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Galamsey: A look through another lens
From: Seyram Darbi          Published On: August 9, 2011, 00:38 GMT
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Galamsey: A look through another lens
Prohibition didn’t work in the Garden of Eden, Adam ate the apple - Vicente Fox, Former President of Mexico

The perennial floods bedeviled Accra this year too and the situation was reminiscent of floods of almost similar proportions in parts of the Eastern, Western and Volta Regions. As usual with us, reasons were propounded and excuses made for these worrying situations after the fact. Whereas the floods in Accra were blamed among others on un-dredged drains or a complete absence of same in some strategic areas and also location of buildings both authorized and unauthorized on water ways, the floods in these other parts, save for the Volta region were blamed on environmental activities, especially the operations of the ‘infamous’ small scale miner called the Galamsey.

The strong sentiments expressed against these operators were shared by many including the president of the Republic himself, H.E. Prof. Atta Mills. It therefore came as little surprise to many when forthwith a task force was set up by the government to deal with the Galamsey operators and their activities. There were mixed results from and reactions to the activities of this task force. Burning of three bulldozers belonging to illegal mining operators, arrest of suspected Galamsey operators and the highpoint being the arrest of over ninety (90) persons suspected to be involved in this activity in Obuasi, with various MPs complaining and endorsing this exercise by the task force depending on their position on the political divide.

Also, the furore surrounding “el de mina” gold rush at Edina (Elmina) beach once again brings this Galamsey issue to the fore.

Indeed the environmental effects and other demerits of Galamsey operations prima facie, looks overwhelming but a holistic and dispassionate look at the real issue might lead one to be tempted to side with the sentiments of the former Mexican President Vicente Fox, captured above in relation to the drug menace in that country. As captured by TIME Magazine, the cowboy-boot-wearing leader, who ruled Mexico from 2000 to 2006, once declared the "mother of all battles" against crime and rounded up drug kingpins. But before he left office, he witnessed the first big spike in violence as the drug lords retaliated. Last August, evidence surfaced that his vision had changed when he wrote on his blog that prohibition wasn't working with over15, 000 people dead so far in that battle. Now, in an interview with TIME in his hometown in central Mexico, he says his views have indeed moved toward the other end of the spectrum: favoring full-on legalization of the production, transit and sale of prohibited drugs. Fox is most explicit about marijuana but says the principle applies to all illegal drugs.

It is important at this stage to distinguish between licenced small-scale miners, who have been licenced under the Small-scale Gold Mining Law (PNDCL 218) now replaced by sections 81 to 99 of the new Minerals and mining Act, 2006 (Act 703) and the illegal operators popularly referred to as Galamsey operators.

According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, a galamsey is a local artisanal gold miner in Ghana, West Africa; such workers are known as orpailleurs in neighboring francophone nations. Galamseys are people who do gold mining independent of mining companies, digging small workings (pits, tunnels and sluices) by hand. The word Galamsey is derived from the phrase “gather them and sell” which is what these artisanal miners do to survive.

In practice, a small-scale mining operation in Ghana is that which is based on a land plot measuring less than 25 acres; there is however other indicators like work output, equipments used etc.

The Ghanaian small-scale mining industry is reputed to be well over 2,000 years old having attracted the Europeans to our shores in more recent centuries. Ghana was fittingly labeled the ‘Gold Coast’.

According to a paper published by the Galamsey expert Gavin Hilson, Contextual Review of the Ghanaian Small-scale Mining Industry, Small-scale mining in Ghana, as is the case in most developing countries, was for decades treated as an informal industrial sector, employing thousands of people but featuring largely rudimentary, unmonitored and uncontrolled practices. Up until the 1980s, small-scale mining activities in Ghana remained largely unregulated and received little, if any, support from governmental bodies. This, however, changed with the implementation of the national Economic Recovery Plan (ERP), which, following years of careful planning, was finally launched in the mid-1980s in a move to revitalize a stagnating economy.

In targeting the Mining sector as one of the key areas of economic recovery, foreign investment was promoted to forestall the decline in production experienced between 1960 and 1980. A series of tax breaks and benefits were offered to foreign companies seeking to acquire mineral prospecting licences in Ghana.

