AN EXCAVATOR was berthed in the marshy ground, scooping mud from the water-way that once provided water for communities downstream at Boete in the mining town of Obuasi in the Ashanti Region.
Able bodied young men were busy washing the stones in giant improvised setups introduced by the Chinese in the middle of the waterway, turning a once clean stream into muddy ponds. Women and children do the less masculine jobs by carrying the washed stones from the field and gathering them into heaps for onward sale to builders.
At the sight of the pickup vehicle in which I was traveling to this ‘galamsey’ (illegal mining) site, a danger whistle was blown by one of the miners, and all of them carried what they could and jumped into the bush. They feared it was a raid by the anti-illegal mining task force. Such is the normal routine at illegal mining sites in all the gold rich regions across the country.
A mother of five, who only gave her name as Adwoa, told this reporter that she carts the washed stones at the site to enable her look after her family.
She earns GH¢40 if she is able to gather a truck load of the washed stones. She said she and her husband used to farm on the land there until it was turned into a mining site. On environmental destruction, she said: “We know we are destroying the environment, but there is no other work here for us to do.” A middle-aged man, who would not come any closer to me for fear he would be arrested, spoke from a far distance.
To him, nothing would stop them from digging for gold illegally until the government finds jobs for them. “This is what we do to survive, yet you people bring the military here to come and harass us. Give us a job, and we would also stop,” he shouted from the distance Mining activities in gold-rich regions dates back to colonial days when Ghana was called the Gold Coast, due to its huge mineral deposits.
Small-scale mining was once a respected traditional vocation. When the government officially legalised the practice in the late 1980s, it brought to the fore some challenges, including the mechanism by which the government granted mining concessions to peasants. The process was cumbersome and slow, and therefore, forced many people to mine illicitly. Today, illegal mining, popularly known as ‘galamsey,’ a name culled out of the phrase ‘gather and sell’, has become a major source of livelihood, and ruling the economy of communities living around big mining concessions.
The environmental devastation of their activities is enormous. The once arable lands on which the communities farmed have been ravaged and scavenged, and water bodies destroyed in the search for gold. President John Dramani Mahama, in the wake of national concerns about the environmental devastation of the activities of illegal mining across the country, set up an anti-illegal mining task force to crack down on illegal miners across the country.
Though the task force has achieved some successes over the past few months, the modus operandi of the miners has metamorphosed into more organised and dangerous groupings, due to the proliferation of guns and explosives that rule their operations.
Organised crime with political backing?
In Obuasi, almost all the illegal miners have resorted to the use of firearms to protect their operations, the Obuasi Police Commander revealed in an interview with The Chronicle. “Now everybody wants to get a firearm; some have even not registered it,” he said, and intimated that “anybody who is able to do ‘galamsey’ can equally be an armed robber.” The structure of an illegal mining group has the semblance of organised crime, and there is a call for it to be classified as such, in order to inform a new approach to dealing with the menace.
The structure consists of a sponsor, mostly politicians, and until recently, suspected drug lords, who fund their operations, suppliers of machinery and other services, and a chain of ready markets for the illegal gold. One of the most essential components for this type of mining is the booming excavator hiring services. The excavators are hired at the cost of GH¢500 per day. However, checks conducted by The Chronicle indicate that none of the excavators had any registration numbers on them, save the contact numbers of their owners.
On the mountains of Kokoteasua, a suburb of Obuasi, is one of the country’s illegal mining sites, where illegal miners have advanced into depths underground with ventilation systems, an electricity transformer, and a four-phase power line supplying electricity for their operations. There are suspicions that the individuals behind their operations are people in powerful positions. Neither the Electricity Company of Ghana nor the Municipal Chief Executive of the area is able to explain how electricityr was extended to that site to be used to perpetrate the illegality.
Their operations continue under the watch of the political head of the region and the security services, with the police seemingly equally helpless. The District Police Commander recounted several instances when he had been impressed upon to release illegal miners each time they are caught. Information gathered by The Chronicle indicates that of the over 41 cases involving illegal miners reported to the Obuasi police between 2013 and July 2014, only one was prosecuted. It involved a 20 year old man who got his hands blown off when he attempted to blow security personnel with an explosive.
He was asked to pay a fined of GH¢300. “Even that case, some big men were just following it. They contacted me to assist them, but I will not do it,” the Police Commander noted “As for Obuasi here, a lot of things are happening,” he added, restraining himself from divulging too much information, and choosing his words carefully, not to get himself on the wrong side of the powers that be. The Chronicle gathered that some of these financiers of illegal mining activities have, over the years, bankrolled the political campaigns of most of the politicians in the region.
The Deputy Minister of Lands and Natural Resources for Forestry, Barbara Serwaa Asamoah, shares the opinion that illegal mining should be classified as organised crime, considering the structure and modus operandi She told The Chronicle that it is on this premise that operations to flush out illegal miners are military in nature. A security expert close to the Obuasi AngloGold mine holds the opinion that until the nation changes its approach to the fight against illegal mining, by first declaring it as organised crime, very little would be achieved, and the security implication for the country is a bubble waiting to burst.
Source: The Chronicle
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