Ghana’s Destructive Gold

In a context where the majority of the population in Ghana outside the major cities rely on subsistence farming for their livelihoods, gold mining is often seen as a much needed personal short-term gain despite the long term consequences it has on the environment, the community at large and future generations.

© Heidi Woodman, from the series, Gold Fever

“You are not thinking about climate change when you not sure how you are going to feed your family”, Australian photojournalist Heidi Woodman says. In early 2014, she travelled to Ghana to investigate the impact of the gold mining industry in a country where the gold trade has formed the backbone of the country’s economy for centuries. “The traditions in mining and trading are woven into the cultural, political, and economic fabric of Ghanaian society. The country was, and is, quite literally built on it”, she writes in a book which compiles her research.

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, investors turned to gold, driving the price to record levels. “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”, she writes. Ghana was flooded with opportunists looking to cash in, including an influx of illegal foreign miners, mostly Chinese, who came with expensive machinery with which they descended on communities, recruited local men for cheap labour, dug up the landscape and then left it ruins. 

© Heidi Woodman, from the series, Gold Fever

Her images of massive open pits and large dormant pounds show how vast the degradation is, while her portraits of muscular workers covered with mud emphasize the hardship they endure. 

“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. Unlike with traditional artisanal mining methods the machines cause much greater damage in a smaller amount of time so it is possible for fertile, healthy land and water systems to be decimated overnight. Further than this, due to the use of dangerous chemicals in the washing process, when crops are replanted they are done so in contaminated soil, which can have severe health repercussions”, she explains. Making matters worse, the water pumped into pits to loosen the soil is often left and becomes stagnant, providing the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos and increasing the risk of malaria for surrounding communities.

© Heidi Woodman, from the series, Gold Fever

These gold mining practices have devastating long-term effects on the environment, such as deforestation, water pollution and the reduction in animal populations. “And this is really intensifying with climate change”, she says. “Ghana is particularly susceptible to climate change as it sits on an intersection of three climatic zones. Resulting in increased exposure to extreme weather systems which in and of themselves have worrying implications such as flooding and soil erosion, particularly in coastal regions."

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Heidi Woodman is a documentary photographer and visual storyteller focused primarily on humanitarian issues. To learn more about Woodman’s work, visit her PHmuseum profile.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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