The complicated fight to curb illegal mining in Ghana

A new, politically -led controversy has erupted over the effort to stem illegal small scale mining. As it blazes, DUNDAS WHIGHAM and TOMA IMIRHE examine how successful government’s latest concerted efforts in this direction have been and consider what still needs to be done.

Over the past few weeks, the missing 500 excavators that were earlier impounded by the operation vanguard taskforce in their bid to reduce the high rate of illegal mining, popular called “galamsey” has dominated the media space.

Interestingly, some groups most especially the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) have descended heavily on the Minister of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, Prof. Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng to resign after a purported “galamsey” video went viral.

Notwithstanding the fact that the mining sector contributes largely to government’s revenue, it also has serious negative impacts on the environment as the menace of illegal mining has in turn destroyed the environment – water bodies and vegetation among others.

Although Ghana has had a formalized process for engaging in small scale mining on legal basis since the late 1980s, by the middle of the immediate past decade an estimated 85 percent of small scale miners in the country were operating on illegal basis. Illegal mining has had significant adverse implications in Ghana, ranging from revenue losses to the state (as illegal miners do not pay taxes) to the pollution of important water bodies and a few years ago, the situation came to a head. In March 2017, the Ghana Water Company warned that the spate of water pollution by illegal small scale miners was approaching alarming levels, and that the country risked importing water for consumption by 2020 unless illegal mining activities were curbed. This revelation, along with widespread media campaigns, resulted in an unprecedented national consensus against galamsey, prompting actions from among a wide range of institutions, including the presidency, the judiciary, security services, and the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources.

Undoubtedly, this development has had dire effects on mining investment in the country at a time government is craving for increasing investment in the mining sector.

In a move to put a stop to such illegal activities, protect the environment from further degradation as well as finding other alternatives, this resulted in the coming on stream the Community Mining Project in 2019.

On Wednesday, 25th July, 2019, the President Nana Akufo-Addo launched the Community Mining Programme at Wassa Akropong, in the Western Region as the start of a key programme which is now being extended to all the mining areas around Ghana.

The project is aimed at formalizing mining in selected communities across the country to ensure that mining is carried out in an acceptable manner within the tenets of the law, in a way that will not destroy the country’s natural resources.

With at least one community mine expected to be set up in each of the mining districts in the country, the project is expected to provide employment for more than 4,500 miners. Already, a number of such miners have been trained by Government at the University of Mines and Technology (UMaT), Tarkwa on responsible mining.

It is instructive to note that despite reported cases of “galamsey” still ongoing, definitely the high rate of the galamsey and the recklessness nature of how the activity was carried out has been reduced.

Indeed, with the formal training of such miners on how to carry out responsible mining, there is the prospect that even where the activity might be still be carried out illegally – that is without the operators and their operations being formally registered – this time the negative impact on the environment may be far less than as compared to previously.

Importantly, there were series of cases continually being reported by the media about the level of destruction the activities of illegal miners – both domestic and expatriates – have impacted on the environment. It is instructive that such reportage has reduced significantly, ostensibly a sign that the underlying illegal activities themselves have reduced substantially, even though there are certainly still some pockets of such activities still currently on going.

While government has thus made significant progress in the fight against galamsey – progress which is however currently being masked by the ongoing shortcomings in policy implementation that are dominating the news and consequent public discourse on the issue – the fight against illegal mining is far from over. There are some issues government needs to urgently address.

For instance, in August 2019, the Ghana Chamber of Mines sent a formal written proposal to Government on the need to commence a multi-stakeholder discussion and establish clarity on the operational framework and structure of the Community Mining Project instituted by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Mining (IMCM) as the alternative to illegal mining.

This follows a series of encroachments by community miners  on portions of mining concessions legally acquired by large sized  mining companies. However, checks done by Goldstreet Business indicate that government is yet to commence the multi-stakeholder meeting six months after the proposal was sent.

