The golden practices that defy gloom

Small-scale mining in Ghana is mostly known for its faults. It's time to see what it gets right

11 September 2017
Small-scale miners in Ghana

Learning about safety procedures at Goldbank Resources, a small-scale mine in Ghana's Eastern Region

Pollution, exploitation and spoiled landscapes have long been seen as the inevitable outcome of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Ghana. But against this backdrop of neglect and degradation, pockets of responsible practice, from land restoration to sustainable water management, quietly exist.

These examples signal that small-scale miners could be – contrary to expectation – caretakers of local communities and the environment.

Ghana's artisanal and small-scale (ASM) sector accounts for 35 per cent of the country's gold production. ASM mining employs an estimated one million people in this West African nation, and supports approximately 4.5 million more. Its role in wealth creation, employment and the economy makes it one of the nation's most important livelihood activities. Yet the majority of miners in Ghana operate informally, unsafely, and receive little support to become formalised, or to access finance, training or technology.

Close up of miner

Young men from local communities can find career prospects in small mines that are run responsibly

Miners use machinery

In addition to learning about gold mining, operators at Goldbank gain equipment maintenance skills

In January 2016 Ghana hosted a multi-stakeholder 'action dialogue' on ASM. This was the first of a global dialogue series on ASM convened by IIED to promote a sustainable and productive ASM sector. Participants overwhelmingly agreed that that the sector's negative reputation stands in the way of positive change in policy and practice. With little to no public awareness of what responsible ASM looks like, and even less of the benefits it can bring to communities and the local environment, it is difficult to build the support ASM needs to attract investment and fairer markets, or to replicate good practices elsewhere.

Last April the government launched a major drive to stamp out illegal mining – or galamsey, as it is known in Ghana. Not a day goes by without a plethora of media headlines reporting on this operation. Most reports support the government's action, as does the majority of public opinion.

This effort should not overshadow work already under way to transform the country's ASM into a thriving, sustainable rural economy sector. Poor practices do exist and they must be tackled. But the erroneous belief that small mines cannot be efficient, organised and respectful of environmental regulations must also be challenged.

IIED met with seven individuals who, each in their own way, show how responsible ASM can be a positive force for local economies and sustainable development.

“There's no reason why a small mine cannot operate professionally”

Kwaku Eric Gyamera learned his trade working in several large-scale mines before becoming the general manager of Goldbank Resources, a small-scale mine in the country's Eastern Region. For Kwaku Eric, putting in place systems for the smooth running of the business is just as important in a small mine as it is in any other venture.

Kwaku Eric

Kwaku Eric is one of the many mining professionals who moved to ASM from large companies

There's no reason why a small mine cannot operate professionally. If you don't do things in the right way, the gold that you are looking for, you will not have it. The recovery will not be as high as you want it. Good practices increase our production drastically. They are very good for the company.

Kwaku Eric Gyamera

Since his arrival at Goldbank, Kwaku Eric has introduced protective equipment for all mineworkers. "It wasn't easy," he explains. "At the beginning, they resisted so I had to be firm. I said that if they didn't attend training or wore their PPE (protective equipment) they could not access the site. Little by little they understood that it is for their own safety."

Bank accounts were set up for mineworkers, and their salaries are paid in once a month. Previously, workers were paid in cash –an unsafe practice for them and their business. "Workers didn't like that they weren't getting their money in their hands," he said. "They didn't trust the banks and most of them never had an account. Now they know that receiving their payment this way can give them access to other things, like credit.

These measures increase productivity. We are a training ground for other small-scale miners. We have about two hundred acres and we get the permits because we can prove that we use the land well.

“We make sure that every pit is filled”

On the road to Bright Way Mining Ventures, a small mine in the Tarkwa region of Western Ghana, the flanking scenery of lush tropical forests is noticeably interrupted by a succession of artisanal and small-scale gold mines. Many are active and in production, while others have been abandoned as they no longer yield rich enough returns.

The landscape reveals that refilling pits once extraction stops is not a common practice. Unfilled pits often serve as breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes and pose considerable safety risks.

Elliott Larme is the technical officer for Ghana's National Association of Small-Scale Miners (GNASSM). A former miner himself, Elliott advises small mines, such as Bright Way, on how to rehabilitate land after use. In an area marked with large patches of unreclaimed land, his work stands out.

"This is land that has been reclaimed to bring it to almost near its original state," he explains while pointing to a large area dotted with small cocoa plants, so tiny that they are barely discernible from the distance. "This area wasn't a cocoa growing area. As soon as it rains the whole place gets flooded. You couldn't plant anything here."

Elliott says that as part of the land reclamation process, he and his team refilled the pits and raised the ground from its original level to protect it from flooding.

