The market value of gold may be going up, but the value of gold to the people of developing countries is under hot debate. Nowhere is the controversy greater than in Ghana, West Africa, where mining has been going on for hundreds of years, and gold makes up more than 40% of foreign exchange. “Everywhere you go, you see huge cavities in the ground, discarded pits where thriving villages once stood and nothing now grows,” writes BBC reporter John Kampfner. “People have been forced off their farming land, losing their only source of income.”
A chorus of human rights, environmental and labor organizations denounces a pattern of abuse by mining companies that includes burning villages, illegal detention, rape, intimidation and dog attacks on villagers. Modern gold mining creates tailings and waste water laced with heavy metals and toxic chemicals like cyanide and arsenic. In recent years, disastrous cyanide spills have killed all life in several of Ghana’s river systems and marshlands, contaminating drinking water and agricultural lands for thousands of villagers. Scientists fear the cyanide and heavy metal residue could pose a threat to the people and wildlife in these areas for decades to come.
While the communities that have been damaged and displaced by mining are organizing to demand compensation and clean-up, the mining companies have their sights set on new gold fields. They are now pressing Ghana’s government to permit mining in the country’s protected forest reserves.
Decades of deforestation and forest degradation have left less than two percent of Ghana’s native tree cover intact. These remaining savanna and moist tropical forests are recognized as globally significant for their biological diversity, including over 700 types of tropical trees. The forests provide critical habitat for many endangered species including 34 endangered plant species, 13 mammals, 23 butterflies and 8 birds. Many forest animals need large contiguous areas of habitat to maintain a viable breeding population.
Given Ghana’s history of devastating cyanide spills, environmentalists are especially concerned about potential contamination of the rivers and streams that crisscross the forest reserves and feed Ghana’s major rivers, providing water for villages and cities.
"We can prosper as a nation without having to raze down our forest reserves for mining,” says Friends of the Earth’s Abraham Baffoe. A coalition of 12 Ghanaian organizations that oppose mining in the forest reserves is working with villagers on a variety of projects for sustainable economic development as an alternative to mining. They charge that five mining companies, including industry giant Newmont, got away with illegal mineral explorations in the forest reserves under the former administration. Now the companies say Ghana’s reputation as a good place for foreign investment dependson whether the new administration will bend or change the law to allow them to mine inside the reserves.
Supported by the Minerals Commission, the Chamber of Mines and even the Environmental Protection Agency, the mining companies are bombarding the public with pro-mining propaganda and promises of material aid. But a 62-year old villager scoffed, “We have heard it all before. They came with all sorts of promises, but we saw nothing. They devastated our lands and livelihoods and showed little respect for civil rights.”
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