Some industry players have asserted that this development goes to suggest the lukewarm nature of government in its bid to address such important matter affecting the mining sector.

The discussion is expectedly to bring lucidity by, among other things, setting up the necessary legal framework on how portions of mining concessions held by large scale mining firms can legally be relinquished to the participating communities for the community mining projects.

Following the launch of the project, Metropolitan, Municipal and District Chief Executives (MMDCEs) in key mining jurisdictions across the country demanded the relinquishment of segments of the mine concessions “in the name of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Illegal Mining for the Community Mining Programme” but the Chamber insists these demands are illegal.

Reports indicate that the demand by the MMDCEs has largely encouraged encroachment on large portions of legally acquired mining concessions by some armed community mining operators recently.

The situation has led to a number of mining companies expressing their displeasure over the issue since such community encroachers have invaded areas where mining companies have invested heavily in exploration.

Recently, Gold Fields Ghana, Newmont Ghana, AngloGold Ashanti, Obuasi, Golden Star Wassa, and Persus Mining have all complained about the rising incidence of encroachment on their concessions by some community mining operators.

Stakeholders and industry players are all in agreement that the demand from the MMDCEs is an illegal one which contravenes the Minerals Commission’s regulations that regulate the industry.

The Ghana Chamber of Mines has urged all stakeholders in the Community Mining Programme to publish details of the programme to guide its implementation and to conscientize the public.

“If the pronouncements of the people engaging the activities are true, why is the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Illegal Mining mandating such MMDCEs to take over legally acquired concessions from member companies of the Chamber? Is it a government policy or it is a decision taken by the MMDCEs to make this illegal request?”, the Chamber asked when speaking with the Goldstreet Business.

Consequently, the Chamber is entreating government to undertake expansive exploration in demarcated areas to be apportioned to the community mining project operators for easy regulation.  It has again asked its member companies to adhere to the strictest regulations and will only use the laid down processes through the Minerals Commission in relinquishing mining concessions to the community.

Importantly though, they claim that they are willing to relinquish some areas legally acquired by them, as long as this is voluntary and follows rules agreed to by them. But there is still a wide difference between the amount of concessions government would like them to relinquish and the amount they are willing to part with. When in 2018, while the new community mining concept was still being developed, government formally appealed to large scale mining firms to relinquish portions of their concessions which hold little value to their long term business plans to small scale miners, the leadership of the Chamber of Mines retorted that this would be counter-intuitive as it would significantly affect the life of mine required to support the capital investments that the companies make.

Indeed, the threat of encroachment is one of the reasons for the dwindling levels of new investment into exploration in Ghana’s mining industry. While new discoveries in Ghana’s mature gold mining industry can no longer be expected as a matter of course, it is instructive that most large scale ongoing exploration is being done by international mining firms already well established in Ghana, with already producing mines. This suggests that Ghana is losing its lure as a destination for international mining firms not already operating in the country, and industry analysts assert that this situation is in part because of the failure of the authorities to prevent encroachment on concessions by both legal and illegal small scale miners.

But while government has tried to address the technical and socio-economic issues driving small scale illegal mining in Ghana, it is inevitably hampered by the accompanying political considerations. These are captured by the University of Ghana’s Business School in a policy brief whose summary of key findings are as follows:

“Until quite recently, most analysts and policy makers have interpreted Ghana’s galamsey menace as a technical and economical (not a political) problem driven by the cumbersome and time-consuming processes involved in acquiring the necessary licenses for engaging in artisanal and small scale mining (ASM) on legal basis; widespread poverty and youth unemployment in rural areas; and perceived social injustices resulting from the displacement of indigenous communities by large-scale expatriate mining companies.

Consequently, efforts in curbing the galamsey menace have focused largely on the provision of technocratic solutions such as simplifying and decentralizing the ASM licensing regime, the provision of alternative livelihood opportunities for displaced communities and small-scale miners, the demarcation of land plots reserved for ASM operators, and some occasional ‘military crackdowns’ where armed security forces raid the sites of miners to arrest them and confiscate their assets.

