Ghana is one of the countries on the African content that produces a high quantity of gold. Just recently, the West African country overtook South Africa to claim the top spot for Africa’s number one gold producer.
In 2018, Ghana’s gold output surged 12% to reach 4.8 million ounces, surpassing South Africa whose gold output declined to 4.2 million ounces over the same period.
Even though Ghana plays host to some of the world’s biggest gold miners, small-scale miners account for almost a third of total gold production in the country, causing a largely unregulated informal sector and creating a thriving environment for environmental hazards.
In Ghana, illegal small-scale gold miners known as galamsey – derived from the phrase “gather them and sell” – operate independently of licensed mining companies. Galamseyers or orpailleurs (French version of the word) use crude and unhealthy methods to dig tunnels and sluices in search of gold in raw metallic dust, from which they process oxide or sulphide gold ore using liquid mercury.
Galamseyers, mainly comprising women who act as porters for the miners, expose themselves and their host communities to environmental hazards and mercury poisoning due to their unhealthy processing techniques. Illegal mining and mercury-based mining techniques pollute rivers with silt and degrade farmlands, thus causing environmental and health hazards across several communities in Ghana.
Galamsey practices leave massive pits and man-made valleys where trees once stood. It may take up to 30 years for degraded land to be able to replenish to sustain farming. Experts believe Ghana’s booming cocoa industry, which makes it the country that supplies the second largest quantity of cocoa in the world, is under threat of land degradation as a result of indiscriminate illegal mining activities.
The problem of illegal gold mining drew nationwide attention in 2017 when local media and civil society groups began a campaign to put an end to it.
In July 2017, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo vowed to stop galamsey even if it means risking his political goodwill, reiterating his government’s commitment to protecting the environment.
The President established an inter-ministerial committee on illegal mining in 2017 to regulate the informal mining sector in the country.
The committee rolled out a five-year regulatory road-map for the mining sector and mandated all existing mining companies and newcomers to obtain fresh licences following approval by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Using data and satellite images
Ghanaian authorities combine traditional data from population census, aerial technologies such as drones and satellite images to combat illegal mining. The authorities analyse satellite images of concession maps and vegetation areas in high-threat zones to spot galamsey activities.
The use of data and satellite images in monitoring and cracking down illegal mining is one of the reasons why the sector is witnessing a high growth rate.
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Analyst at Space in Africa. His experience spans industry research and market analysis with a focus on African-grown NewSpace companies, commercial space industry, national space programmes and real-life application of space science for sustainable development in Africa.