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Counting the Cost: The hidden hazards

Ghana has witnessed an over ambitious drive in industrialization dating back to the post-independence era. Market prices for the country’s foreign exchange earner gold and cocoa has sky rocketed and created an impetus for many Ghanaians to become productive probably by this economic boom in comparison to other West African countries.

Across Ghana, from the local mine shafts of Nangodi and Sekoti in the Upper East region of northern Ghana to Tarkwa, Obuasi, Dunkwa and Prestea to the south of the country, illegal gold mining activity otherwise known in popular Ghanaian language as “galamsey” has been a social driver pushing the youth most especially from the rural areas towards the urban places where many of these mines thrive.

With mercury, dynamite, pickaxes and the strength of their arms, they earn a living by digging for gold in the shafts at the risk of their health and the environment.

 Conceptualizing migration, poverty and illegal gold mining

According to Awumbila et al (2008), internal migration in Ghana emerged as a “tried and tested” strategy for coping with “deteriorating economic and social conditions”. Migration is most often the preoccupation of males even though some females do undertake such journeys to the south of the country to work in the market centers as head porters or Kayayie in local Ghanaian parlance or to learn a trade such as dressmaking or as trianed salonists. Typically, migration from the rural areas of the country to the urban mining centers is catapulted by poverty. The fact that there are no lucrative economic activities apart from rain-fed agriculture and petty trading that can sustain family incomes for a long time compels many male migrants to shift their attention mainly to these mining areas. Many are usually school drop outs, unskilled or semi-skilled who go to prospect for a “better” living with the hope of making financial savings to come back home to continue with their education or help support their families financially. Traditional gold mining or “galamsey” has become a booming business that is competing in a way with giant multi-lateral companies such as the Bogoso Gold mines, Anglo-Gold Ashanti, Newmont Ghana among others. It therefore comes as no surprise, that in many of the open-cast mines (mostly illegal) that are in operation, a study by ILO on child labour in Ghana showed that children between the ages of 7-17 years work in these surface mines daily for meager wages. It also revealed the absenteeism in schools in such galamsey operating areas.

The emergence of illegal mining

The inception of sophisticated mining technology or scientific mining emerged with the colonization of the then Gold Coast (Ghana) by the British. In its wake, it came to displace the unskilled and semi-skilled labour force as mining companies were more eager to employ educated labour force to operate heavy earth moving machines. Given that opportunities for paid unskilled labour in these modern mines had dwindled and was no more lucrative, the pressure was to turn to illegal or galamsey mining activities which did not require any technical or technological skills. Additionally, the attraction of getting money daily through galamsey activities further made it very lucrative for both the young and the old to go by. Another school of thought believes that the recent surge and emergence of illegal mining activities is a result of disgruntled communities affected by mining activities of multi-lingual companies who have ravaged their lands and given back little in return as compensation to affected families or communities. It [galamsey] has hence become the “live wire” of the local economy and nothing seems to curtail this activity which is currently very lucrative for the youth and the unemployed.

What has been done so far?

Small-scale mining was legalized way back in the late 1980’s only granting a few mining concessions to a few peasants or families which again has caused many to start mining illicitly. There have been several appeals by opinion leaders and village head committee elders to stop this illegal way of mining which degrades the land and also results in several losses of lives.  

Furthermore, Police raids and brutalities have also been meted out to suspected galamsey operators in several parts of the country in an attempt to deter other would-be illicit miners from engaging in this trade. This however, has not proved to solve the problem.

Hidden Hazards

Health and safety of mine workers: Collapsing mine shafts during the rainy season has killed the most, but over the long run, many more die from mercury exposure. Miners inhale mercury vapors when they heat the element in boiling pots to purify gold. Exposure to mercury in humans can cause kidney problems, memory loss, arthritis and psychosis. When the mercury is discarded into rivers, it kills the fish stock by increasing the mercury levels in the water. Sadly, this fish is consumed by the community.

Galamsey and abortion rate: Tracing the high incidence of teenage pregnancy and abortion in these mining communities, galamsey operators are partly to blame. Many teenage girls fall victim to monetary favours offered to them by these galamsey operators who get these girls pregnant whilst at the same time shirking their responsibility to take care of them to ensure their safe delivery. What is more, these areas may also serve as a breeding ground for the spread of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea and the like if they don’t practice safe sex. The resulting effects being the health implications for the people in these areas.

Environment (Water bodies): In the Tarkwa Nsuaem municipality, the water treatment plant which gets its water supply from the river Bonsa has come under serious attack by these illegal miners. This plant supplies millions of fresh, clean gallons of drinking water to the community. It has been reported that the area is currently covered by sand which makes it difficult for the treatment plant to supply its daily targeted water supply to the municipality. Water bodies in mining communities across the country therefore need to be protected to prevent toxic pollution and drying up.

Land degradation: Galamsey affects the capacity of the land to perform ecosystem services that support community activities and development such as farming. It reduces the long term sustainability, productivity and biological richness of the soil. The land surface is prone to severe soil erosion because the vegetation has been disturbed and can no longer support plant growth.

Biodiversity loss: The impact of uncontrolled or illicit gold mining is much more felt in the loss of biodiversity which is resulting into deforestation. Tree and plant species are bulldozed away to create way for the mining activities without giving consideration to the environment. Groundwater is also contaminated by this way. This is not sustainable way to mine the environment.


In the light of the foregoing discussion, pragmatic measures must be put in place by both government and stakeholders to make the work of what many had over the years termed ‘illegal mining’ legal, safe and secure. Given that the whole activity of galamsey is dangerous, it could on the other hand be streamlined by state institutions and stakeholders, if galamsey is seen as a major contributor to the economy.

Additionally, galamsey operators could be coached or trained on the best practices of local mining by state institutions to save lives which hitherto, were lost due to improper mining practices.



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