The practice of illegal mining is ages-old and in resource-rich Africa as constant as the harshness of the rising sun. Governments have battled with this informal sector for decades with laws that seek to place mining under a legal regime. The benefits to government would presumably be to increase tax receipts and ensure better monitoring of the impact of mining activity has on society, for example, in terms of the environment.
Every now and then there is a wave of tough-talking rhetoric by government officials and other leaders of society like company bosses. Sometimes, this is backed by state security forces that enforce the law by forcibly shutting down illegal mining operations. More often than not, the miners simply return. And the problem continues to grow.
The image often presented is one of poor Africans desperate to mine their way out of poverty using very rudimentary tools like axes and pans. This is the image portrayed in popular culture movies like “Blood Diamonds.”
But perhaps a new face is emerging as this video report shows. There is evidence of a more sophisticated approach with heavy machinery being employed on small-scale illegal mining. According to this article, illegal mining is increasingly taking on a Chinese face in Ghana. So while the image of Africans digging the ground in the hopes of instant riches is still with us, the financial muscle and technical know-how for these operations is increasingly under the auspices of Chinese nationals.
In Ghana, the illegal practice has even gained a folk name – “galamsey.” With many mineral-rich towns turning to small-scale and artisanal mining, it is no wonder that the practice has become difficult to stop. Given the recent record prices for gold and other commodities, illegal mining in Africa is set to rise. Perhaps the Chinese population in Ghana will rise along with it as the rewards that accrue far outstrip the risks. Highlighting Chinese participation in these activities chimes in well with an emerging narrative about Chinese economic interests in Africa. The profits that illegal mining brings, however, mean that the Chinese are not the only foreigners taking advantage of laxly enforced mining and immigration laws. The economic rewards encourage individuals (Ghanaians and non-Ghanaians alike) to take risks, sometimes life threatening risks – the prospects of instant riches often prove too compelling not to dismiss the broader implications.
Yet, while many refuse to pass up the economic benefits associated with such activities, there are real dangers to the environment and the personal safety of many of the miners.
Take personal safety. In Ghana for instance, reports of personal injury and even death have become more frequent as galamsey has spread to many far-flung rural communities. As a result of the (il) legal status few have sympathies for galamsey operators. Illegal mining operations are easy to condemn when details of fatal incidents like those which occur in small towns across Ghana come to light.
These incidents in Ghana will not be the last pf their kind when it comes to personal safety. As illegal mining goes hand in hand with a blatant disregard for standard safety practices, such personal tragedies should come as no surprise.
Another worrying fact is that there is rarely any commitment to preserving the environment. Big multinational mining companies often have their names to protect and face opposition from non-governmental organizations and the media whenever they encounter environmental challenges. The ‘invisible’ nature of illegal mining, however, means that there is little challenge to the miners on the environmental level.
This results in indiscriminate pollution of water bodies like rivers and streams which in turns harms marine life. The presence of fresh clean water is central to the activities that inhabitants engage in. For instance, some rely on marine life for food and on water bodies for acquatic farming.
Many rural communities also use water from rivers for everyday activities like cooking, cleaning and washing. Pollution caused by mining – or any other activity for that matter – means their quality of life is adversely affected. What’s more, the use of chemicals like cyanide also means that even after the mining activity stops, it is difficult for members of the community to farm the land.
Singling out illegal mining as solely responsible for the negative effects on the environment would be wrong. Yet, the failure to regularize them means that they can harm the environment without any fear of being punished.