Gold Fever

Heidi Woodman



Ghana has a rich history in gold. Its traditions in mining and trading the precious metal are woven into the cultural, political and economic fabric of Ghanaian society. Indeed, one could say that the country was and is quite literally built on it.

Formerly called the "Gold Coast" under British colonial rule, gold has formed the backbone of the economy for the better part of a century. Today, the precious metal still makes up over 80% of mineral export earnings and contributes nearly 40% to the country's GDP. The consequence of this is that Ghana is particularly sensitive to movements in gold's price and the repercussions run far deeper than mere fluctuations in portfolios or changes in the price of a necklace.

Ghana’s relationship with gold is complex and paradoxical. On the one hand, the industry is crucial to the health of the country’s formal economy. But on the other, production of the precious metal has had devastating long-term effects on the environment. This in turn has both direct and indirect adverse socio-economic repercussions, especially since an estimated 70%-80% of the population rely on the land for their livelihoods in one form or another.

As such, Ghana’s health and success as a country and as a population is inextricably linked to its environment. So, the relentless pursuit of gold, while profitable in the short-term, is ultimately destroying the things that are most precious to Ghana. As long as the price of gold remains at the mercy of the emotional whims of the international investment community, the situation will remain unstable. Nevertheless, it is important that the Ghanian government try to implement measures that limit the damage and ensure that those who are reaping the rewards are also sharing their spoils.

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  • When financial markets went into free fall in 2008, the price of gold began a four year meteoric rise to record highs as investors flowed out of riskier assets and poured into the ‘safe haven’ of gold, a phenomenon known as ‘flight to quality’. This virtual gold rush was mirrored on the ground in Ghana as tens of thousands of Ghanaians, spurred by the lure of quick riches turned to illegal, unlicensed small scale mining known locally as galamsey, literally meaning ‘gather them and sell’.

  • A young miner emerges from a pit covered in mud. His job is to carry buckets of placer deposit (which contains the gold ore) from the sifting machine out of the pit to be washed and mixed with mercury to extract the gold.

  • On the outskirts of Kyebi dubbed ‘the headquarters of galamsey’, every direction you turn one can see another galamsey operation or evidence of it. Swarms of workers toil away under the oppressive heat and dangerous conditions. One swings his pick axe into the walls of the pit to loosen the rock and clay whilst another drives his shovel into the debris and swiftly throws it over his shoulder.

  • Across the country vast expanses of farm land and savannah vegetation have been illegally cleared, major water sources polluted and the livelihoods of communities which rely on subsistence farming left in jeopardy.

  • ‘It’s hard, dangerous work and I know that I can get hurt or sick but it pays well and there are no other jobs for someone like me’ Kojo.

  • The River Birim runs through the Akyem Abuakwa state and is the lifeblood of the Eastern Region. Mining operations which use cyanide and mercury to wash the rocks in the area have destroyed life in the river and damaged surrounding vegetation and soil.

  • The Ashantis of the Akan people of Ghana and their culture are synonymous with gold in Ghana. Before contact with Europeans they operated an advanced economy based principally on gold, which they traded with neighbouring African countries. The most striking symbol of the Ashantis spiritual connection with gold is the Golden Stool (Sika ‘dwa Kofi). It is believed to embody the spirit of all the Ashanti people, living, dead and yet to be born.

  • The city of Obuasi itself is essentially a shanty town, however living conditions on the mine site are far superior to those off site.

  • Surface mining is a less expensive method than deep rock mining, but also far more destructive to the environment.

  • The overwhelming majority of the population of Ghana rely on subsistence farming for their livelihoods and so continued destruction of the environment threatens the futures of all these people.

  • Presiding member (chairman) of the Municipal Assembly (MA) of Tarkwa-Nsuaem. One of the duties of the MA is as a liaison between large-scale mining companies and the community. ‘In my opinion it is now the galamsey that cause most destruction because they are so hard to control. The big companies must follow strict laws and these days they are enforced'.

  • Galamsey operation in Efuanta, Tarkwa. Illegal gold mining not only takes place in open pits but also on the rivers themselves. Miners stand on floating platforms and drive machines into river bed to extract the placer deposit for sifting causing immeasurable damage to vital water sources.

  • Most galamsey workers are from very poor backgrounds and have had little access to education. Although the money they receive is minimal, it is better than the average income and so a choice is made to engage in such work at the risk of their own health, the environment and thus the future of the community.

  • There is no panacea for this gold conundrum however as long as the price of gold is is decided more by financial speculators than by actual demand and for the far reaching effects on the countries where it is mined, the future of gold in Ghana remains bleak.