Land and heritage at risk in Ghana

By Chris Hufstader
Samuel Fosuhene: "If by allowing surface mining we will deprive...the generation yet unborn, then you have to be very careful.

Share this story:

Frimpong Kwabena grew up in Akyem Adausina, a village on the edge of a great forest in the Eastern Region Ghana. He is the son of a former chief, and at age 55, has deep roots in the area. He speaks fondly of Akyem Adausina, and describes what he likes about it as he drives towards the village with some visitors. "I like the community activities. The traditional life, the weddings, even the funerals. I like the tranquility, the serenity," he says looking out the window of the van, bumping along an uneven road. "It is quiet."

"That is it," he says finally, "that is it."

The nearby Ajenua Bepo Forest reserve near Akyem supports a rich ecosystem. The tall trees are impressive as they reach up to the sky. Around them is a warm climate, with ample rain, and rich soils. The farmers near the forest take advantage of it to grow plantains, cocoa, kola nuts, and vegetables. It is not an easy life. Everyone works hard. The more successful farmers may not be wealthy in western terms, but they do not see themselves as poor. They are proud of what they do.

The farmers in Akyem say it is not as tranquil as it used to be. The American company Newmont Mining has bought a concession to explore for gold in this area, and is negotiating with the villagers to get the land they farm, compensate them for their crops, and relocate them to another place to make way for a mining pit 1.5 miles long and half a mile wide.

The company even wants to mine in the forest reserve, and the government seems willing to allow it. In April 2008, 215 members of the Concerned Farmers Association in Akyem Adausina signed a petition against mining in the forest.

In 2005 there was a demonstration against the mining proposal, and one person was shot and killed. Oxfam America's partner WACAM came to investigate the killing, and called for an investigation into the death.

Samuel Fosuhene, 65, a village councilor at that time, became wary of the prospect of mining in the town. He resigned from the council and started supporting WACAM's efforts to organize people in the village to learn about and represent their rights in negotiations with Newmont.

Fosuhene and Kwabena say there are three main issues in Akyem:

  • Land: Land rights are not always clear, and this makes the farmers feel vulnerable. They say Newmont is trying to force them to move, and they object to being intimidated. They want to work with WACAM to defend their land rights in court.
  • Forest: The forest near Akyem is a national reserve and should be protected from mining, villagers in Akyem say. Protecting the forest protects the environment for farming, "Once the forest is destroyed, we will lose our resources," one farmer says, "and we will have no future."
  • Resettlement: "We don't want to be strangers on other people's land," Samuel Fosuehene says. The idea of being resettled in an area where your family has no roots is unfathomable to Ghanaians. "In Africa you can't live somewhere with no family support," one farmer explains patiently during an impromptu community meeting. "This is un-African."

Fosuhene's main concern is responsible stewardship of the land. "Land is bequeathed from generation to generation," he says. "So if by allowing surface mining we will deprive...the generation yet unborn, then you have to be very careful."

But land management is difficult. "In our part of the world, no individual owns land," says Hannah Owusu-Koranteng of WACAM. "Even the chiefs, they do not own the land, they keep it in trust for the future of the community and its needs."

This system is at odds with the government's right to all mineral rights. It can lease the land to anyone for mining in the name of development, Owusu-Koranteng says.

The 2006 Minerals and Mining Act requires people be compensated for loss of land allocated to them by the chief, and sharecroppers need to be compensated for the crops they are growing on the land. At this point, WACAM says the company is offering eight US dollars for a cocoa tree, even though the trees produce $20 of cocoa a year for 40 years at least.

A sacred place

Kwabena and his siblings are concerned about losing their family home, a sprawling, 12-room concrete house that was the center of the community when his father was the chief.

In front lies the pacification stone, where errant community members confessing disrespect to authority would show remorse by slaughtering livestock. Inside the bright red walls are a series of rooms, the drums the chief would use to summon the community for meetings, the ceremonial stool and dais on which the chief sat to hold court, and the palanquin used to transport him on special occasions. Kwabena shows visitors the home, his arms outstretched as he moves through the rooms and courtyards, describing the activities of the royal household.

"This is a palace," he says next to the dais where his father dispensed wisdom to the village. "Even though it is such an old building, we are comfortable in it."

With such a nice house, with such a rich history, Kwabena and his 21 brothers and sisters, and all their children are concerned about being relocated to smaller quarters. "My father used to occupy a 16-foot by 14-foot room," Kwabena says, gesturing off to the other end of the courtyard. "You can't remove us and put us in a 9-foot by 9-foot room. That is uncomfortable and I seriously object to it."

Standing behind their house, Kwabena raises an even greater concern: "All the great chiefs who have reigned in this village are buried here," Kwabena says quietly standing under the tree planted for his father. "We can't look on and allow them to dump [mine] waste on them. It is a sacred place."

"That is it," Kwabena says, this time with conviction. "That is it."