Kwaku Asare grabbed his machete and trekked through the bush to his cocoa farm—through winding pathways and hills, past ominous pits of muddy water, and underneath the low-hanging canopy of dry cocoa leaves. But the trees were bare. A few rotten cocoa pods littered the ground, while other stunted pods refused to ripen on the branches.
“When the Chinese came, they told me that my plants were not yielding anymore because there was so much gold under the soil,” Asare said. After a few years of low production, he sold his 14 acres to a group of small-scale gold miners, also called galamsey miners, with a Chinese sponsor. The money is gone now and Asare’s land is poisoned.
Kwaku Asare of Denkyira Asikuma, Ghana, visits the former cocoa farm he sold to galamsey gold miners. He's among the growing number of cocoa farmers seeing their production replaced with mining, which is often only temporary but leaves permanent scars.
Kwaku Asare’s story is not uncommon in Denkyira Asikuma, a small farming village nestled among cocoa plantations outside of Dunkwa in Ghana’s Central Region. At least 30 cocoa farmers in the village have sold their land to miners who quickly excavated, pumped in water and chemicals, and abandoned their pits when the work was done or when soldiers chased them away.
Gold mining has always been a part of Ghana, from the ornate jewelery of the Ashanti kings to British colonisation. In the last several years, however, largely unregulated galamsey mining has ramped up—due in part to Chinese investors who bring sophisticated equipment and a lagging economy that makes the prospect of striking gold too sweet to pass. These often illegal operations can result in contaminated water, deforestation,and a rise in violent crime.
Illegal gold mining in Ghana further exacerbates a volatile cocoa market. In 2014, experts predicted a global cocoa shortage by 2020. However, cocoa production statistics have been unpredictable since then, according to the most recent data from the 2015-16 growing season. That year, there was a cocoa surplus, attributed to a prolonged rainy season. Recently, the price of the bean has plummeted to historic lows on global commodity exchanges—negatively impacting the profits of West Africa’s cocoa farmers.
In 2011, Ghana produced a record-setting amount of cocoa, weighing in at over one million tonnes. Since then, as illegal mining steadily ramped up, cocoa production has trended downwards, with a drop to 740,000 tonnes in 2015.
“Galamsey is the biggest threat to cocoa production,” Pomasi Ismael, the chairman of a cocoa buyers collective, told local media recently.
Several other factors have been blamed for the volatile nature of the cocoa market, most notably climate change, which can usher in an extremely dry season one year and excessive rain the next. Deforestation from illegal gold mining may speed up such effects.
Gold and cocoa are both integral parts of Ghana’s economy and national identity, yet the coexistence of the two resources has contradictions. Cocoa was first planted in Ghana in the 1870s, and the former Gold Coast colony became the largest exporter of the chocolate-making bean for the next century, until neighbouring Ivory Coast surpassed them. Two decades after the arrival of cocoa, the legal Obuasi gold mine was founded. Closely regulated, the big industrial operation transformed a small Ashanti village into a cosmopolitan city with tennis courts and golf clubs. For decades, miners toiled underground in the sprawling complex. Today, the mine is no longer producing gold and galamsey miners have quickly filled the void, wiping away cocoa farms in their path.
Ghana’s government has struggled to balance the economic boon of small-scale mining with environmental and safety protections. The Small-Scale Gold Mining Act of 1989 implemented a system for obtaining small-scale mining licences. These initial galamsey workers were groups of nine or less artisanal miners working by hand to dig, pan and wash gold. In 2006, an updated law stipulated that only Ghanaian citizens could receive mining licences and required permits from the country’s Environmental Protection Agency and Forestry Commission. Although some small-scale mining operations, therefore, do have legal permits, many of them don’t, and many engage in illegal activities such as employing foreigners or crews of hundreds, using mercury or using heavy machinery. To many in the country, the term ‘galamsey’ has thus now become synonymous with criminality.
The single-lane highway from Obuasi to Dunkwa is lined on both sides with a string of excavating machines and gold-washing outposts. Immediately after passing the town’s tollbooth, signs advertising gold dealers and mining equipment—in both English and Chinese—crowd the streets, vastly outnumbering the fading billboards for cocoa fertiliser.
Dunkwa sits on the Offin River, a tributary of the Pra River, which is one of the largest river systems in Ghana. In the last few years, these water bodies have turned an alarming yellow colour, due to chemical wastewater from illegal gold mining, unrecognisable from their former resilient blue.
The area covered by the Pra River Basin—including parts of Ghana’s Central, Western, and Ashanti regions—is the country’s cocoa heartland. It also holds the highest concentration of gold deposits. Ghana is the world’s second largest cocoa exporter, contributing 20 per cent of the world’s supply. More than 70 per cent of cocoa beans come from West Africa.
It’s unlikely that Kwaku Asare’s cocoa farm was spoiled due to the gold underneath its soil, as the miners claimed. It’s much more likely that his cocoa crops were negatively affected by the increase of galamsey activities in the area, which can poison waterways with heavy metals and chemicals such as lead, mercury and cyanide, as well as unpredictable rainy and dry seasons attributed to climate change. –nationalgeographic/GB