Tuesday, 2 June 2009
Gold -The Human and Environmental 'cost' of Bling in Ghana
If Gold is considered the safest buttress against times of crisis, protecting individuals and states against inflation” -then how has Ghana been effected by this recession [or the credit crunch as it is called]?
I was pondering the aforementioned question -when I stumbled across the following article; -written by Jonathan Green -called, 'Hooked on the gold rush' (dated March 2007) -and it makes for very interesting reading. I have often wondered about the way Gold is mined in Ghana (its impact on the people and the land) -and this article is a real eye opener. I must point out that this piece by Jonathan Green won the prestigious, ' American Society of Journalists and Authors Awarded' - the first ASJA award ever won by a British publication (with previous winners including Alex Haley, author of Roots, Isaac Asimov and many Pulitzer winners). The following are a few extracts from, 'Hooked on the gold rush':
“From the air you can see huge, yawning craters filled with cyanideinfused waste. And sulphides in rock dug deep from the ground are laid out and exposed to the elements. These react to produce sulphuric acid, which flows from the slag heaps into people's homes. Open-cast mines have transformed rainforest into malarial swamps, causing outbreaks of disease and the death of children in local villages. And dynamite blasts echo around the landscape, scaring away wildlife; local houses constructed of wattle and daub crack and eventually collapse. 'Gold-mining is arguably the most destructive form of mining there is,' says Keith Slack, senior policy adviser for Oxfam America and co-director of No Dirty Gold, a campaign started in 2004 in response to the destruction wreaked by gold-mining around the world. 'To find enough gold for one ring takes 20 tons of toxic waste.” Jonathan Green
“As one galamsey told me with disgust, 'When foreigners come here and take all the gold out of our country, they call them investors. When we mine our own land, they call us thieves.” Jonathan Green
Rarely has gold glistered so brightly; it is the bling set's hottest accessory, and the jittery investor's safest bet in times of international crisis. But as the price of gold soars, the cost to those who mine it at the behest of their British masters is incalculable, as this special report graphically reveals. As we crawl deeper and deeper into the darkness, the greasy, terracotta earth closes in on us and the diameter of the makeshift tunnel shrinks. There is a muffled numbness to every sound and movement as we plunge down a vertical drop, sometimes slipping uncontrollably, to a depth of around 50ft. The air is fetid and cold. 'Come, a little more slowly,' says Benjamin, a muscular 22-year-old , as he inches ahead on all fours.
The only light comes from a dim flashlight secured around his head with a filthy rag. We crawl past tunnel supports¡ roughly chopped logs, jerry-rigged to prevent the tunnel from collapsing. Countless young men have lost their lives down here, killed in roof falls. Others have died of asphyxiation, choked by their own carbon dioxide. Forty men were lost at this very mine last year. All died in the desperate pursuit of gold. Twenty minutes earlier, I had been above ground, surveying a scene that seemed to belong to another epoch. In Ghana, the West African nation on the Gulf of Guinea, I had come to the Nyanfoman-Noyem gold-mining camp.
At this dismal shanty town in the heart of the rainforest, men and women toil away in thick humidity under black storm clouds. Hundreds of sinewy miners dressed in rags and covered in a grey ooze, with torches tied to their heads and wearing plastic sandals, emerged from forbidding black holes in vaporous clouds of sweat. Underground, these tunnels snake for miles at depths that are anybody's guess. The men are known as 'galamsey', and they make money from illegal mining on land run by legal foreign mining companies such as Britain's AngloGold Ashanti, the second-biggest gold mining firm in the world.
The men's camp has been raided several times by the police and military. Some of them have been beaten up and others shot at. Under the shade of a rickety lean-to, three men in their twenties supervised miners going in and out of a dark, sandbagged hole. They wore wraparound shades and brightly coloured muscle shirts, and called themselves the Lucky Boys. 'This is our hole,' said Daniel, proudly, the oldest of the three at 27. 'We have been digging it for two years.' Daniel told me that he has 100 men toiling away in the shaft. He charges them one sack out of every 100 they bring to the surface. His younger brothers divide one sack between them. The miners are allowed to keep the rest.
