Cocoa farmers threatened by gold mine

By Chris Hufstader
Gladys Amankwaa: "We just want to be at peace with our farms and our children.

Down a narrow path, past a stand of teak trees, and deep inside a dense cocoa plantation lays a large pile of recently harvested cocoa pods. The bright yellow and orange spheres belong to Gladys Amankwaa, who is showing them to visitors and explaining that she should get about 10 bags (65 kilos, or 143 pounds each) of beans from this pile, about 20 percent of her annual harvest.

Amankwaa, 48, is a serious, no-nonsense business woman who rarely cracks a smile, but is patiently answering questions about her farm. She is gracious to visitors because she wants them to know she will not willingly sell her six small farms to an American mining company intent on exploiting the gold under the land in her Ghanaian village, Mehame, which means "don't bother me" in the local Twi dialect.

Amankwaa looks around the cocoa pods and all the trees. "This land was given to me by my grandmother; it had old cocoa trees on it and I cut them down and planted new ones," she says. "Now they are growing very well. This is what I depend on for everything, to keep my children in school and all the money we use for food we eat, the house we built, everything is from the cocoa farms."

"This farm is my life," she says finally, "My life is this farm."

The farmers here are industrious. One stood up in an informal meeting back in town to say "If you grow cocoa and don't make money, then you are not working hard." And the farmers in Mehame do make money: Amankwaa earns about $3,200 per year, which is roughly six times the national average income in Ghana. She and her husband have three children. The oldest is finished with school and growing cocoa himself, and the other two are in high school, a boy and a girl. They have a large concrete house with a proper roof, electricity, and clean water from a well.

Given everything they have achieved in Mehame, some of the farmers are skeptical about the proposal to expand the nearby Ahafo mine into their village, swallowing up their cocoa farms and homes. In exchange they would get compensation for their land and be given new homes somewhere else, but this is not an attractive option to Amankwaa and some others. "We don't want to be resettled somewhere, to be sent to another place, to another person's land," Amankwaa says. "We just want to be at peace with our farms and our children."

"People here have courage"

The American company looking to expand its mine into the area near Mehame seems to have the support of the government, and there is little opportunity for the local farmers to express their opposition to the mine expansion.

At first there were just rumors, then the villagers heard chainsaws in the forest, and found crews exploring for minerals without their permission. The company, Newmont Mining of Denver, arrived for formal visits with the chief, along with representatives from the Brong-Ahafo regional government, and a member of parliament. "Later on we heard the company found people and pushed them to say they wanted mining here, and used them to prove the community approved," Amankwaa says. She says this compelled opponents of mining to call on Oxfam America's partner WACAM to teach them how to defend their rights.

Working with WACAM, the farmers attended workshops in communities already affected by mining to learn about the potential social and environmental costs like pollution to the many streams that feed their farms. And they are learning to organize themselves, Amankwaa says. "With their advice, we have been able to unite and advocate for our position."

When a group of farmers convene to discuss their concerns about mining, the talk inevitably turns to ways they can defend their farms. Hannah Owusu-Koranteng of WACAM cautions the group against violence: "Protect your property, but don't sacrifice your life," she tells them. "Not all struggles should be violent. You can struggle by jaw-jaw, [talking], use your wisdom and language to win your struggle."

Abdullah Selifa, a 28-year-old employee of WACAM in Brong-Ahafo, says their first task it to ensure farmers like the ones in Mehame understand their rights in Ghana's constitution.

"We are fortunate to live in a democratic country," he says, and goes on to describe the articles in Ghana's constitution that protect the right to private property.

Nevertheless, the farmers are sure to have concerns about confronting powerful forces. "The people here have courage, but they are concerned about intimidation," Selifa says. "So we try to show them that they do not have to be afraid of struggling for their rights in the constitution—and that the government is there to protect their rights."

The community's latest move is to write their political representatives to ask for help. If they get a negative response, Selifa says they will take legal action to protect their farms.