"Where we are standing now, when it rains you can't do anything. But when you do it this way and turn over the ground and raise it a bit higher, you can re-crop it. We first use some species to rehabilitate the ground and then we planted cocoa trees."

Elliott Larme

Elliott Larme travels from small mine to small mine encouraging operators to improve their environmental practices

Rehabilitation can help a lot of the small-scale miners and let people go back into agriculture. Wherever you've been you have some of these abandoned pits scattered all over. The land doesn't belong to us. It is their land. We only come in and take the mineral from the ground.

Elliott Larme

Back at Goldbank, foreman Jonathan Tettay, or the 'chief of staff' as he refers to himself, says that the site is working with the NGO Solidaridad to obtain Fairtrade certification. If they succeed, their gold will have access to fairer international markets. To get certified, they need to have in place measures for reclaiming and rehabilitating the land after use. These measures are also needed to secure a mining concession from the government, and are negotiated with the chiefs and local community.

"We bought farms for our operations. After mining, we have two to three months to put them [back] the way we found them. We plant cocoa and other plants, so communities find the land in a better state than they left it. Reclamation is very important in our agenda. We make sure that every pit is filled."

Jonathan proudly walks towards the latest pit to be refilled. He recalls that when they were first granted access, there was nothing but wild vegetation on the land. His eyes sparkle as he announces that they will return it with food crops.

Jonathan Tettay points to pond

Jonathan Tettay has trained a generation of miners now working in both small and large operations

"There are rules and regulations guiding mining activities in Ghana. We don't do things just like that. We take those regulations and rules into action because that is what we need to do so we don't destroy the environment. From day one that was our concern. We see that this is the best way to go." 

Jonathan Tettay

“Now I can take care of my children and myself”

One of the most lauded aspects of ASM is that it can be a major source of employment in some of the world's most impoverished areas. However, the quality and safety of the jobs created is not always known. Neither is whether these new jobs will go to local community members, or not.

Kwaku Eric is quick to point out that small mines create jobs for poor communities. The site he manages employs 65 people from Apapatia, the neighbouring village, which has a total population of 430. "That's our agreement with the local community," he says, recalling lengthy negotiations with chiefs and local community representatives over the use of the land on which the mine agreed to rebuild the local school and provide jobs for local people.

Some of them are unskilled labourers and we try to train them. We let them have a profession, like engine operator, or learn how to operate the excavator. The guy from my office is from the local community and he is training to be a clerk. We don't need too many skilled workers. They can learn at the site.

– Kwaku Eric Yamera

Collins Ani-Agyei works at Goldbank. Under Kwaku Eric's and Jonathan's instruction he learned to operate the water pump at the mine. "I have completed secondary school, but we couldn't gain any employment. So we were in this town with nothing to do.

"Then these gold miners came to this town and we applied and got recruited," says Collins. "The operation of the water pump has been very lucrative. I have been able to buy a car and build a two-bedroom apartment in which I live with my wife and children. Now we've nothing to worry about in this life again."

Small mines require workers of all types. Frederick Adubuaye works in security at a site near Kutokrom in the Western Region.

Frederick Adubuaye

Frederick Adubuaye trained in the maintenance of refrigerators but moved to ASM when he could not find work in that field

I am originally from the Eastern Region and moved here to work in the small-scale mines. It has helped me a lot because now I can take care of my children and myself. It's been very good for me.

– Frederick Adubuaye

As a security guard, Frederick knows that working in small-scale mining can often be an unsafe and precarious occupation, but he stands firm on his enthusiasm for a different way of running small mines. "There are many who are not doing things right and it's dangerous. They dig a hole, finish their work and leave it like that. But here it's not like that," he says.

3:23 An interview with Jonathan Tettay, 'chief of staff' at Goldbank Resources, a small-scale mine in the Eastern Region of Ghana

Training is a major part of the work of foremen and mine managers in small mines. Jonathan started his career as a geology technician and has been training mineworkers, mechanics, and machinery operators for two decades. He even mentored Kwaku Eric in his first job in mining. "I am very proud to have him as my GM [general manager]. I taught him and he has developed in his own way. Now we want to make this mine a centre to train others," he says with satisfaction.

I am excited and love to see activities going on in the mine and how people go about the work. It is my initiative. I have trained them. I have told them how to do it. We just pick the laymen, unskilled men. By the fourth week they know the do's and don'ts in the mine. As the foreman I go around every hour or one and a half hour; I go around the site and see how they're faring. This keeps me healthy too, as I do a lot of walking.

– Jonathan Tettay
Jonathan Tettay training miner

Jonathan trains an office assistant on some of the mine's administrative tasks

Responsible operators can attract other groups that can do good things for the local community. As part of its work with Goldbank, Solidaridad is providing small grants for 30 women from the local community to set up businesses such as bakeries, hairdressing and sewing.

