Gold Mining Companies in Ghana Take Land, Poison Water
Earlier last year, we wrote about a cyanide spill at the Ahafo mine in Ghana. That incident, apparently, was hardly an isolated case. A recent human rights report describes a broad pattern of irresponsible and unethical business practices by gold mining companies operating in Ghana. The report, by a team of human rights observers from The University of Texas at Austin, details how large gold mining companies in western Ghana repeatedly have side stepped consultation with local communities when opening new mines, and how farmers are being evicted from their lands without adequate compensation. The report also documents the heavy toll taken by gold mining operations on local residents, including how pollution from gold mines is poisoning water supplies.
Once known as the “Gold Coast,” Ghana has long been a major producer of gold, the report explains. However, in the late 1980s, with the Ghanaian economy in a rut, the Ghanaian government embarked on a campaign to boost gold production. Over the past two decades, the government has been encouraging foreign gold mining companies to set up shop in Ghana. One way the government has gone about this is by allowing mining companies to take control of locally-owned land; Ghanaian law permits the government to hand over land to the mining companies if the government decides that doing so is in the “public interest.” About 40 officially recognized gold mining companies now operate in Ghana, all but one of them foreign-owned.
Unfortunately, gold mining companies are launching mining activities without input or consent from local communities. Land is often taken without fair compensation and sometimes without any warning. The report tells the story of Abena Koale, a Ghanaian farmer who had lived on her farm for most of her life. One day, Koale answered her door to find a representative from Goldfields Ghana Limited, a subsidiary of a South African mining company. She was informed that the company was taking control of her land that very same day and that she was being evicted. This was the first time the company had contacted her.
Once established, Ghana’s gold mines are not doing much better at taking community interests into account. Frequent spills from the mines have poisoned dozens of rivers and streams in western Ghana, rendering water supplies undrinkable and causing health problems in residents. The spills also interfere with food sources by killing fish and contaminating crops. Little economic benefit seems to be reaching local communities either. When farmers are evicted, they lose not just their land, but their livelihoods. Employment opportunities at the mines are few, as most gold mining companies prefer to employ more educated workers from other regions of Ghana or from abroad.
What can be done to address these injustices? The University of Texas human rights observers call upon the Ghanaian government to enforce existing laws more rigorously and to make changes in Ghanaian law that would better protect local communities. Although we agree that these recommendations are essential, we believe that an additional strategy could also be effective: applying consumer pressure on the gold mining companies to clean up their act. For consumer-driven change to occur, consumers need to know about what is happening at the world’s worst gold mines, and they need alternatives to dirty gold. This is why we work to educate consumers, and why we offer only luxury jewelry made of recycled gold and fair trade gold. If enough consumers stand up against abuses such as those occurring in Ghana, more ethical norms can emerge in the gold mining industry.