Legalising “Galamsey” in Ghana Feature Article
29 April 2010

It is both ignoble and depressing to note that one cannot comment on any issue—economical or environmental—without stepping on political toes. But how can one dissuade himself from talking politics when politicians only mount on stage and blurt out promises in the most negligent manner? The spate and upsurge of illegal mining, known in Ghanaian parlance as “Galamsey” is both distasteful and monstrously immoral. And to learn that it became an electoral pledge during the frenzy of the 2008 elections only confirms that the only thing politicians cannot do is to change sexes of humankind! For, promising to allow galamseying in Ghana, a country already suffering from the obnoxious effects of this canker, is tantamount to promising orderliness in an already chaotic hell.

The clandestine activities of galamsey bring in its wake economic, environmental, human, health and social problems to the society and the country as a whole. Looking at these problems and the overall costs of galamsey, it is quite incredible to see politicians adding it to their catalogue of electioneering promises on campaign platforms. This leads to the conclusion that politics is all about winning power at all costs; just promise anything that will bring power. If anything said on political platforms is meant to help politicians gain votes, then we are in trouble. For instance, if a politician goes to a community which has gained notoriety for anything criminal, all that he has to do is to promise to legalise it to win the votes of that community. By this analogy, a politician who goes to another community known for armed robbery only has to promise to make it legal!

Now, let us examine what really pushes people into the dangerous service of galamsey. Social injustice is the first reason that forces people into such a deadly venture. I am not going to develop this point as the fact that there exist a countless number of towns and villages with no employment at all. All the major companies look at the regional capitals and the capital city when they are setting up. As a result, jobs are concentrated in the capital cities so people in the hinterlands are meant to find in galamseying a gainful employer no matter how abhorrent this employer is. In addition to this social injustice is the problem of general genuine jobseekers. Look at the streets of the major cities of Ghana if you happen not to know the meaning of unemployment. Therefore, the scale of unemployment (for not everybody is ready to sell dog chains on the streets) pushes genuine job seekers into illegal mining.

However, mention must be made of the apparent accusations being levelled against mining companies in certain gold-rich communities like Obuasi, Prestea and Bogoso. Some galamseyers argue that their lands have been appropriated by mining companies and as they cannot farm, they must eat and hence, venturing into illegal mining: a case of a hungry man being an angry man. But some mining companies have taken upon themselves the policy of corporate social responsibility by which they are helping people go into agriculture as we see in the Western and Ashanti regions. This policy, as laudable as it is, has failed as more and more people are digging their own graves in collapsed tunnels. The simple rationale being that illegal miners do not see agricultural projects and ventures as a way of making money as farming in Ghana is unfortunately seen as an occupation for the poor.

Having looked at the causes of illegal mining, let us now look at some of the effects of this electioneering campaign assurance. The first point to consider is the human cost of galamseying. A lot of lives have been lost through illegal mining. As aforesaid, many people have been buried in the earth due to collapsed tunnels. These are tunnels normally dug using primitive methods and are normally, weakly supported by woods. Such tunnels abound in mining communities can be defined as certain death but for the sake of living comfortably in this world, life is rendered worthless by the galamseyers as he may never return from “work”. In the Judgement Day when the sea gives up its dead so will the earth give up its buried illegal miners.

Furthermore, there is the health risk part of illegal mining to list. Basically, some of these illegal miners are illiterates. Consequently, they unknowingly use hazardous methods to process their gold. Mercury, the chemical used to process gold, is poisonous yet; these miners handle it as if it were some piece of cake. It is quite perturbing to see these miners inhaling the vapour of mercury from archaic boiling pots to purify their gold. The painful truth about mercury is that, like fire, it is a good servant to help purify gold, but it can be a bad master with lots of health problems. When discard into streams, mercury builds up in fish consumed by locals. Mercury in humans can cause kidney problems, arthritis, loss of memory, miscarriages and psychotic reactions.

Moreover, one cannot turn a blind eye on the environmental vulnerability of illegal mining in the community and the country. Bulldozing the topsoil and trees, removing entire slopes, destroying streams and polluting groundwater are some of the environmental problems associated with illegal mining. We know that not every part of Ghana has access to potable water so what happens when these streams and rivers—which serve as drinking water in mining communities– are polluted, when trees are haphazardly felled, when the land to be cultivated is devastated?

Briefly, we can talk about the economic hazards which outweigh the money these miners get. The trees felled will have to be replanted under very slow, expensive, time-consuming and tedious afforestation programmes. Illegal mining destroys tarred roads as some of the manners inadvertently dig their tunnels into road networks. These roads normally need millions or billions of cedis to repair. The cost cannot be estimated.

In July 2009, I went to the Western Region and I had the shock of my life! Obviously due to the immoral talks engendered by election fever, “legalised” galamsey was being practised in the full glare of Ghanaians. Galamsey (a Ghanaian lexical item for illegal mining) which used to be a covert operation was being practised in broad daylight! Some unpatriotic Ghanaians and their Chinese condoners were felling trees, removing the topsoil and digging with the most modern of digging equipments in search of gold. Taken aback, I tried to wake up from my nightmare! In all my life, I have seen illegal miners at work but with their primitive shovels and pickaxes, they could not cause much harm to the environment. There were Chinese men calling the shots with their conniving Ghanaian counterparts robbing Mother Ghana.

I do not say this because I have anything against the Chinese; I believe the world should be a one big continent with no boundaries. But can you imagine a Ghanaian replicating this same thing in China?—felling Chinese trees, digging up Chinese topsoil to get Chinese gold? Could someone tell me how many decades of imprisonment this Ghanaian is likely to get if by a stroke of good fortune, he escapes the gallows? I have read recently about Chinese men being arraigned before court for indulging in galamsey but the painful truth is that some very prominent politicians did promise Ghanaians the chance to excavate all over Ghana for our gold no matter the means they employ. And truth to tell, I do not see how a group of Chinese men could be destroying Ghana’s vegetation for gold if they were not authorised by some faceless politician!

I have been monitoring the progress of a lot of countries in Africa and the world. Ghana may not be rich but when one sits and considers the fact that anything which is buried into a Ghanaian soil germinates, we have nothing to do but to thank God with all our hearts. Maybe, we take this for granted because the grass is greener on the other side. But if the people of Chad, Niger, Mali, etc, had our kind of vegetation, they would perhaps have considered themselves in seventh heaven. The question we all ought to ask ourselves and our leaders is: are we ready, in our insensitive effusions, to turn Ghana into any of the aforementioned countries?

It is rather appalling that a thing or an action which exudes the propensity to obliterate Ghana to the detriment of future generations should be uttered on political campaign platforms and be given absolute approbation by followers of a political party with the goal of satisfying a few people in the short term. By human nature, we are all bound to look at our selfish interest first but, have we thought about what posterity will think of us or say when they come to realise that Ghana once had thousands of miles of forests, forest reserves and an uncountable water bodies but has become a desert because politicians promised to make it so.

Finally, illegal mining should be seen as a national problem and must be given the attention it deserves. Politicians should be brave to take bold decisions to save the country for future generations and not sacrifice what is good on the altar of political expediency. Having said that, I must also say that some people’s livelihoods depend upon galamsey. Taking it away from them is equal to condemning them to eternal starvation. Such an action, if not well thought out, could bring crimes with them—prominent among them is armed robbery. Thus, the problem of illegal mining and miners should be debated upon in Parliament. Mining companies should be encouraged to employ and train former galamseyers and give them jobs and not just disregard them as unemployable because they have no qualifications. And we should all be weary when politicians start with promises; we should think for ourselves: can they achieve what they are promising or do their promises make sense?