I read with great sadness this week of another boat load of asylum seekers drowning off the coast of Christmas Island as they attempted to make Australian soil. But this week, the news in Ghana has been dominated by what is much more effectively ‘illegal immigrants’.
News agencies from the New York Times to the BBC have reported on the illegal Chinese miners who have been variably gaoled, deported, and on the run from Ghanaian immigration authorities. (Both links are well worth looking at, the New York Times article is very emotive, while the BBC link shows an excellent video of a mining camp.)
Coming from Australia, where one in four people were born overseas, it is one of many multitudes of culture shock moving to a country where immigration forms a very, very small percentage of the population. As such, some of the laws can seem discriminatory to non-Ghanaians; but ultimately attempt to protect Ghanaian interests. Small scale mining is such an example, where only Ghanaian nationals are allowed to operate small scale mining concessions. In another example, foreigners are prohibited from owning property in Ghana. There are, of course, ways and means around this, mostly taking a Ghanaian partner in business. But in a poor country, all foreigners are deemed wealthy, simply because they are foreigners. There is often a level of frustration around foreign-run enterprises. Combine this with the environmental rape which constitutes small scale mining, and the level of frustration and anger can escalate rapidly.
Small scale mining is very common in Ghana, and the majority of which are run by Ghanaians. But the number of Chinese, and their resulting conspicuousness, has, until these last few days been on the significant rise. When you visualise small scale mining, take away all thoughts of shovels and gold panning. Replace these quaint notions with giant yellow excavators which rip apart river beds in search of the elusive yellow metal. Of gold won by mercury extraction. This is alluvial mining at its worst. And when the river has exhausted its supply of gold, the excavators move on, leaving a path of destruction, silted rivers which spoil water supply, and water courses which will take generations, if ever, to recover.
Locally this small scale alluvial mining is called galamsay. Which is one of those wonderful words which has slipped between the accents and become its own word, with it’s own, variably negative connotations. Say “gather and sell” with the long, melodious vowels of a Ghanaian accent, and it becomes galamsay.
I have seen Ghanaian-run alluvial mining operations in the area around where my husband works. Visualise 200 people thigh deep in mud carrying buckets on their head, mud streaming down their bodies, to be pushed through the sluice to be concentrated. Excavators nearby digging new pits to be exhumed. I have never seen such backbreaking work. And the pay apparently is reasonable. But there is none of the accountability, or even data collection which professional mining operations adhere to. Nothing preserved for the future but a destroyed river bed. The town immediately adjacent to where my husband works has an area population of 60,000 people. For several weeks their water supply was lost as the galamsay had silted up the river which provided the town with water.
While it is the Chinese miners which have been under the spotlight in recent weeks, over 200 foreigners have been arrested. These include nationals from Togo, Nigeria, Russia and the United States. Gold has been luring people for centuries, and a gold rich country like Ghana can seem like easy pickings. Local officials, traditional authorities and business people encourage the operations because everyone can get a cut of the action. And galamsay operations employ a lot of people. The (small) mine my husband works at, even at it’s peak, employed fewer people than the local galamsay operations. The mine provides services to the local community, but perversely, not the same volume of employment. And now we are in the wet season, with a high water table, many operations have temporarily closed; I’m sure adding to the frustrations of the local galamsay and their communities.
The area where we live in Kumasi, indeed the very complex we live in, is at the heart of Chinese living in Kumasi. On a typical day you would see more Chinese on the roads, in their ubiquitous twin cab 4 x 4s; than you would white foriegners. For the last several months Chinese businesses have been springing up every few weeks in the area. I wonder what impact this exodus will have on the local economy. A large service industry has sprung up to cater for the miners; Chinese restaurants, casinos, grocery stores and even, I’m told, Chinese prostitutes.
In our complex, four of the six houses are tenanted to Chinese. Since the deportations began their numbers, both where we live, and on the streets around us has swelled massively. Two nights ago I counted 15 people sleeping in the house next door.
I try to empathise with them, but it is difficult. They squat, literally on our door step, in their yellow flip-flops, chain-smoking and discarding the butts on the ground. Some staring at their smart phones, others staring into the middle distance, or staring at us as we come and go. There is not a lot of conversation, but an overwhelming sense of waiting. Initially perhaps hiding, now waiting. Waiting to sell their 4 x 4s on the cheap, waiting to board the plane and go home. I understand many are miners from rural China, trying to escape their own poverty. There is talk the Chinese government will pay for their return tickets home to avoid prosecution. Here they are breaking the law, and with little or no English language skills, they live parallel to society. Living opportunistically, and I think that is cause of much of the chagrin; there is not a sense of giving back, just take.
The New York Times article reads very emotively, and while I do not condone the manner in which people have been treated, I think it would be profoundly naive to think it would have happened much differently. There have been repeated violent clashes between local communities, authorities and the Chinese galamsay over (at least) the past year. While not every Chinese person in Ghana is here illegally or operating beyond the law, there are many who run businesses. But overwhelmingly these businesses are here to serve the galamsay community, so they have been tarred with the same brush.
The big questions, of course, remain to be answered. How did they enter Ghana? What will stop it from happening again? How large a hole will be left in the local economy? And most importantly, when will the small scale operations stop being the cash cow of the local economies and be forced to run with a sense of environmental responsibility?
[The internet and I are having troubles today and I can’t manage to upload any photographs. Sorry for that, but have a look over at my Instagram feed where I will post some].