Mohammed Pelpuo used to farm coco yams, cassava, plantains, and a few oil palms on his farm in Ghana. "Peppers were my cash crop," he says.
In 1996 he and about 25,000 others from several villages were informed they were being evicted from their farms in Ghana's western rain forests to make room for a gold mine run by Gold Fields Ghana, Ltd. "I was not happy," Pelpuo said. "But at the end of the day I had to accept it because the government gave the land to the company. They are not treating us fairly, giving the land to the company without informing the community members."
Since the government of Ghana retains the rights to the minerals under his land, there was not much a farmer like Pelpuo could do—or so he thought. He, along with others from several villages being moved to a new town called New Atuabo, attended a training program led by Oxfam America's partner WACAM, where they learned about their basic rights to own property. They realized that they had a right to negotiate compensation for their lost homes and lands. "Initially we had no knowledge, and we had to learn that what the company was doing was not right," Pelpuo said.
Gold Fields and government representatives did negotiate with community representatives, but the talks became difficult. One community representative was intimidated and eventually arrested for allegedly insulting representatives of the military and local chiefs supporting the mine's offer, according to Daniel Owusu-Koranteng, Executive Director of WACAM. After convincing him to publicly apologize to the chief, the company and its allies then got 95 percent of the relocated families to go along with the deal.
However, Pulpuo and about 125 others refused to accept the compensation offer, and took action themselves late in 1996. With the help of WACAM and the legal aid organization CEPIL, they began negotiating with Gold Fields, a company with mining operations in four countries that last year made a $69 million net profit with over 700,000 ounces of gold from their Ghana mine alone.
At the heart of the disagreement between the company and the group of farmers, which became known as the Lawyer's Group, was the so called "value for value" calculation used by the company to determine what size concrete house would replace existing homes, many made of mud with thatch roofs. "I had 12 rooms," said Agnes Ackon, 68, a mother of five and grandmother of 12. "They were going to replace them with six."
Learning to negotiate
"We learned the language of the court, and got paralegal training to understand our rights," Pelpuo said. "When we met with the company we did not entertain any fears, because we knew our rights. And out of this, the company could see what we were saying at first, and we started to get some of the things we need."
While they were negotiating, many of the Lawyer's Group members stayed in their existing homes as the mining activity moved in around them. One group of homes lost all their clean water as mine activity affected nearby streams, and all suffered from loss of income as their fields were converted to mining pits and waste rock dumps. Many were forced to pull their children out of school because they could no longer afford the fees.
The Lawyer's Group and Gold Fields struggled to come to agreement until Agnes Ackon came up with the solution in 2001: "I suggested that the hospital was now too far away since we moved, and we needed a clinic here now," she said. So in exchange for accepting a new house with fewer rooms and some cash, the Lawyer's Group secured a health clinic for New Atuabo.
"We had to sacrifice for it," Pelpuo said. It was particularly generous of the Lawyer's Group members as they had suffered already at the hands of the company and their neighbors, who had treated them as foolish renegades for disputing their compensation. Yet the Lawyer's Group thanked them by negotiating a public benefit the whole town could enjoy. They even got a commitment from the regional health authority to staff and supply the clinic after construction was completed.
Like many real-life stories, there is not yet a happy ending in New Atuabo. Although the town's neat concrete houses with metal roofs are now arranged on straight streets, they mask the problems of unemployment among the displaced farmers, many of whom are illiterate and unable to secure jobs at the mine.
The new housing comes with new costs, as well. As Pelpuo puts it, "Where we used to live we did not have to pay for water, but after resettlement all this cost is now on the community members. We have to pay for water, sanitation, and we have no jobs."
The members of the Lawyer's Group also suffered an insult when the new health clinic was officially commissioned in 2002. At a public ceremony, the health ministry and mine company took full credit for its construction, and failed to recognize that the money used to build it came out of the compensation fund negotiated from the relocated farmers in the Lawyer's Group.
Despite this indignity, the farmers did learn about and stand up for their rights—a real achievement. "There was lots of intimidation" said Owusu-Koranteng of WACAM. "But they persisted, and it led to a better settlement for the entire community."