The first time I met James Sarpong was in May 2007 when I visited Teberebie, a small town in Ghana that had been relocated to make way for the Iduapriem Gold Mine. We went to his farm, some distance outside town, walking through the forest and small plots of vegetables and pineapples to his three small mud-and-thatch dwellings. His compound was bordered by oil palms, but just beyond a thin perimeter of the spiky trees were huge piles of gray rocks, dug up from the mine pit and transported to Sarpong’s farm. He was surrounded on three sides. Years ago, his farm included eight acres with 284 oil palms; now he had only a handful of trees and less than an acre not already covered in rocks.
Sarpong had moved here in 1984. He and his wife had raised six children on this farm. “It used to be lively here,” he said. “We lived as a family, and we had everything: goats, sheep, fowl—everything.”
They had used water from a stream running next to their home, now diverted by the waste rocks. Sarpong had sent his family away to live with relatives since they no longer had drinkable water. The AngloGold Ashanti mining company had offered Sarpong money for his farmland and trees in 2004, but he’d decided it was not enough and refused to move. He and about 35 others had formed an organization called Concerned Farmers’ Association of Teberebie to fight the terms of the compensation agreement, and they brought their case to Ghana’s courts. Although all the other members of the Concerned Farmers’ Association had moved off their farms, Sarpong had remained on his, awaiting the legal judgment.
Last summer: Eviction
As the case dragged through the courts, this past summer there was a legal decision that shocked Sarpong: a judge granted an eviction order, and AngloGold moved in and demolished what was left of the Sarpong homestead before his lawyer could file an appeal. According to a press release from Oxfam America’s partner WACAM, an environmental and human rights organization in Ghana, his dwellings were destroyed and all his property was seized, a violation of Ghana’s Minerals and Mining Act.
Sarpong is now living in WACAM’s office in Tarkwa, a 20-minute drive from Teberebie. He is 65 and has no home or means to make a living. WACAM’s executive director Daniel Owusu-Koranteng, says the court order to demolish Sarpong’s farm “shows how corporate power could erode our democratic structures and render our judicial system liable to corporate influence.”
The wait for justice
The legal system in Ghana is slow—as in many countries—but it does not help the Concerned Farmers’ Association that the date slated for a judgment in their case came and went in August with no decision. The judge, it seems, happened to retire just before the ruling was due. A new judge has been assigned to the case.
When I got Sarpong on the phone in Ghana in August, he was happy to say hello but honored his lawyer’s advice not to discuss the case. Paul Ahornuy, who works for WACAM in Tarkwa, says the demolition of Sarpong’s houses created a furor in Ghana. Ahourny says it will take more time before the case in Teberebie can be resolved, but that “this is a human rights issue, and we need to support them in their struggle.”