Farmer John Osei Kamkam paces the hallway of Ghana's Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice, waiting his turn to file a complaint.
He is one of an estimated 10,000 small-scale farmers who say their land was destroyed after Newmont, one of the world's leading gold mining companies – headquartered in the United States – cleared 3,000 hectares of land to begin digging for gold in 2006.
Operating a surface gold mine involves clearing a large tract of land – often hundreds of square kilometres in size. Civil society and human rights groups in Ghana say that Newmont’s mining operations have stripped local communities of land and water resources.
Kamkam tried unsuccessfully to get a job on the new mine. Newmont gave him US$50 for his pains.
"I tried to go into trade with the compensation I was given two years ago, but it failed,” he told IRIN. “I have no work to do. My children are now out of school; my wife's market trade can no longer take care of us. I have nowhere else to go for help.”
Newmont representatives would not comment on the matter.
Agriculture versus gold
Kamkam is from Ghana's Brong Ahafo region, which produces 30 percent of the country’s food.
Agriculture constitutes 40 percent of Ghana’s annual income as measured by global domestic product, and employs 60 percent of its workforce, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Gold wealth in Ghana – Africa’s second largest producer – amounts to as much as 40 percent of the country’s foreign exchange reserves, but only to five percent of GDP, according to World Bank figures.
According to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, approximately 30 percent of Ghana’s land is currently under concession to gold mining firms, and each year more arable farming land is diverted to this use.
Richard Quayson of the human rights commission (CHRAJ) said Ghana’s mining law fails to protect local communities. "The law was passed mainly to attract investors into the mining sector."
Representatives of the Ghana Chamber of Mines, an association for mining firms in Ghana, said it is the government’s responsibility to help affected farmers buy new land.
The perception that mining firms destroy communities’ livelihoods is false, according to Ahmed Nantogmah, the chamber’s public affairs director and an industry spokesperson. "The reality is, [in a] developing country, poverty is pervasive in many communities including those with minerals, so it is not the presence of mining companies that causes pervasive poverty,” he said.
Nantogmah referred to social responsibility initiatives that he said have transformed some communities, including the funding of health centres, schools and livelihood promotion projects in and around mining concessions.
A 2008 report, The State of Human Rights in Mining Communities in Ghana, by the CHRAJ confirms this.
Human rights abuses
Photo: John Appiah/IRIN
|Looking for gold|
But farmer Kamkam's grievances go deeper. He is also seeking justice for his 15 -year-old son who he claims was brutally assaulted by a group of soldiers and police employed by Newmont to block trespassers.
He showed IRIN a doctor's report indicating head and body injuries his son sustained. The boy is currently being treated in a district clinic.
Kamkam said armed officers arrested his son and a few other young men, allegedly for illegally mining on Newmont's site.
Newmont officials would not comment on the allegation. Nantogmah of the Chamber of Mines told IRIN: “These allegations are always made against these firms, most of it untrue. But the mining firms, I believe, reserve the right to defend themselves against these dangerous illegal miners.”
The CHRAJ report alleges that mining companies often employ guard dogs to terrorise communities. CHRAJ cites “widespread violent abuses of human rights by mining company officials and their security contractors."
CHRAJ said many locals who practice artisanal mining expose themselves to danger simply to survive. Some people have annexed land allocated to mining firms to dig for their own gold, according to the report.
Artisanal miners’ makeshift tunnels often collapse and deaths have been recorded, CHRAJ says in the report. CHRAJ claims that in one instance mine security personnel set fire to car tyres and placed them at the entrance to tunnels dug by artisanal miners during one of their operations.
CHRAJ’s Quayson called for artisanal mining to be regularised.
Kamkam said he knew his son's job was dangerous but he had to allow him to do it "to feed the family."
The Chamber of Mines released a statement in response to CHRAJ’s report, saying it failed to address “the brutal armed attacks the illegal miners mete out to defenseless employers of mining companies."
The chamber’s Nantogmah says the report presents “an unbalanced view”.
Weak mining law
For Quayson, one way to address local communities’ grievances is to review the country’s mining law.
Under the current mining and minerals law, passed in 1986, the state owns all the country’s mineral wealth and the Ministry of Mines and Energy can grant mining rights to companies, giving communities no say in the process.
Mining firms are required to pay 3 to 12 percent of the gold’s gross value in royalties to communities affected by a firm's operations. But, according to Quayson, these royalty payments are negotiable as are local projects undertaken by the company.
The law protects mining firms with a gamut of fiscal incentives such as exemptions of import duties for mining equipment, rights groups say.
In 2006 a new law – Act 703 – further strengthened the position of mine firms against communities and retains companies’ right not to disclose how, where and when concessions are granted, according to Quayson.
This sparked anger among civil society groups, among them Ghanaian NGO Integrated Social Development Centre (ISODEC), whose media coordinator Steve Manteaw told IRIN: “Most communities are short-changed because there is no effective means of monitoring the firms' actual revenues so the calculations don't reflect the real value of production.”
CHRAJ’s Quayson said reform will not be easy. "Gold is at the heart of Ghana's economy, it is a very delicate sector to touch."
The new administration, which took power on 7 January, has not officially put mine law revision on their agenda and NGOs say they are waiting for the new government to be fully in place before lobbying for change.
But ISODEC’s Manteaw said there has been progress in transparency. Mining firms are engaged in Ghana's extractive industries transparency initiative, meaning they must allow for greater public scrutiny of their revenue.
Because of this, fiscal transparency is improving throughout the industry, according to Manteaw.
As the debate continues, civil society groups are now turning to communities living near Ghana’s recently-discovered oil reserves to help them shape their economic future.