Knowledge is power

By Chris Hufstader
Philomena Addo chairs the unit committee for her village, Akatakyieso. Jeff Deutsch/Oxfam America

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Pasted onto the side of Philomena Addo’s home in Akatekyeso, a village in rural Ghana, is a large poster; it represents the ballot in a recent election for a five-member unit committee, sort of like a town council.  Addo’s name and photo are on the ballot. She tells visitors that, of the nine candidates, she won 90 percent of the total votes, which makes her the chairperson of the committee.

“I’m using this mandate,” Addo announces, like a seasoned politician, and starts ticking off her issues. Most of them are related to problems with water, funding for education, jobs for young people, and compensation for the damage and loss of land from a large gold mine established near Akatekyeso.

It’s a village of dirt paths, and cracked, crumbling, concrete structures. There is one well near the main road with a large group of women and children pumping water, filling buckets, and carrying them off.

“We had a hill over there,” Addo motions behind her home. “That was our water shed, but they blasted it and destroyed it. We had streams flowing out of it and there was no water scarcity. But it was all destroyed and now there is no water.” The mining company, AngloGold Ashanti, drilled two wells for the community, only one of which is currently functioning and now serves hundreds of people in the area.

To some, Addo may seem an unlikely leader: she’s a woman with little formal education. But she has the training and knowledge she needs to be effective, thanks to her work with the local human rights and environmental organization Wacam.

“Formerly, nobody consulted us,” Addo says of the mining company. “After we got training from Wacam, we understood our rights. Now they know if they want to work here they need to come and ask for our consent. Now they recognize we know our rights, and that is why they are respecting us.”

Addo is part of a growing group of village advocates in rural Ghana trained by Wacam that is bringing their concerns to companies and government bodies, and pushing for changes. Wacam has been building this network for 16 years, and it is now gathering momentum.

Addo is aware of her responsibilities to effect change, and knows she has to do it honestly. “I am always very concerned about the truth,” Addo says, walking down a path near her home. “Whatever I say, I investigate it, and double check to make sure I come out with the truth.”

“The main problem here is blasting”

Addo believes blasting rocks with explosives in nearby mine pits caused the cracks visible on so many of the buildings in Akatakyeso. She says the blasting near her home was quite violent: She was actually in her kitchen (a wood-frame shelter next to her home where she did all the cooking on an open fire) when it nearly collapsed on top of her and her family after one particularly large explosion. They just made it out from under its metal roof before the entire structure came down.

Even the best trained community representatives negotiating compensation from a mining company for blasting damage require hard, indisputable information and facts. Several hours to the north of Akatakyeso is a community called Dormaah Bypass, which worked with Wacam to close the information gap and get a commitment from another mining company, Newmont, which runs the Ahafo mine, to repair the community’s buildings.

Dormaah Bypass is just on the other side of the bypass road built for the excavation of Ahafo, less than a mile from the pit. Emmanuel Kuduah, 62, lives just off the bypass road, where he farms citrus fruit and leads a small evangelical church. “The main problem here is blasting,” he says, sitting in the shade of a tree outside his house. “The pit is so close, it is cracking our buildings, and in one case a building collapsed on someone and he died.”

A brief walk around Kuduah’s house, where he lives with his wife and eight children, showed more than a dozen cracked areas, many of which had been repaired. But some of the repairs were opening up again, and Kuduah says the continued blasting makes it look like some areas were never repaired.

Wacam’s trainers helped people from this community to hold meetings with Newmont to discuss the building damage but the company was reluctant to accept responsibility in all cases. The company did however offer to pay for an engineer to survey the buildings and make a recommendation.

Kuduah says Wacam warned villagers that an engineer hired and paid by Newmont might not be independent enough to make a fair analysis. Wacam recommended that the community members press Newmont to pay for the study, but to allow community members to pick the expert engineer. “Wacam helped us find an engineer.  We held a meeting at the assembly hall to present the expert’s report, and that was when the company accepted responsibility for the cracks in the buildings and said they would repair them.”

Kuduah says this engineering study is just one of the ways Wacam has been able to help his community negotiate with Newmont. “They have consistently provided us with knowledge and ways to organize and lead our struggle, so we have the strategies and leadership we need. Whenever we have asked for ideas and knowledge, Wacam has helped us.”