Photo: Anna Boiko-Weyrauch
Driving outside Prestea, in western Ghana, you might wonder about the makeshift tents lining the roadside, or what the black grime on the ground is, or why there are so many women selling food in such a random-looking place.
But if you went to the area's chief and got permission to enter the camp, you would see that it's not a shanty-town but a profitable small business, run by local entrepreneurs. It's a galamsey camp, or an "artisanal small-scale gold mining" operation, as it's referred to internationally. The word galamsey (pronounced: GAH-lahm-SAY) is Pidgin English for "gather them and sell," which is what these workers (referred to as galamsey, themselves) do when they mine for gold.
Prestea is a town in Ghana's Western Region, and it sits atop land that is rich with gold. It's been a mining town since at least 1878, when the first European company came to town, but Ghanaians had been mining gold for centuries before that. Until recently, the mainstay of the town was an underground mining operation owned by the Ghanaian Prestea Gold Resources. Low gold prices caused the company to hemorrhage $7.7 million dollars from 1999 to 2001. In March 2002, it was salvaged by a joint venture between Ghanaians and Bogoso Gold Limited, a subsidiary of the Canadian company, Golden Star Resources.
The underground mine has not reopened. According to Golden Star spokesperson Elaine Kwami, it's under the company's care and maintenance. "You have water being pumped every day, and work is going on. But as to exactly when we'll start mining, that's a bit difficult to say at this stage." Instead Golden Star has built a series of large surface mines. Surface mining relies on heavy machinery and explosives to extract gold, whereas underground mining involves tunnels deep in the earth and more human labor.
When the underground mine closed, a lot of people – as many as 3,000 – were out of a job. Kwami says about 800 people are currently employed at the Prestea/Bogoso. "It's difficult to employ everybody in Prestea, that I can say. But as much as possible we try to employ from the community." As a result of these closures, DIY mining boomed; many former miners went to work in unregulated, locally run operations.
Ghanaian farmers have mined gold during slow agricultural seasons for centuries, but nowadays small-scale artisanal mining has become a thriving industry. According to galamsey expert Gavin Hilson, at the University of Reading in the UK, artisanal mining accounts for 15 percent of Ghana's national gold production. But because most small-scale mining operations are not registered with the government, technically speaking, their work is illegal.
It is estimated that artisanal small-scale mining provides livelihoods for 1 million people in Ghana and an estimated 15 million people around the world from China to Brazil, Tanzania to Indonesia.
These jobs are especially precious in Ghana's mining communities, where unemployment for 15- to 24-year-olds ranges between 70 and 90 percent, compared to the national average of 30 percent. Big mines say local workers are not qualified for technical jobs needed in their operations. There aren't enough unskilled jobs to absorb unemployed youth.
Photo: Anna Boiko-Weyrauch
The "I Trust My Legs" galamsey operation around Prestea hosts a series of hand-dug tunnels, or shafts, going hundreds of feet into the earth, supported by wooden logs. The laid-off workers from Prestea's old underground mine now head the committees that run the galamsey site.
Why the name? Because if you are going many hundreds of feet into the belly of the earth, blasting rocks and hauling them up to the surface with not much more than a shovel, a canvas bag, some flimsy plastic sandals and a flashlight strapped to your head, you've got to trust your legs.
In the tradition of mining camps, The "I Trust My Legs" operation is rough. Lean, muscular men, some covered in mud, eye me up and down and try to kiss my hand. The atmosphere is thick with testosterone and I'm teasingly proposed to a couple of times as I make my way through the camp. Next to one tunnel there are a few guys fast asleep with empty bottles of hard liquor beside them. At one point I smell weed.
This isn't the only galamsey operation in the area. Brumase, a village of 300 people, is about a 20-minute drive from Prestea. Set along a river with gold deposits, it's a convenient place to mine and the village has its own galamsey operation.
A local activist in Prestea takes me to Brumase. When we get there, I notice long lines of women covered in light brown mud, carrying buckets. At the front of the line, a man with a shovel scoops the mud out of the riverbank into each metal pail. The women then carry the pails to a Chinese-made machine that grinds the sand even finer, so the gold is easier to separate.
The women strap coiled pieces of fabric to their heads to better carry the 50 metal pails of mud they haul on an average day to earn about $1.40. "My husband is not working, so I choose to come here to support the family," says Asana Zacharia, who has been working at the Brumase galamsey site for two years. "My husband used to work at the Prestea underground mine."
She says every day she works from 2:30 a.m. to 10 or 11 a.m., so she can get home and take care of her household. Most galamsey operations run 24 hours a day.
Techniques for gold extraction in these operations vary. At "I Trust My Legs," the gold is inside rock chunks, which are chiseled out of the ground; the mushy black sand I saw around the tents was actually graphite ore, like in pencils, and also contains gold. In Brumase, the gold is found as teeny-tiny flakes inside the mud that coats everything there.
The next step is to separate this rough gold from other material. Typically a hose is used to pour the ground-up ore over a towel or a blanket. The gold sticks to the towel while the other material washes away. If you look closely at the towel, you can see it glittering. Then the fabric is gathered and washed in a bucket. Finally, part of a rubber tire is swirled through the remaining material until the heavier gold collects at one end, and the lighter sand is washed off.
Despite the illegality of these operations, this gold is actually bought by a government-run entity called the Precious Minerals Marketing Corporation. Concerned about lost revenue and gold smuggling if they were to shun illegal galamsey gold, the PMMC instead converts these crude nuggets to jewelry and refined gold for export.
But in order to get to the point that the PMMC can buy it, collected gold gravel and flakes must be amalgamated into a sellable form. Some people melt the gold together in a furnace, but another common method involves mixing it with mercury and then burning the mercury back off.
This isn't always a well-contained process, and galamsey are commonly criticized for polluting rivers with the heavy metal. Chief Blay Kwofie, overseer of the "I Trust My Legs" site, claims they don't release the mercury into the environment, but instead reclaim it to use later – it's an expensive substance, after all.
Despite this, a 1999 United Nations study to assess environmental damage caused by artisanal small-scale mining found high blood-mercury levels in the area.
Exposure to mercury can cause brain and kidney damage and is dangerous for babies and children. According to The Global Mercury Project, an organization devoted to preventing mercury pollution as a result of artisanal mining, 30 to 40 percent of man-made mercury pollution in the world is a result of small-scale, galamsey type mining operations.
And it's not only international agencies that worry about the dangers of galamsey operations. A local doctor, Mahamadu Mbiniwaya, criticizes the galamsey for endangering themselves and the health of the town. "Every week at least one person dies from galamsey
Galamsey advocates, like Gavin Hilson of Reading University, argue that if artisanal mining projects were legalized, they could qualify for support and funding that might help mitigate the health and safety hazards connected with these operations. But the problem remains that the Ghanaian government has already sold most minable land to large mining companies.
"There is simply no land
The Minerals Commission, the Ghana government's mining regulator, says it's tried to bring galamsey into the system by setting aside land for them and making the application process more accessible.
"The government has reserved about 66 sites countrywide for prospective small-scale miners, including miners at 'I Trust My Legs,' to avail themselves of," says Ibrahim Bawa, who is in charge of overseeing small-scale mining at the Minerals Commission. "Some of the sites are fairly very close to Prestea."
So far, these sites have failed to draw illegal miners away from galamsey operations – either they aren't aware that the legitimate sites exist, don't believe there is gold there, or don't have the patience for the permitting processes associated with legal mining. After all, for local mine laborers, playing by the rules hasn't historically paid off.
"In some African countries, close to one hundred years of mineral exploitation has not changed circumstances on the ground. Poverty has increased; the marginalization of poor communities has increased," says Wilfred Lombe of the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa.
Despite the meager wages, and physical dangers they face, Ghana's galamsey are taking advantage of an indigenous profitable resource and are earning a living where large-scale foreign investors wouldn't employ them.
Illegal or not, this kind of local entrepreneurship built on initiative, organization and self-sufficiency offers hints of how the continent might be able to buck the trend of resource exploitation. In a region where the profits of rich natural resources have rarely reached local communities, the best route may be the most direct one.
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