The Lucky Boys think I am an investor looking to buy their gold mine.My guide had said to me before we found the camp, 'Don't tell them you are a journalist. They will pelt you with stones if they think you are going to expose them. Daniel said, 'There are billions to be found here. You can buy the mine for £30,000, or [he leans in close to me, out of earshot of his brothers] I will just accept a plane ticket to America.' 'Isn't there a risk the mine could cave in? 'Sure. One day it could cave in. But then you could buy a plane and that could crash, so what is the difference?' Before long, Benjamin, another of the Lucky Boys, offered to show me the gold deposits; thus I found myself heading down the tiny shaft.
After 20 minutes of crawling, a light emerged from the darkness ahead. As it nears I can make out a ghoulish face, covered in a patina of grey dust. We both jump, startled. Rumours of ghosts and spirits abound in this underground labyrinth. 'Oh Ewurade!' cries the face in Twi, a Ghanaian dialect. 'Broni Aba Ha!' Which roughly means, 'My God! There's a white man down here!' The face relaxes after Benjamin explains that I've come to inspect the mine. 'Ha! You crazy white man!
Life is hard for us Africans, eh?' And with that he squeezes past me in the cramped, airless confines of the passage on his way up to the surface¡ to oxygen and light.
Life is indeed hard in a gold mine.There are few rags-to-riches stories where a lucky miner finds a football sized nugget and has their life transformed. Rather, sack after sack is painstakingly hauled up from the depths of the earth and panned for microscopic traces of gold. Dangerously, highly toxic mercury is mixed with the soil to make the gold traces stick together. I see one man tug open a bag of mercury with his teeth, spitting out silver globules into a bowl. 'You get used to the mercury,' he says. 'It makes you cough, but after a week you don't cough any more. If there was another metal we would use it, but this is all we can get. 'The rewards are slim. It takes 32 men working in 12-hour shifts seven days to find £100 worth of gold. That's roughly £3 for a week's work.
It's highly dangerous work and superstitions abound. A sorceress, Mamunetu Seidu, wearing a sour expression and a filthy floral-print dress, sold dried cat and bat heads to superstitious miners from orange boxes set up in the middle of the camp. These were to ward off evil spells in the tunnel. She also sold cheap sexual potency pills and wooden rings. 'If you go to work one day and are going to have an accident then the ring will get tight on your finger,' said one miner in a 50 Cent T-shirt.
And these former farmers need all the luck they can get. They are the vestige of a quest for gold that has turned their country upside down. Their lands have been destroyed by foreign mining companies plundering for gold with rapacious brutality, leaving them little alternative but to begin their own hunt for buried treasure. In doing so, they take their lives into their own hands. As one galamsey told me with disgust, 'When foreigners come here and take all the gold out of our country, they call them investors. When we mine our own land, they call us thieves.'
Four hundred years ago, the developing nations of Britain, Spain and France fought over gold in Africa, even going so far as to cut off the ears of natives who traded it with rival powers. Today, all over the world, there is a new gold rush afoot. Shares in British goldmining giants such as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton have more than doubled in the past two years. And as celebrities continue to drip with bling, jewellers to the stars such as Theo Fennell, a favourite with the Beckhams, Elton John and Liz Hurley, are enjoying unprecedented success. More than one-third of Ghanaian gold is mined by UK companies, and much of this will find its way into our jewellers.
However, it's impossible to know its true provenance¡ or the cost to the local environment and Ghanaian people. As I find during my visit here, even gold mined legitimately in Ghana causes terrible human suffering and destruction. The price of gold has been steadily increasing since 2001 and the cataclysm of 9/11. Over the past few months, with the dollar in the doldrums and continuing uncertainty over Iraq and Iran, it has soared to as much as £380 an ounce, compared to £160 five years ago. From Tokyo to London, traders are making fortunes buying and selling gold. Also driving up gold prices are the booming economies of China and India and their seemingly insatiable appetite for gold jewellery. Couple this with the fashion for 'bling' in the US, the second biggest consumer, and more gold is being sought than ever before.
