Galamsey (Illegal mining) in Ghana

Woman panning gold

What is Galamsey?

Galamsey is a term coined in Ghana for illegal mining which is mostly done in small-scale. It is believed to be derived from the English words ” gather them and sell”. During the colonial era, the British seeing how Ghanaians ”gathered” the gold and sold started referring to the activity as ”gather them and sell” . Ghanaians looking for a shorter version probably in the local slang called pidgin english, started saying ”galamsey” and it stuck over time.

Galamsey (illegal mining)  involved the use of local artisanal tools like pickaxes and shovels to dig holes, trenches and tunnels in search of gold. However, with the influx of foreigners and the involvement of politicians and other wealthy citizens in the illegal mining sector, there has been much more investment pumped into it and therefore heavy machinery and equipment such as excavators, bulldozers, articulating trucks and dredges are now being used.

galamseyers, unsecured mine

Who are involved?

Decades ago, galamsey was done mainly by Ghanaians living in the areas in the southern sector believed to be having gold deposits. However, of late it has evolved and now includes foreigners (mainly Chinese and some citizens from Ghana’s neighbours), Ghanaian politicians, Ghanaian security officials and other wealthy Ghanaian business people. The areas affected have also increased to include most districts in the Northern sector including The Talensi-Nabdam district, the Bawku west district and many others.

Men generally do the digging while women and even children help carry the dirt to the washing area to wash for gold using mercury and other harmful chemicals. Some do use the panning method ,which is safer, to extract gold however as it is not the most effective method of extracting gold, most illegal miners resort to the usage of chemicals such as mercury and cyanide to help extract the gold.

woman washing / panning Gold

Why the issue of Galamsey?

Galamsey has been in Ghana for a very long time, way before the British colonised Ghana. It would have been legal at this time because Ghanaians owned the land and resources. However, during the British colonial era, in a bid to have control over gold and other natural resources in Ghana, they formulated and passed the laws governing mining to protect their interests.

open greenstone belt

About half of Ghana’s surface is either having primary gold  deposits(greenstone belts, quarts) or secondary gold deposits (alluvial, gold moved by ancient rivers and deposited far away from primary source).

secondary goldfields, quartz

The secondary gold deposits however are mostly not enough to warrant the set up of proper commercial mining companies. To set up a proper commercial mining company, one would need to have prospected and found out a given place has at least 50,000 ounces of gold and invested a huge amount of money. This has been done in most of the primary gold deposit areas and there are  already commercial mining companies established there. The secondary sites, on the other hand, based on other gold mining countries like Australia, have been proven not  to contain the amount needed to set up a proper mine. That means Ghana is rich in gold deposits not big enough for commercial mining companies leaving room for illegal small-scale miners to fill.

Another reason galamsey has become rampant in Ghana is the ever-increasing gold prices on the international market. Most foreigners trying to make so much money easily have flocked to Ghana to invest in the sector. They mostly use Ghanaians to do the real work in other not to be seen in the mining areas as they are doing so illegally. The illegality further gives them the chance to make so much money as they smuggle the gold found out of Ghana and do not have to pay taxes and other mining fees.

Apart from the above, high unemployment rates in Ghana have also caused the Ghanaian youth to flock to galamsey. In a bid to make a living and make ends meet, they engage in it illegally as they do not have other options. Some people are of the opinion that it is because of greed and the interest in making quick money and to some extent, this is true. On the other, to many, it is just a way of making ends meet. Most ”galamseyers” do not become wealthy doing galamsey, it is just a way to earn a livelihood. However, there are a few of those greedy politicians and foreigners (mostly chinese) who go into it to make quick money with no regard to the effects on the environment but they are not as many as those who genuinely use it as a form of employment.

Any Effects of Galamsey?

What seems at first sight great for the Economy has turned out to be a curse. Galamsey over the years has had so many bad effects on the environment and this has led to the recent cry for an end to galamsey from most Ghanaians. The whole process of mining illegally, beginning from the clearing of land, digging of trenches and tunnels, to the way gold is extracted, has affected the environment and water bodies negatively.

destroyed Land… intact and collapsed shafts

Galamsey(illegal mining) has led to the destruction of farms and forests reserves in Ghana. Most galamseyers have resorted to clearing farmlands believed to have deposits of gold for mining. Some of these farms were before being cleared for mining, a source of income to the farmers who are sometimes unaware their farms have been bought illegally for the purpose of ”galamsey”. Other farmers turned ”galamseyers” believe there is more money in galamsey than farming therefore the destruction of their own farms including cocoa farms to engage in illegal mining.

Also, forests reserves are being destroyed for illegal gold mining. Trees that are being reserved and protected in different forests are being cut down to pave way for galamsey and as the saying goes, ”when the last tree dies, the last man dies”.

destroyed farm

The use of chemicals such as mercury and cyanide to extract the gold, has also led to the pollution of water bodies in Ghana. Some of these water bodies are sources of potable water for some communities and as they can no longer be used as such, causes water shortage in those communities.

Some of these chemicals which stay in the water and ground for ages have long-term effects and  will affect generations yet unborn.

Furthermore, the digging of deep trenches and wells to get to search for gold ore has led to the loss of livestock and even humans. These after the galamseyers are done, are not covered up and continue to be death traps. In some cases, during the digging process, galamseyers themselves are trapped in or the mines collapse on them causing injury and death.

Deathtrap, abandoned galamsey mine shaft

Any Solution to the galamsey problem?

Realistically, solving the issue of galamsey in its entirety in Ghana is a tall order. This is because several reasons. It has been in existence for a long time and most Ghanaians believe it is their birth right . It is also attractive as gold prices keep increasing in the world stage, making it a lucrative business. Just one ounce (31.1grams) of gold is above $1600, way more than an average worker earns per year. Furthermore, some of the security forces supposed to enforce the mining law and politicians are themselves involved, making it difficult to arrest people and even when foreigners are arrested, they sometimes bribe their way out and go right back to it as they feel they can always bribe their way out.

However, not to sound too pessimistic, there are some efforts that can be put in place to reduce, if not stop, the issue of galamsey.

Public education

The public should be educated about the effect galamsey is having on the Ghanaian environment and the galamseyers themselves as they are exposed to the dangerous chemicals used. The communities with a lot of galamsey activities should be especially targeted so the people involved will learn about the current and future implication of their actions. I believe some of these people do not know the effects on the environment and themselves.

Also, the chinese and other foreigners involved should be made liable for the destruction of the environment. They are not legally allowed to mine in Ghana so they be prosecuted based on the laws the break in doing so. The politicians and security forces protecting them should be investigated by a task force set up for this purpose to deter others.

That apart, the Government and other Ghanaian entrepreneurs should create more job opportunities especially in the communities affected by galamsey. This will give the youth the chance to be gainfully employed and not to be involved in galamsey.

Last but not the least, Ghanaians interested in small-scale mining should be encouraged to get the necessary permits and licenses needed to mine. However, they should be required to take a course on mining and extracting gold safely and even if they use mercury, they should learn mercury removal to protect the environment. Those who do not follow the rules when caught should be fined heavily to deter others from breaking the law. Apart from that, the new mining law forbids foreigners from engaging in small-scale mining in Ghana, therefore foreigners as well as their Ghanaian collaborators caught should be made to face the full rigors of the law.

We all as Ghanaians need to start fighting for the betterment of our country, Ghana. Ghana belongs to all of us and our generations yet unborn. We can no longer just sit and expect the Government alone to solve our problems. We should all contribute in our own way and unite in the fight against social cankers like galamsey, corruption and mob attacks (so-called instant justice).

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