All these approaches have failed, as evidenced in the growth of illegal mining activities and its adverse implications. Our research highlights the inherently political nature of the galamsey menace in Ghana, and suggests that any anti-galamsey crusade that fails to tackle the political drivers of the problem is unlikely to succeed.

Three key political issues are especially crucial in this regard: the nature of electioneering campaigns, the network of powerful actors engaged in this phenomenon and the challenge this poses for the effective enforcement of anti-galamsey laws, and ambiguities around land tenure practices.

As electoral competition has become more intense, the galamsey discourse has taken an increasingly partisan character in which opposition parties often bolster the position of illegal miners in order to make those in power unpopular and gain partisan political advantage. The two dominant parties are especially guilty of this problem.

“Any anti-galamsey crusade that fails to tackle the political drivers of the problem is unlikely to succeed. As electoral competition has become more intense, the galamsey discourse has taken an increasingly partisan character in which opposition parties often bolster the position of illegal miners in order to make those in power unpopular and gain partisan political advantage.

“The partisan political divide has contributed to undermining prospects for an inter-party consensus in enforcing laws within the ASM sector. Illegal mining has also persisted in Ghana not because of weak state capacity, as some have claimed, but primarily because of political leniency and law enforcement corruption. One of our key informant at the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources attributed the galamsey phenomenon to “a complete lack of political will,” arguing that the people who have the responsibility to curb illegal mining activities tend to benefit from them: “the chiefs are culpable, the Assemblies are culpable, some MPs are culpable, some ministers are culpable.

That is how bad it is.” In this respect, illegal mining has continued to flourish because it serves the interests of a wide range of actors, including some chiefs who gain through the royalties they receive in exchange for land; and the political, business, and local elite who own the concessions that operate outside the legal mining framework.

“Another crucial factor relates to ambiguities around land tenure practices in Ghana. Although all minerals are formally vested in the President in trust for the people, the continuing influence of chiefs over land in Ghana has practically given rise to two parallel systems of mineral licensing– one formal (granted by the state to large-scale mining companies) and the other informal (granted mainly by chiefs to galamsey operators).

As a result of the historical power struggles between politicians and chiefs over mineralized land since the colonial period, land ownership remains very complex in Ghana. Galamsey operators are aware of the importance of their votes for incumbent political parties, and have often exploited the political vulnerability of those in power (due to intense electoral competition) during election years.

“There are two main categories of land ownership today, namely, state lands, compulsorily acquired by the government through the invocation of appropriate legislation; and vested lands, belonging to customary authorities (stools, skins, clans and families). In all, more than 80 percent of land in Ghana is under the control of chiefs, implying that most mineral operations, both by large-scale companies and ASM operators, occur on stool land. Some chiefs have turned their control over land into widespread de facto power at the local and national levels, effectively utilising it in exacting tribute from both legal and illegal galamsey dealers.”

The political nature of the ongoing controversy over the execution of the latest efforts by the incumbent government to curb illegal small scale mining supports the assertions of the policy brief by the University of Ghana Business School, that it is driven as le4ast as much by political forces as by socio-economic forces. Which suggests that even the best efforts by the State, based on the former alone will only produce limited results and even these will be fragile, as illustrated by the current controversy now going on.

To be sure recent efforts by government have delivered appreciable results with regards to curbing galamsey. The Community Mining framework holds strong potentials, once the lingering disputes between the major stakeholders can be ironed out.

But eliminating galamsey itself will be a far mor complicated task, requiring the political class and the local traditional authorities and business elites to be willing to give up the benefits they have been deriving from it.


Disclaimer is not responsible for the reportage or opinions of contributors published on the website. Read our disclaimer.
Send your news stories to [email protected] and via WhatsApp on +233 24 482 2034.

Leave a Reply