The corollary of these incentives to the foreign investor was the deprivation of most indigenes in these mining areas of their farmlands to make available big concessions for the mining giants. This pushed more people into illegal small-scale mining as full-time occupation as opposed to it being a part- time income earner during lean farming seasons. Hence something had to be done about this, since although illegal, it was contributing in no mean way to national production levels.

Gavin Hilson wrote “The small-scale mining segment of the industry was also heavily targeted. For the first time in history, the Ghanaian government discussed plans to formalize the sector after identifying the potential earnings in the industry, revenue that under an informal organizational scheme is largely lost via smuggling and other avenues of illegal trading. By the end of the 1980s, the government had fully regularized the small-scale mining sector through a series of policies and regulations”.

It has however become more than doubtful in the wake of present operations of Galamsey operators whether the regularization of small scale mining sector has been really effective. The Small-scale Gold Mining Law (PNDCL 218) now repealed by the Minerals and Mining Act, 2006 (Act 703) which provides for the registration of activity; the granting of gold-mining licences to individuals or groups; the licensing of buyers to purchase product; and the establishment of district-assistance centres has not enjoyed the sort of patronage that would have seen a seismic move from illegal galamsey operations to a largely regulated legal small scale-mining. The the law did not yield the needed results, as according to the 2008 Ghana Chamber of Mines (GCM) report, illegal mining activities (Galamsey) have been increasing with an estimated number between 300,000 and 500,000 artisanal miners comprising one of the largest groups of illegal miners on the continent.

The obvious inefficacy of the law has been attributed to several factors. The process for obtaining small-scale mining licences is tedious involving several trips to and from various state agencies like the Minerals Commission, Environmental Protection Agency etc. It also requires the completion of several forms, and final approval from governmental authorities. Applicants must also meet a number of criteria and be subject to some restrictions. The process, overall, is largely cumbersome and cost intensive, which is why most of the country’s peasant small-scale miners who this law was supposed to aid benefit directly from the country’s natural resources tend to operate outside the law as Galamsey operators.

Although hazardous, illegal and a threat to the environment, Galamsey serves as a source of subsistence and livelihood for these mining communities and their over one million inhabitants, whose lands have been taken over by their governments and given to multinational mining companies. These governments don’t even take up the task of negotiating for compensation for these lands, leaving the inhabitants who are in a weaker position to do this on their own, resulting in these largely illiterate persons ending up with paltry sums as compensation for their lands, destroyed farms and livelihoods.

Most of the places where these activities take place have always been mining areas with mining being the main stay of the people. With unemployment on the rise mining communities are most hit, since there is little or no land left for farming in these communities coupled with the fact that big multinational mining companies say local workers are not qualified for technical jobs needed in their operations. In these areas unemployment for 15- to 24-year-olds ranges between 70 and 90 percent, compared to the national average of 30 percent.

According to Galamsey expert Gavin Hilson, at the University of Reading in the UK, artisanal mining accounts for 15 percent of Ghana's national gold production. 2009 reports placed Ghana as the 10th largest producer of the mineral in the world and second only to South Africa on the continent. However these are people who have hardly benefitted from the proceeds of this seemingly good business the multinationals are doing at the expense of the state even though they have lost their very livelihood in this scheme of things. It will be unreasonable for anybody to expect these peasants to go hungry when they know they can feed themselves and their families from a few feet beneath the earth’s surface. It should be emphasized that, it is estimated that artisanal small-scale mining provides livelihoods for 1 million people. This is the reality on the ground.

Despite the illegality of these operations, this gold is actually bought by a government-run entity, the Precious Minerals Marketing Corporation. Concerned about lost revenue and gold smuggling were they to shun illegal Galamsey gold, the PMMC instead converts these crude nuggets to jewelry and refined gold for export.

Galamsey operators dig only to a limited depth, supported by wooden logs. Hand dug tunnels and shafts created by these artisans are shallow and small with no logistical support. This makes them prone to various problems and dangers such as pit collapse and landslides. On Wednesday, November 11, 2009 an estimated 30 illegal miners lost their lives as a result of a landslide at Dompaose in the Wassa Amenfi East District of the Western Region. The incident is one of many such disasters that have been associated with illegal Galamsey over the years.

