Galamsay mining is informal or artisanal mining, and is also called small scale mining. The word galamsay is a variant of ‘gather and sell’. Over 1,000,000 Ghanains gather, and a considerable fraction of them would get as far as the selling. Galamsay mining occurs as both legal and illegal operations. The target of the mining is nearly always gold – a commodity which is stunningly abundant in Ghana. Gold is won from either veins in the bedrock or from gold bearing gravels in river beds.
There is an established system for galamsay mining, regulated by the same government department that monitors large-scale mining. Small scale leases are granted by application, are limited to 25 acres, and must be locally owned. There are environmental conditions on the leases. It is an important industry here.
The process is pretty standard. If the ore needs to be transported, it is carried in head pans (ie a big aluminium pan carried on your head), often by women (the men do the digging). If the ore requires crushing it is run through crushers – petrol driven hammer mills. The ore is then passed over a sluice – an inclined board with a ‘carpet’ to capture the heavy gold in the riffles. Periodically, the carpets are immersed in water in a seperate bucket and the gold and heavy minerals settle into a concentrate. This is panned and the gold recovered.
In the movie above, follow one of the pans as it passes through the sequence. It’ll give you a new understanding of teamwork!
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go to plan. There are a lot of non-Ghanaians who are here mining as small scale miners. Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Americans… you name it. Also, there is a real problem with illegal mining – where the miners operate without permits. However, the real impacts are from a lack of environmental culpability (by illegals), the use and abuse of mercury to harvest gold and dangerous work conditions.
The environmental degredation is breath-taking, particularly in the alluvial areas. Tens of kilometers of riverbed demolished – left as weedy heaps of processed gravel. THe process is exaccerbated by the rapid rise of mechanised mining – excavators can mine thousands of tonned every day – particularly if there is no recognition of responsible mining. The ground starts out as cocoa farms – its chances of returning to its former state is zero. Downstream, the rivers are choked with silt.
The use of mercury is a tragedy. The mercury is used to increase gold recovery, as it forms an amalgum with the very fine gold captured after mining. Miners mix it with the concentrate with bare hands and then gather around to see the results of their hard work as the murcury is burnt off over a flame to a cloud of fumes. Needless to say there are quite a few complete nutters wandering the streets of Ghana – fried by mercury poisoning.
So its a bit of a paradox. Ghanaians need the work, but deserve their environment to be better protected. Illegal miners can bribe their way out of trouble and by the time authorites arrive to move them on, the excavators have long moved somewhere else anyway. I don’t know if the environmnetal carnage would be less if the foreign interests weren’t in the country – but unfortunately, I suspect not. With gold hovering around 1600USD, small scale mining will only accelerate.