Caught on the wrong side of a gold boom

Godfried Ofori, 62, near a mining waste dump in the center of Prestea.

Paul Ayensu, a farmer in a small town called Teberebie, had a tiny farm, just a third of an acre cut out of the intense green of Ghana's western rain forest. He grew 12 different crops there: yams, oil palms, cassava, pineapples, cocoa, and many different vegetables. "I was growing a lot of food, and I was making money," he said. "I spent all of my time there."

When the government conceded the minerals under his farm to an international mining company in 1991, 37-year-old Ayensu and his wife and four children were out. Worse, he later discovered that the payment he was to receive for his land had been arbitrarily cut by two-thirds. "I was not happy, and I cried," Ayensu said later. "It was because of this farm that we could my children are out of school. I can't go to my farm ever again."

By law, the mine run by AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. must compensate farmers for their lands and for future lost income from their crops. The company reviewed the crops on each farm and assigned a value. After some farmers were paid, others found their offers suddenly rescinded, replaced with ones based on the total acreage of their farms.

"They should have negotiated this with us," said Emilia Amoateng, 30, chair of the Concerned Farmers' Association of Teberebie. "But some of the elders who were close to the company supported it....Those who should come to our aid—our district assembly and members of parliament—have been bought off and corrupted," she said.

It's a common story, one repeated in many other mining countries. Most farmers have no one to help them hold the company or their elected representatives accountable, to respect their property rights, to compensate them fairly, and to protect the environment. And in so many out-of-the way villages we have never heard of, farmers shrug, take what's offered, hope for a job they will never get at the mine, and do the best they can.

But in Teberebie and scores of other villages in Ghana, things are working out slightly differently. The farmers are shifting the balance of power by learning, understanding, and asserting their basic human rights.

Going for the gold

The price of gold has been quite high the last few years, and recently topped $900 an ounce. Ghana is now the second largest producer of gold on the continent behind South Africa. In its 50th year of independence, Ghana is working hard to reduce poverty for its 10 million citizens.

But most of the wealth mining generates goes right back out to foreign companies operating the mines. A 2005 UN report estimated that just five percent of the $894 million from mines in 2003 was captured in Ghana, a mere $46 million in Ghana's $11 billion economy. "Our country is poor because our resources are under the control of those with all the money," says Daniel Owusu-Koranteng, executive director of Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining (WACAM), an organization that helps people protect the environment and defend their human rights. "Ninety-five percent of the mining revenues go out of the country, and only five percent stays—along with 100 percent of the problems."

The problems go beyond farmers losing their land. The BBC reported in 2006 that at least 12 people have been shot in violent confrontations with mine security and police forces. There have also been numerous cases of cyanide spills near rivers and streams needed for drinking and irrigation in villages near mines. Owusu-Koranteng said that the five percent retained in Ghana from mining can't come close to redressing all these problems.

Overcoming Injustice

Oxfam America is funding the work of WACAM, Owusu-Koranteng's organization. WACAM teaches villagers about the constitution of Ghana and their rights under the 2006 Minerals and Mining Act. Armed with this information, farmers can then assert their rights to fair compensation for their lands and hold the companies responsible for damage to the environment.

The approach has proven effective in several towns. In Prestea, an industrialized mining town since the 1920s, 62-year-old Godfried Ofori said that the people of Prestea were being rocked by explosions in mining pits run by Bogoso Gold, a local subsidiary of Golden Star Resources of Denver. The blasts have cracked the cement houses in town, and waste dumps have clogged water springs in the area with earth and rocks dug out of the pits. And there is a threat of expansion: the mine wants to move the entire southern part of the town.

"They were using money to buy the support of citizens," Ofori said. "We went house to house to tell people about their human rights—and about the company's plan to blast just 200 or 300 meters from their houses and now they understand, they know they have human rights, and they no longer take money from the mine company and put their children at risk."

Golden Star stopped blasting and all mining temporarily while it negotiates to expand the mine.

A change in perspective

Learning about basic rights that you never knew you had changes your perspective. When you learn how to negotiate with a mining company, speak to reporters, or show those in authority that they can't take advantage of you and get away with it, you realize that you have power. You deserve respect. It is this change in perspective that has helped the people of Prestea bring mining to a halt while they negotiate their future.

"Most people don't have money," said Ofori, "but they have their spirit."

You can see this spirit in the eyes of the farmers in Teberebie, where about 15 of them are disputing the compensation offered by AngloGold Ashanti. Their Concerned Farmers' Association of Teberebie staged a march to the nearby mining center of Tarkwa, where they were interviewed by the media. This brought a lot of visibility to their case, as well as a proposal to negotiate from AngloGold. Unfortunately, it did not lead to an agreement, but with the help of WACAM and the legal aid organization, Center for Public Interest Law (CEPIL), both funded by Oxfam America, the claim is now in the courts.

What respect looks like

Nana Molobah Nyamiketh, chief of the village of Abekoase, has a round, friendly face but a serious nature. And it was this serious side that went into action the morning of October 16, 2001, when villagers came to him with bad news: Their main source of drinking water, the Asuman River, was full of dead fish, and those who had come in contact with the water had developed skin problems. It was their worst fear: a cyanide spill. "We informed WACAM, as they had been teaching us how to negotiate with the company and understand our rights...and we got some journalists to cover the news of the cyanide spill."

The 400 villagers of Abekoase, half of whom had already been displaced by the Gold Fields mine, took the company to court in March of 2002. By the end of 2003, Abekoase and Gold Fields had reached a settlement out of court that included a community center building and a development fund of roughly $27,000 being used to build a new school and teachers' quarters. A palm oil processing center is also still under construction.

"The settlement was pretty good," Chief Nyamiketh said, crediting WACAM and CEPIL for their advice on the case. "If it had not been for WACAM, we would not have gotten any help, because it seems the government institutions are on the side of the mine companies."

Chief Nyamiketh said that they are even more pleased with the changed relationship with Gold Fields. "People are now better equipped to negotiate with the company," Chief Nyamiketh said, adding that the company now handles them differently also. "They were surprised we took them to court; they thought they would just ride over us. But we scared them...Now they know that this village took them to the high court, so when something happens, they react quickly because people here know their rights."

Chief Nyamiketh looked out the window of his house, into the daily afternoon downpour of a May afternoon, where the rain was smashing down into the red earth and thunder boomed in the distance. "It is a sign of respect," he said.

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With natural resources, the West African country’s economy has grown for decades—but recent setbacks have increased inequality and poverty. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+