New Internationalist

Mourning The Future

Issue 299

Mourning
the future
Daniel Mensah Brande describes how a
gold mine has left Ghanaians homeless.

Something unusual happened to Ghana’s highly respected institution of chieftaincy recently. Clad in mourning cloth and wearing red bands to show their uncompromising mood, 42 placard-bearing chiefs demonstrated at the old mining town of Tarkwa. They brought commercial activities to a halt as they took over the streets and kept onlookers wondering what had reduced the traditional rulers to shouting and waving banners. For the chiefs to throw overboard the usual rules of discourse and carry out a demonstration, something dire must be at stake.

It is. The present and future of the chiefs and their communities are being jeopardized by the dozen mining companies carrying out surface mining and the many more prospecting for gold in Ghana’s western region. If your home is your future, then the people of Wassa Fiase are homeless. Their future has been poisoned, raped and stripped naked by mining activities. Everywhere in this vast stretch of land, so richly endowed with minerals and green vegetation, there is poverty. You see it on the frustrated faces of landless people and feel it in the tired and faded environment.

‘We have been dispossessed of everything here, even our own life,’ bemoaned a young man in his thirties. ‘All our lands have been snatched for mining; our health is also at the mercy of the mining activities.’

Seven years ago the people of Teberebie, within Wassa Fiase, were lords of their land. They had lived there since the time of their great-grandparents. Then in 1990 the American-Ghanaian gold-mining company, Teberebie Goldfields Limited (TGL) obtained a mining concession. The entire community was uprooted and transplanted. It was the first resettlement exercise carried out in the Wassa area, courtesy of surface mining. Today the people of Teberebie are tenants. They have nothing to call their own. The new settlement is like a tiny island in a vast ocean of mining concessions. Nicholas, a farmer in his sixties, protested: ‘When you go to farm anywhere, they say they are mining there and bring a bulldozer to destroy your farm. They say they have bought the land.’ Another out-of-work farmer added: ‘All the farmers in this area have hung up their scythes.’

The residents are reduced to beggars. ‘If you want to put any structure here, you have to ask permission from the mining company. Why do we have to ask permission from a foreign company before we build on our land?’ queried a frustrated youth.

The young people of Teberebie say their future is barren. Their lands have been taken away by a dubious paper document that has no human face. The agreement spelling out the terms of the resettlement was formed after negotiations between the Wassa-West District Assembly and TGL. The mining company was to provide 168 housing units, a school complex, a community centre, electricity, a medical clinic, potable water, access roads, a market, bath- houses and toilets.

The agreement was signed by the Teberebie chief on behalf of his people. An examination of the documents indicates he could neither read nor write – he thumb-printed his signature. Did he know what he was doing and the implications it would have for his people? Was the gold-mining company dealing fairly with the people of Teberebie?

The document certainly ignored vital issues concerning their development. For example, it failed to make provisions for the expansion of the community or erection of new buildings for the rapidly increasing population. The agreement stipulated that the 168 housing units would be ready within 12 months, but nearly seven years after the agreement was signed the company has not reached that target. The housing units have no kitchens or bathrooms. Instead TGL constructed communal kitchens and bathhouses where residents wait in single-file for their turn to cook or wash. The concept of privacy has been thrown into the dustbin – even the chief’s wife joins the long queue at the kitchen, waiting to prepare meals for her husband. When she has cooked the food, she will return to the ‘palace’ built by TGL for the chief. It has three bedrooms but no hall, no kitchen, no toilet and no bathroom.

Large cracks have developed in almost all the houses due to the frequent blasting of dynamite. The people fear a storm will cause their small, cracked, oven-like houses to collapse. In addition, TGL has not provided a medical centre. They have built a well-equipped clinic nearby to serve workers of the mining company, but locals must travel eight kilometres to Tarkwa for medical services.

Teberebie still lacks other items laid down in the agreement, such as electricity, a market, access roads and a community centre. The company has constructed two bore holes for the 2,000 residents of Teberebie, but only one is functioning. With clean water in short supply, many have resorted to fetching water from streams although these are said to be heavily polluted with deadly chemicals used in the mining process, such as arsenic and cyanide. Many inhabitants complain of skin rashes, which they attribute to the contaminated water they drink. Though no tests have been conducted to confirm this, the rashes were not prevalent in the area before surface mining began.

The Teberebie community is usually engulfed in dust from the mine, except when it rains. Then the people worry about flooding – the area has no drainage system and the slightest downpour converts it into a lake.

The locals protest they have the worst of all worlds. TGL refuses to employ them, recruiting migrant labourers instead. ‘We have able-bodied men and women here capable of weeding, carrying sand and doing other menial jobs associated with mining,’ fumed an old man. An elder of the town summed up the injustice: ‘If you have driven us from our land and prevented us from farming, then find us work to do! Why do you offend us by refusing to employ our youth?’

The company apparently feels the financial benefits they have given the people are compensation enough. During the past seven years the people of Teberebie have received an equivalent of $4,000 in royalties. In other words, each of the 2,000 current residents has received the princely sum of two dollars.

Word is spreading of similar land-rights struggles in other parts of the world where mining is found. Thousands of indigenous communities are under threat – an estimated one in five gold-exploration licences is on indigenous land.

Locals see the Wassa Fiase area as becoming Ghana’s equivalent of Nigeria’s Ogoniland, where the Shell Oil Company operates profitably while the local people are neglected in a foul environment. Despite international campaigns by the Ogoni people such as the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, Shell denies responsibility for the plight of Ogoniland. The company complains that it is the victim of the Nigerian Government’s failure to distribute profits equitably from the oil industry to the people and that it is being asked to do the government’s work. Are gold mining companies in the Wassa Fiase area being asked to do the work of the Government of Ghana? Or have the companies taken advantage of local lack of expertise and sophistication in negotiating resettlement contracts?

Aggrieved people complain that the Government of Ghana has not been sensitive to their plight or responsive to their appeals. They do not understand why crooked mining laws should turn them into slaves on the land of their birth. They blame the Government as well as foreign mining companies for reducing them to an endangered species.

The youth feel their anger building and are preparing to vent their frustration on the corporation. The chief of Teberebie, Nana Kwabena be Kojoshie II, endorses the call from young people for action: ‘My people have been stretched too far and for too long. Just as a stretched elastic reaches its limit, we have reached our limit. We have to act now.’

Daniel Mensah Brande is a journalist and broadcaster who lives and works in Accra, Ghana.

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