Which brings us to Ghana, formerly known as the Gold Coast due to its stupendous reserves of gold. Mining companies are hard at work here, tearing down the rainforest to dig for gold. Huge doomsday-grey slag heaps, as high as ziggurats, pile up behind native villages. The ore extracted from the earth is drizzled with cyanide to separate out the gold in a process called cyanide heap leaching. From the air you can see huge, yawning craters filled with cyanideinfused waste. And sulphides in rock dug deep from the ground are laid out and exposed to the elements.
These react to produce sulphuric acid, which flows from the slag heaps into people's homes. Open-cast mines have transformed rainforest into malarial swamps, causing outbreaks of disease and the death of children in local villages. And dynamite blasts echo around the landscape, scaring away wildlife; local houses constructed of wattle and daub crack and eventually collapse. 'Gold-mining is arguably the most destructive form of mining there is,' says Keith Slack, senior policy adviser for Oxfam America and co-director of No Dirty Gold, a campaign started in 2004 in response to the destruction wreaked by gold-mining around the world. 'To find enough gold for one ring takes 20 tons of toxic waste. These days it is not profitable to mine underground, so companies use open-cast mining methods and cyanide leaching to extract gold, which is a lot more damaging to the environment¡ but a lot cheaper.'
The centre of AngloGold Ashanti's Ghanaian operation is Obuasi, the 'Golden City'. The city's entire economy is based on gold-mining. Miners drink in the Goldfinger bar after work. A ten-foot gold-coloured statue of a miner stands on one of the city's bustling roundabouts. Yet despite its influence on everyone's lives, there is not a single piece of gold to be bought in these cramped streets¡ not a single goldsmith nor a jewellery-maker. 'Not one ounce of gold, not one trace, stays in this town after it is mined,' says Richard Ellimah, a DJ on Shaft FM, a local radio station whose controversial Sunday show is mandatory listening in the slums. Ellimah, a large man with an apologetic manner, has a clear motivation. He has withered legs, caused by childhood polio.'My condition was caused by living among waste,' he says. He claims shadowy characters from the mining companies have tried to bribe him not to air grievances about them. 'Having a fight with the mining companies is like having a fight with God,' he says. 'They own this city¡ the police, the military, everybody.'
We take the short drive out of the city to Sanso, a little village to the southeast.
A main street is lined with flimsy houses, while behind, a steep, tree-lined hill casts a shadow over the village. At first glance, it looks like a natural feature, but the truth is less prosaic. 'Those hills are made from toxic waste,' says Benjamin Annan, a local politician. 'Before the mine started using open-cast methods, this was flat farming land. Nothing grows on that hill apart from those trees they have planted on it to make it look natural.' Annan, like others in the village, lost his two-and-a-half-acre smallholding when the mining companies took the land in compulsory acquisitions. He was paid £100 for the farm, which has since been reduced to a gaping gash in the ground. 'I have nothing to leave my children now,' he says, with a burning, resentful look. 'Typhoid is everywhere. There is nothing we can do. We are waiting for the end of the world. We sign petitions and nothing gets done. When we speak to the government all they say is, "The company is for Ghana. Ghana is for the company."
Over the next few days I tour further outlying communities with Ellimah and find a consistent pattern to people's woes. As we drive to remote villages, children spill out of houses and people regard me with fear. 'They see any white man and they think he works for the gold-mining company,' says Ellimah. Near the village of Krudea we inspect an abandoned open-cast mine. In the middle of forest and savannah, a huge gouge, several miles wide, has been torn out of the earth.
Stagnant water has settled, creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Krudea is only half a mile away. 'Ten people have died from malaria here,' says village chief Nana Obimpah. When I ask to see children suffering from malaria, I am soon surrounded with indignant parents carrying watery-eyed infants in their arms. Some have sores in their mouths. One two-year-old's face is so ruptured with mosquito bites that his skin looks like coarse sandpaper......................
I wonder if life is any better for workers mining legally -for companies such as Britain's AngloGold Ashanti? Lets hope so. -Or if as stated in this article, -'the price of gold has been steadily increasing since 2001' -means that we [Ghana] have more money in our coffers -and if we [the people of Ghana] have benefited from this prosperity? Me thinks not. But most importantly, -what of the devastating effects of mining on the health of our people and the environment -and is the government doing anything about it?............To read the whole article please visit: