Kwaku Asare grabbed his machete and trekked through the bush to his cocoa farm—through winding pathways and hills, past ominous pits of muddy water, and underneath the low-hanging canopy of dried cocoa leaves. But the trees were bare. A few rotting cocoa pods littered the ground, while other stunted pods refused to ripen on the branches.
“When the Chinese came, they told me that my plants were not yielding anymore because there was so much gold under the soil,” Asare said. After a few years of low production, he sold his 14 acres to a group of small-scale gold miners, also called galamsey miners, with a Chinese sponsor. The money is gone now and Asare’s land is poisoned.
Kwaku Asare’s story is not uncommon in Denkyira Asikuma, a small farming village nestled amongst cocoa plantations outside of Dunkwa in Ghana’s Central region. At least 30 cocoa farmers in the village have sold their land to miners who quickly excavated, pumped in water and chemicals, and abandoned their pits when the work was done or when soldiers chased them away.
Gold mining has always been a part of Ghana, from the ornate jewelry of the Ashanti kings to British colonization. In the last several years, however, largely unregulated galamsey mining has ramped up—due in part to Chinese investors who bring sophisticated equipment and a lagging economy that makes the prospect of striking gold too sweet to pass. These often illegal operations can result in contaminated water, deforestation, and a rise in violent crime. (Learn more about the real price of gold.)
Illegal gold mining in Ghana further exacerbates a volatile cocoa market. In 2014, experts predicted a global cocoa shortage by 2020. However, cocoa production statistics have been unpredictable since then, according to the most recent data from the 2015-16 growing season. That year, there was a cocoa surplus, attributed to a prolonged rainy season. Recently, the price of the bean has plummeted to historic lows on global commodity exchanges—negatively impacting the profits of West African cocoa farmers.
In 2011, Ghana produced a record-setting amount of cocoa, weighing in at over one million tonnes. Since then, as illegal mining steadily ramped up, cocoa production has trended downwards, with a drop to 740,000 tonnes in 2015.
“Galamsey is the biggest threat to cocoa production,” Pomasi Ismael, the chairman of a cocoa buyers collective, told local media recently.
Several other factors have been blamed for the volatile nature of the cocoa market, most notably climate change, which can usher in an extremely dry season one year and excessive rain the next. Deforestation from illegal gold mining may speed up such effects.
Gold and cocoa are both integral parts of Ghana’s economy and national identity, yet the two resources’ coexistence has contradictions. Cocoa was first planted in Ghana in the 1870s, and the former Gold Coast colony became the largest exporter of the chocolate-making beans for the next century, until neighboring Ivory Coast surpassed them. Two decades after the arrival of cocoa, the legal Obuasi gold mine was founded. Closely regulated, the big industrial operation transformed a small Ashanti village into a cosmopolitan city with tennis courts and golf clubs. For decades, miners toiled underground in the sprawling complex. Today, the mine is no longer producing gold and galamsey miners have quickly filled the void, wiping away cocoa farms in their path.
Ghana’s government has struggled to balance the economic boon of small-scale mining with environmental and safety protections. The Small-Scale Gold Mining Act of 1989 implemented a system for obtaining small-scale mining licenses. These initial galamsey workers were groups of nine or less artisanal miners working by hand to dig, pan, and wash gold. In 2006, an updated law stipulated that only Ghanaian citizens could receive mining licenses and required permits from the country’s Environmental Protection Agency and Forestry Commission. Although some small-scale mining operations therefore do have legal permits, many of them don’t, and many partake in illegal activities such as employing foreigners or crews of hundreds, using mercury, or using heavy machinery. To many in the country, the term galamsey has thus now become synonymous with criminality.
The Conflict’s Ground Zero
The single-lane highway from Obuasi to Dunkwa is lined on both sides with a string of excavating machines and gold-washing outposts. Immediately after passing the town’s tollbooth, signs advertising gold dealers and mining equipment—in both English and Chinese—crowd the streets, vastly outnumbering the fading billboards for cocoa fertilizer.
Dunkwa sits on the Offin River, a tributary of the Pra River, which is one of the largest river systems in Ghana. In the last few years, these water bodies have turned an alarming yellow color, due to chemical wastewater from illegal gold mining, unrecognizable from their former resilient blue.
The area covered by the Pra River Basin—including parts of Ghana’s Central, Western, and Ashanti regions—is the country’s cocoa heartland. It also holds the highest concentration of gold deposits. Ghana is the world’s second largest cocoa exporter, contributing 20 percent of the world’s supply. More than 70 percent of cocoa beans come from West Africa.
It’s unlikely that Kwaku Asare’s cocoa farm was spoiled due to the gold underneath its soil, as the miners claimed. It’s much more likely that his cocoa crops were negatively affected by the increase of galamsey activities in the area, which can poison waterways with heavy metals and chemicals like lead, mercury, and cyanide, as well as unpredictable rainy and dry seasons attributed to climate change.
The Mercury Connection
Over 5,000 people work at the Adumanu galamsey site, most of them without legal permits, according to Joseph Owusu Sekyere, who owns several pits. Just a few miles outside of Obuasi, the yellow holes filled with brackish water are ubiquitous.
Massive amounts of stones are crushed into sand and washed at these sites, which take water from nearby river systems and deposit wastewater back into them.
“We use mercury to get the gold,” Sekyere said. “I’ve heard of people using cyanide and other chemicals to process stones, too.”
In 2014, Ghana was one of 18 countries to sign the Minamata Convention on Mercury at the UN General Assembly, with the intention of minimizing mercury exposure to the population. However, mercury use in galamsey mining continues. The Minerals Commission of Ghana focuses on maintaining the environmental standards of larger companies, while small-scale operations often fall through the cracks. Last year, the government declared a “war on galamsey”—arresting a few miners and making showy displays of destroying some equipment—but many operations continue.
Mercury exposure is especially harmful to children and teenagers, who often work at galamsey sites and handle the liquid metal with their bare hands. Mercury poisoning also affects people who live near galamsey sites through drinking water and fish consumption. Neurological disorders are associated with mercury poisoning, and it is particularly harmful to pregnant women. Additionally, it can wipe out entire plant populations and stunt crop growth, including cocoa.
Years ago, urban residents traveled to the villages surrounding Obuasi and Dunkwa for fresh fish and bountiful produce. Nowadays, people in Obuasi say many villagers are forced to come to town to buy food because they can’t sustain their farms.
Further into the galamsey site at Adumanu, past a makeshift market and through a forest, the landscape is pockmarked with holes. They are less than three feet wide but stretch up to 2,000 feet into the belly of the Earth. The dangers of mercury poisoning are often not the most immediate concerns here.
“The first day I went underground I thought that I wouldn’t come out again. I cried the whole time,” said Boakye Andrews, a galamsey miner. “Look at it this way: 10 or 15 MTN poles [cellphone towers] stuck on top of each other. That’s how deep we go.”
Five hundred or more workers descend into the Adumanu pits daily. They chisel stones and bring up heavy sacks through an assembly line. Some workers stay underground for a few days, others for over a month, bringing along water, rice, and cooking oil. Frequently, galamsey workers die underground due to flooding or unsafe use of dynamite.
“Anytime somebody dies [underground], the person will blast into pieces,” Andrews said. “If you are about 20 and five die on the spot, you still keep on working because the gold has to come up to the surface. So you ignore the accident and keep working. He’s dead. You can’t do anything about it.”
Although news reports of galamsey accidents, often with fatalities in the teens, were frequent throughout last year, the true death toll remains unknown. In 2010, one mining accident near Dunkwa killed an estimated 150 miners. Most deaths are not officially recorded because family members are ashamed or worried about prosecution.
Andrews started working in galamsey when he was 19, almost a decade ago, but was raised with mining long before that. His father worked at the big Obuasi mine, then called AngloGold Ashanti, in its heyday. He passed away when Andrews was eight years old.
“I grew up in Obuasi,” he said. “When I was young, every time I saw them doing this galamsey work I said ah...what’s wrong with them? When it came to my turn, I realized that it wasn’t their fault, because they were not getting help from anywhere.”
The Obuasi mine, which has changed ownership several times since its founding in 1897, has always been the lifeblood of the city. Until the late 2000s, Obuasi was one of the most affluent towns in Ghana, boasting a sports club with swimming pool, tennis courts, and cricket pitch, as well as a first-class hospital and school—all funded privately by the mine. The town was cosmopolitan and diverse. The children of European mine workers attended the same schools as Ghanaians.
Young people like Andrews had always assumed they would work for the company in some capacity, just as their parents did. However, in 2014, AngloGold Ashanti suspended gold production in Obuasi due to financial constraints, laying off more than 90 percent of its workforce and spending $210 million on severance packages. The entire economy of the city fell into decline. Signaling a possible upturn, this winter, AngloGold Ashanti announced that they would resume gold production at the Obuasi mine in 2019. But there is a steep climb to rebuild Obuasi's former economic glory.
In the time since the mine's decline, some former miners turned their skills to galamsey work, even if they couldn’t secure legal permits. One example is Owusu Sekyere, the pit owner at Adumanu, who had worked for AngloGold for over 20 years.
In January 2016, illegal miners stormed the AngloGold Ashanti Obuasi mine, capturing control of the intricate tunnel network that snakes under the city, a mile below the surface. On the second day of the incursion, an AngloGold senior manager was killed. The Army was eventually called in, which clashed with the miners for weeks. By the end of the occupation, at least 175 galamsey miners had died.
“It’s common knowledge in the country… we all know that the illegal mining activity has been on the increase,” said Eric Asubonteng, the managing director of AngloGold Ashanti Obuasi mine.
While AngloGold Ashanti’s mining activities were under strict regulations from Ghana’s EPA and Minerals Commission, illegal miners often go unregulated, he said.
“Our impact on the environment is not something we should be putting in the same box or bracket as the illegal miners,” Asubonteng said. He added that even water discharged from the underground mine has to get treated. “But we don’t have any way or any approach to regulate the illegal miners. Then all our efforts come to nil.”
In the course of their occupation, illegal miners damaged water treatment and electrical infrastructure in AngloGold’s Obuasi mine, setting them back at least a year in feasibility studies and much further in terms of investor confidence, according to Asubonteng. This was critical at a time when the mine was looking for new investors to resume full operations—which could help revive the economy in Obuasi.
A month after the invasion, AngloGold Ashanti surrendered 60 percent of its land concession to the government of Ghana. Some of that land, already identified to be rich in gold, was officially leased to galamsey miners in an effort to regulate their operations. It remains unclear how environmental regulations are being followed on these newly legal sites, although anecdotal evidence suggests bribes may be favored over inspections.
Meanwhile, members of COCOBOD, Ghana’s government-owned singular cocoa exporter, and cocoa farmer unions have publicly criticized galamsey as the single biggest threat to cocoa farming in the country. They point out that cocoa exports have long been closely tied to the country’s economic status, so much so that cocoa beans are emblazoned on its currency.
“What’s happening in terms of illegal mining in Ghana—let’s think beyond Obuasi—is something that if we are not careful will get to a point that we will lose it totally,” Asubonteng said. “The damage caused by illegal miners in terms of environment, in terms of child labor, in terms of the impact on health of communities, the impact of law and order is significant.
“It has already impacted us, it’s not something we’ll have to wait till ten years before we see the impact.”
Ghana’s galamsey crisis has yet to affect global chocolate prices in a noticeable way, but the future implications may be seen in the current reality of Kwaku Asare’s cocoa farm. His 14 acres of once-vibrant cocoa trees, and that of at least 30 farmers in his village and exponentially more farmers in the region, have been replaced with scars on the Earth.