Galamsey’s (Rising) Environmental Threat: Beyond Conspiracy Theories & Politics

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Illegal small-scale mining, popularly known in Ghana as “galamsey”, is a perfect candidate for sensational headlines. The association of 3,000 cases of teenage pregnancy in the Amansie West District of the Ashanti Region was only a single line item in a catalogue of the 2014 district's health statistics but you wouldn't notice that from the cover story of February 9th, 2015 edition of The Chronicle. A Google search for the word “galamsey” on the same day returned over 315,000 items. 

Beyond the sensationalism, galamsey remains a major problem in Ghana. The activities of galamsey operators have imposed huge cost on people and the environment. The documented negative impact of galamsey are varied but mostly fall into the areas of: 

1. Slavery and Child Labour (here is a list of copious headlines and stories)

2. Environmental Pollution (this story provide a broad enough overview ),

3. Deforestation ( this story motivated me to write this blog post), and

4. Loss of revenue to the State (At the time of writing this post, Joy Fm, a local radio station in Ghana had just reported the small scales miners -licensed and galamsey – in total account for 34% of gold production in Ghana. They are most likely responsible for a larger proportion of the environmental threat).

Everyone is clear on the impact of galamsey. We all seem to agree that it causes more harm than good. You would think that would mean we would put concrete, definitive steps to end the practice. Ironically, public discussions are full of conspiracy theories. Political parties – entities that have taken turns in providing leadership in dealing with illegal mining – take turns to accuse each other of funding, supporting, condoning, and ignoring the galamsey menace. Successive governments did very little to address the situation until things came to a head in 2013 when the ill-gotten wealth began causing a rift between Chinese galamsey operators and the local community. A Government of Ghana task force moved in to it shut down, and force out the flood of Chinese (and in some cases Nigerians) miners that were taking over illegal mining in Ghana. Suddenly, what was predominantly an industry problem became a national security threat and a global geo-political talking point. 


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While significant discussions and efforts are being made to regularized small-scale mining, regulate the sector and ensure strict compliance with safety standards, galamseyers are charging ahead of government efforts and it seems it will take quite a while to reign in their operations. 

Here is where the story gets a little interesting. Two new developments may be reshaping our understanding of the magnitude of the impact of galamsey and the potential levers that may be driving it.

1. A recent study by researchers at the University of Puerto Rico discovered something close to what I may call the economic incentive for increased galamsey operations. The researchers examined the tropical forest of South America and were able to establish a scientific case for the impact of rising gold prices on the rate of deforestation in the region.  In other words, the rapid increase in gold prices over the past decades is the perfect incentive for increasing the rate of mining. Galamsey operators now find it profitable to try and extract for the precious metal. Considering the fact that small-scale miners were found to be more harmful to the soil and to water sources, the higher price of gold is a threat to environmental sustainability.

2. On the other side of the equation, over the past 5 months, there have been layoffs by large-scale mining companies in Ghana. Newmont laid off over 450 workers in September 2014, followed by Anglogold Ashanti with over 4,000 layoffs and Perseus Mining with 48 layoffs. This has been attributed, firstly, to a fall in gold prices from the recent highs of over 1,600 per ounce to just around 1,200 per ounce in the latter part of 2014 and secondly, the power crisis in Ghana. 

The dynamics are shifting in favour of galamsey and the footprint of their operations will go up implying a mining industry that is less environmental friendly. Perhaps this will motivate stakeholders to act. Perhaps not. 

However, if the regulated, standardized, relatively environmentally compliant large scale gold mining operations in Ghana are scaling back operations while galamseyers are scaling up (gold prices are still relatively high compared to the 1990s), what does this hold for the environment in Ghana?

Can anything be done to address this? 

We would like to hear your views on the subject.


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