Accra — Illegal mining is posing severe challenges to mining communities in Ghana. The unlawful practice is gradually shifting to restricted forest areas with dire consequences to the environment.
Illegal mining is a major source of income for people living in mining areas. They work by digging pits close to the mining enclaves of big companies. But now, a new trend is evolving and people are beginning to exploit land for mineral wealth in protected forest areas.
Cudjoe Awudi, a corporate planning manager at Ghana's Forestry Commission, says those who engage in such acts are flouting the laws of the country.
"People sneak into the reserves at night. Sometimes we can't identify them. We have challenges of personnel and logistics," said Awudi.
There are more than 270 such forest reserves in Ghana. They serve as sources of lumber as well as protection for some river bodies. However, inappropriate practices by the illegal miners are causing the loss of timber resources. Awudi said land degradation and cyanide spillage was also polluting affected soil and water bodies.
"It affects those downstream of the river. For example, Densu river in the Atiwa forest reserve. It supplies water to about 65 percent of Accra's population. So if we don't take care, then Accra may not get water. So we are trying to flush out the illegal miners, otherwise, cost of treatment of water will go up," he said.
Other affected areas include Manzam and Tano Offin forest reserves in the western region of Ghana. Awudi said although gold prices have fallen on the world market, it still attracted local and foreign interests.
"Majority are Ghanaians but the Chinese have joined them to give them better technology. Then there are people from Mali and Burkina Faso. There is a case in northern Ghana where people from Ivory Coast and Mali entered a reserve called Bui National Park where the dam is. We just flushed them out," he said.
The government of Ghana is working with community groups and law enforcement agencies to deal with the problem. However, a community based human rights group, WACAM, said more drastic measures should be adopted in dealing with the challenge. It said a mining law that allows two percent concessionary rights in restricted forests to multinational companies must be reviewed.
"The Ajenua Bepo forest reserve has been given as concession to Newmont. The Kubi forest reserve has been given to Anglogold to mine. Protected forest is not a product that you can pick and choose from; its whole. So once you start destroying elements, no matter how small, you destroy the integrity of the forest," said Hannah Owusu-Koranteng, a director at WACAM.
Owusu-Koranteng said new provisions must prevent companies from externalizing their social, cultural and environmental costs to society. Penalties for violating the law must also be tightened to help prevent cyanide spillage.