Looking them in the eye

By Chris Hufstader
Mary Amo is an up and coming community leader in her village Anwiam. Jeff Deutsch/Oxfam America

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Mary Amo’s house in the village of Anwiam is near a drainage canal that empties water out of an underground mine shaft. One day the water came crashing down the channel behind her house, overwhelming the drainage system and flooding part of her neighborhood. It washed away the entire back side of her house, and completely destroyed several others nearby. “We got some compensation,” Amo says, standing near her home, near the faint outline of the foundations of destroyed houses of her neighbors, “but it was not enough to restore our buildings.” Amo, who is 33 and has three children, says she and her mother and sister patched together some walls using sheets of metal roofing, to keep their goats and chickens from wandering through their house. These makeshift repairs were the best they could do, Amo says, because “we had no one to lead the negotiations with the company.”

Anwiam means “in the sand” in the local Twi language. Residents enter the village by passing over a set of railroad tracks separating it from a housing development built for the AngloGold Ashanti mining company staff, behind chain link and barbed wire fences. Anwiam has no electricity and little clean water. “If you compare the company residences with Anwiam, it is like apartheid,” says Hannah Owuso-Koranteng, who works at the human rights and environmental organization Wacam. “The rail line divides them.”

AngloGold Ashanti was blasting in nearby mine pit, and draining water, without any advance warning to the community. Amo says they used to blow a whistle just before blasting, signaling a sudden evacuation. Then, two years ago she and others from Anwiam started attending training sessions with Wacam. These problems, Amo says, were “a violation of our rights to live in a clean environment.” She says they learned that the company should consult them about a blasting schedule, and warn them about water outflows—and pay fair compensation for damages.

Looking them in the eye

The training with Wacam was a real eye opener for Amo, who at first appears to be a very shy woman, concerned that she does not speak English well. But when she starts talking about the injustices she sees in her community, her face changes and she speaks rapidly and without much hesitation. “Now I can sit at the negotiation table and look the company representatives in the eye and tell them we think they should redress some of these issues, and that we should be compensated,” Amo says. “What they are doing is violating our rights, so they have to look at other ways of engaging us, so we can solve these things amicably.”

Stories of injustices like these, and local efforts to redress them, are becoming better known in Ghana thanks to a proliferation of grassroots activists trained by Wacam. Stories in the media abound: cyanide spills, homes damaged and destroyed by blasting, inadequate compensation, loss of farmlands and jobs and income, and involuntary relocation. “People are now questioning whether mining is a good development option for the country,” says Hannah Owusu-Koranteng. “And if we have to engage in mining, what are the methods we have to use?” She says questioning the role of mining in the economy used to be akin to treason, or a threat to national security. This started to change as Ghanaians have become more and more aware of the severe costs imposed by mining on local communities.

This has caused many to consider what mining is bringing to the country: Daniel Owusu-Koranteng points out that with such high prices for commodities like gold these days, mining is now bringing in about 40 percent of Ghana’s foreign exchange, more than exporting cocoa. However mining only contributes about six percent of Ghana’s GDP. “What accounts for this is high capital flight in the sector,” he says. The Minerals and Mining Act requires companies to pay between three and five percent of mineral revenue values, most pay three percent, a rate negotiated by some larger companies. Advocacy campaigns by Wacam and others are pushing this up to at least five percent.

The local activists trained by WACAM have played an important role in the national level debate about mining in Ghana. Each of them has had to take on new responsibilities and learn things about themselves in the process, as they work to improve their community and their country.

Philomena Addo, the subsistence farmer from Akatakyieso and recently elected village representative, is struggling to survive as she is taking on new leadership responsibilities. “We lost almost all our land to the mine. Now we have to go to other communities with land, and we are now share croppers,” she says outside her home. “There is just no land to cultivate here, the areas were all either destroyed or taken up by AngloGold for grazing cattle.”

Nevertheless, Addo says she has truth on her side, and is using her own personal transformation to seek a political solution to the problems in her community. “I used to be very timid,” she says “I would not discuss anything in public. Now I am more confident and I can speak at any level in public, at the community or national level.” She plans to push her agenda and serve her constituents: “It’s a privilege to win this confidence,” she says of her recent landslide victory at the polls.