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More valuable than gold

By Andrea Perera

Theresa Yaa Serwaah walks inside the perimeter of her latest project in Mehame, Ghana, the third home she is building for her family of 13. Pointing to the cinder blocks that form the foundations of her house, Serwaah says the building is just one reason she doesn't want to sell her land.

Serwaah, 65, and her husband, Kofi Agyei, 77, own two cocoa farms and three homes. Each farm produces enough food to sell at markets in Kumasi and Accra.

And the profits are enough to feed the entire family. So, when Newmont Mining Corporation talks about expanding the Ahafo Gold Mine in nearby Kenyase into Mehame—claiming that the one-time fee for their land will improve their quality of life and bring development to their community—Serwaah reacts with suspicion.

Having visited nearby Kenyase, where her sister-in-law once lived, she says she's witnessed firsthand what "development" can mean to a mining company.

"I get sick when I hear about the project. My heart races," she says. "I was so sad to see places that had been cocoa farms turned into rocks and pits. The farmers have no food because their land has been taken over. They use money for everything and can't live off the land anymore."

That's a stark difference from Serwaah's life right now. While still very poor by Western standards, she says she is wealthy in other ways. "The land is everything to us. It's worth more than gold. Even if a [cocoa] tree falls, we can eat the mushrooms that grow off of it."

Beyond the land itself, the village of Mehame is already lit up by electricity. And Serwaah's family need only walk a short distance to collect free, potable water. Many families, relocated from Kenyase and the surrounding villages, live in structures smaller than their old homes, and many are not connected to electricity lines. In Ntotroso, a resettled community filled with former residents of Kenyase, residents must now pay for their household water, and report taking turns with family members just to bathe.

"Newmont told us a lot of good stories. But we've seen that they've really disappointed us," says Kojo Zica, 28, a resident of the Ntotroso resettlement. "Since we came to this settlement, most of us are not working—even the youth. Even the water we have to pay for. It is difficult to feed our families."

For these reasons, people in Serwaah's community have been attending workshops by WACAM, a local organization supported by Oxfam. WACAM teaches the cocoa farmers to understand their rights under national and international law. In Serwaah's case, these rights include saying "no" to mining if she so chooses.

No amount of compensation from Newmont could replace the lifestyle her family has cultivated over the years, she says. And while right now she can count on her cocoa farms yielding a harvest twice a year, whatever payment she received from Newmont would peter out over time.

"For us, development is not about having big, big things, but having your peace of mind. For us, development is about working for oneself and leaving something for the next generation," she says.