“I want to be a businesswoman”

Small mines also provide fertile ground for local, 'micro' businesses to flourish, particularly those led by women. While some women own and manage mines, many women involved in the sector work as cooks for small mines or set up food stalls that benefit from the continued patronage of hungry mineworkers and others working in mining.

Felicia Amoah sells hearty meals to mine labourers in a market in the Adomanu-Abedwum area near Obuasi in the Ashanti region.

I sell fufu and banku at this stall for six months. I want to help my children. That is why I am here. I can get money to look after the children and my family.

Her two daughters, aged 10 and six, attend school while Felicia sees to her stall, often with the help of her sister.

But Felicia aims for more. She has seen that mining can open other prospects and is now hoping to become a small-scale miner herself. She has joined a local committee set up by the regional chapter of GNASSM, which is working to organise roughly 4,000 artisanal miners into groups that can eventually become fully functioning mining cooperatives.

Felicia Amoah

Felicia Amoah says that mining work is not 'for men' only: "Women can also take part and earn an income"

I want to be a businesswoman. I want my children to be proud of me. I want them to believe that their mother has something to give. If you are a businesswoman, people can come to you when they need things and you can help them.

– Felicia Amoah

Meanwhile, across the country Zeinabu Abdulei cooks for 22 mineworkers employed at a site near the well-known gold mining area of Prestea in the Western Region.

Every morning at 6am, the mine sends a car to collect her from the main road. She waits ready to start the day with large bags containing the food that she and another cook will use to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Zeinabu Abdulei

Despite working in an all-male environment, Zeinabu Adbulei says she feels safe doing her job

It's a lot of work but it's easy. I enjoy what I do. If I weren't here I would be a trader in the market but I wouldn't make as much money as I do here. I want to save money to open a shop and sell cosmetics. That is my choice.

– Zeinabu Adbulei

Zeinabu is among the many young women who trade their work in farming or market stalls for better-paid jobs servicing small mines. Like many others, she sees it as stepping stone, one that will allow her to save enough to open her own business one day. Similarly, small mines can create new opportunities for women to complement their regular income from farming or other activities.

Women working in mines or selling food to mineworkers are not the only people to benefit from the presence of thriving small mines. In the Eastern Region, Ruth Boateng and Aleratu Moro sell vegetables and groceries in the Apapatia village street market.

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Ruth Boateng says that her business has “flourished” since the mine arrived

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Workers from Goldbank Resources are among Aleratu Moro's customers

Ruth attributes a significant hike in sales to the mine and mineworkers: "Ever since the miners came, business has improved. If they hired more people, business would be even better. There has been a positive difference in business since they came compared to how it was before. We can get money to cater for our whole families, and take the children to school and to stay studying until they reach higher levels."

Next to Ruth's market stall, Aleratu Moro sells drinks and waakye, a popular dish of cooked rice mixed with beans. 

"If business goes well, it is extremely helpful for us to take care of the household. Our kids go to school, so if you don't have any work to do, you are not able to take your children to school and secure a bright future for them," says Aleratu. "The market used to be dull. They should bring more workers, so we can make some more money and can cater for our children so that they can progress in life."

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Many women reported benefiting from the presence of small mines, by setting up their businesses nearby


“We want to be appreciated for what we are doing”

Travelling across three Ghanaian gold mining regions leaves no doubt of the extent of the environmental damage that decades of informal or illegal mining has left on the country's natural landscape. Water pollution, soil damage and the unsafe use of chemicals, alongside the exploitation of workers, contagious diseases and dangerous working conditions, are as current as they are undeniable.

But amid this bleak backdrop, the desire to do small-scale mining differently, more sustainably and responsibly, is present too. At times, it is driven by the pursuit of greater markets and better prices. At times, it is the result of a hidden vocation for teaching that comes alive when new cohorts of unskilled workers arrive. And sometimes it is inspired by the desire to protect families and neighbours from harm.

Whatever the motivation, these examples show that responsible ASM exists and that a more sustainable sector is possible. As the current government drive against illegal mining continues in full force, it is timely to remember that sites that follow good practices coexist, side by side, with those that do not. Amid a time of great turmoil in the mining sector, those who work with, support or regulate the ASM sector can take heart from these positive examples – and look to them as signposts to a better future.

Appropriately, the final work goes to Elliott Larme. "We want to be appreciated for what we are doing," he said. "People always give a bad name to small-scale miners, which is not good. It is rather unfortunate that small-scale is portrayed as just being destructive. It could be destructive or maybe it will be destructive some times. But the good side of it is more than the bad side of it."

Interviews and writing by Gabriela Flores

Photos and video footage by Kwesi Annim

More long reads in this series

Further resources

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Ghana. Evidence to inform an ‘action dialogue’, James McQuilken, Gavin Hilson (2016), IIED Country report