depends greatly on the small scale miners.
Defending his new life, he said: “After all we don’t steal. This is the work we do in this town to cater for our dependants. The galamsey is ancient. It was there before I was born.”
In view of this, both the Concern Citizens of Prestea and members of the National Coalition on Mining, NCOM, are backing calls for reassessment of small scale mining in Ghana.
Drawing similarities with Obuasi, Richard Ellimah, Executive Director of Obuasi-based Centre for Social Impact Studies, CeSIS, recalls that in the case of Obuasi it is the 1985 expansion of AngloGold Ashanti (then Ashanti Goldfields Company) that has caused a lot of the town’s current problems.
“Children who were born or were already in school at the time had to be withdrawn from school because their parents lost their farmlands. Some couldn’t go to school because their parents couldn’t afford school fees.
“That generation is 25, 26, and 27 years old. They are at home, they don’t have the skill; they don’t have the certificate. What do they do? They go into illegal mining.
“For the community people who engage in illegal mining, it is livelihood. If they don’t go galamsey they don’t eat. And, man must survive,” Ellimah opined.
BY: Fred Asiamah