The question that we must then ask is, are these persons the obstinate, reckless and greedy persons that don’t care a hoot about their own lives that they have constantly been portrayed to be or is there more to it than meets the eye? It is here admitted that some of the effects of Galamsey, if not controlled are damning, but can it be said that the complete prohibition, which is the current situation has been any better.

It is admitted that due to the dangerous techniques employed by these miners they stand a high risk of losing their lives as evidenced by weekly reports of persons trapped in underground pits they have dug in search of Gold. Another point of grave concern is the use of dangerous chemicals like lead, arsenic and mercury which could lead to various diseases. However the argument has been made by Galamsey proponents that, if the regulations are made a bit ‘poor-friendly’ to bring these operators into the fray, they could be better resourced to avoid these calamities. Gavin Hilson of Reading University, argue that if artisanal or galamsey mining projects were legalized, they could qualify for support and funding that might help mitigate the health and safety hazards connected with these operations.

The writer advocates legalization for Galamsey but not in its current state. A wider regulatory framework, cheap enough to bring the artisanal miner onboard is the way forward. Such a framework will make for better control and monitoring of the devastating effects of the activities of illegal miners, since as it pertains, they have to find practical ways to outsmart the authorities leading to shortcuts with damning effects. A practical illustration is the issue of the use of mercury by Galamsey operators. In order to get to the point that the PMMC can buy their gold, collected gold gravel and flakes must be amalgamated into a sellable form. Some people melt the gold together in a furnace, but another common method involves mixing it with mercury and then burning the mercury back off. This leads to release of mercury, a harmful substance into the environment. Legalisation for example could provide for the purchase of these gravels and flakes for a more environmentally friendly process to be used in their processing.

A journey from Dunkwa to Bogoso will give you a fair idea of the devastation that can be caused by unregulated mining, whether legal or illegal. The point being made here is that the so called licenced small-scale miners also leave some devastation in their wake, even the big multinational mining companies are not left out because it can be confidently said that since independence no successful reclamation of an abandoned mine site has been undertaken in this country. This therefore makes it unfair to entirely lay the blame for the degradation at the doorsteps of Galamsey operators, since the regulatory authorities themselves don’t seem to be doing enough. A tighter regulatory framework which tends to push more persons into illegality as the numbers have shown is not in our best interest. A tighter regulatory framework, ironically rather makes regulation lax since at every time, the regulator is overwhelmed. Should this trend continue there will be a time when the only way we can stop Galamsey operators is by killing them, since the numbers will continue to increase; most persons will not choose to go hungry when they realize they are standing on gold.

Another sensitive issue that has come up in relation to the Galamsey operations in the country is the delicate issue of involvement of some aliens, especially the Chinese in these illegal operations. Even when it comes to legalization, Act 703 per section 83 was intended to benefit only Ghanaian citizens. However, the present tough but obviously unworkable stance the authorities have assumed has rather lead to collusion between the indigenous inhabitant and these foreigners who can provide some logistical support to outwit the regulators and benefit from what was intended to be a preserve of Ghanaians. Legalization for Ghanaians coupled with a more liberal regulatory framework will help do away with these foreigners since they would lose their hold and financial influence on the indigene.

In conclusion the writer wants to intimate that, the idea of legalization of Galamsey might sound scary, but when properly done and controlled will make for easier enforcement since most people will bring themselves within the regulatory framework and benefit from all the educational and logistical support necessary to turn the tide against the fast and alarming rate of environmental degradation and also help them improve their procedures to be safer. Legitimate, reasonable charges could also be levied from them for environmental reclamation purposes.

In spite of all the drawbacks, Anna Boiko-Weyrauch in her feature Galamsey, Will Work For Gold rightly observed that “illegal or not, this kind of local entrepreneurship built on initiative, organization and self-sufficiency offers hints of how the continent might be able to buck the trend of resource exploitation. In a region where the profits of rich natural resources have rarely reached local communities, the best route may be the most direct one”.

Seyram Darbi

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