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Comment & analysis

When silence is golden

Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque

2008-11-20, Issue 407

http://pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/52091

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Taking up the example of the small village of Dumasi in Ghana’s Western Region and drawing upon her experience of filming a documentary entitled When Silence is Golden, Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque discusses the destructive action of the Canadian Golden Star Resources mining company and its pressure on local people for forcible resettlement. While Canada’s anti-poverty agenda cancelled some CAD$18 million of Ghana’s debt in 2004, the author highlights the core contradictions of a Western nation that is conversely unwilling to accept any extraterritorial responsibilities in conflict with the needs of its own domestic economy. As Sicotte-Lévesque underlines, the principal poverty faced by local Ghanaian communities is above all one rooted in a lack of information, a lack underpinning a vicious cycle characterised by poor communities getting poorer as mining companies get richer.

‘This is pure gold’ Joanna Nkrumah told me as she carefully opened a small bag to unveil her grandmother’s jewellery, which had been passed on to her by her mother. The beautifully crafted necklace and earrings had been made over fifty years ago by local goldsmiths, probably around the time when Ghana became the first country in Africa to gain independence from colonial rule. ‘There are no goldsmiths here now. There is no gold anymore,’ Joanna explained. ‘No one can get gold, except the company.’

I met Joanna while preparing a documentary film on the impact of Canadian gold mining operations in Ghana. A fervent activist in her community, Joanna is an incredibly strong woman who won’t ever give up a fight. Her family has been living for centuries in Dumasi, a small village in Ghana’s Western Region and a few miles away from Prestea, a former major mining town now in decline. The family house, which she shares with her widowed father and some of her brothers and sisters, overlooks a large open pit mining operation. Joanna showed me around her farmlands, most of which have now been destroyed by the surface mining activities of Golden Star Resources, a Canadian company registered in Ghana as Bogoso Gold Limited (as per Ghanaian law, all mining companies in the country are partially owned at a rate of 10 per cent by the Ghanaian government.) ‘We are jobless, formerly we are all farmers, now we don’t have anything to do’, Joanna told me. Some of her farmlands have been compensated for, but not always fairly she claimed. Since Golden Star has been operating near the village, cyanide spillages have occurred in nearby streams, farm lands expropriated and the open pit menacingly expanding closer to Dumasi. Today Golden Star is planning to resettle the entire village to mine the gold the community is sitting on.

A NEW MILITARY RULE?

Ghana has been praised in recent years for its economic stability and for being a haven of peace in a region often in turmoil. It is the second producer of gold in Africa, following South Africa, and democratic elections have taken place twice in the last decade. For such reasons, Canada has made Ghana one of its main beneficiaries of international aid on the African continent. So one can’t help but be surprised to see the Ghana Armed Forces roaming the areas near Dumasi and Prestea, to protect, according to locals, the interests of Golden Star.

As surface mining increased in Ghana in the past few years, so did conflicts regarding land use. Indeed, foreign mining and exploration companies can acquire large stretches of land from Ghana’s Minerals Commission while using only 50% for actual mining. In most cases, local communities are not allowed to farm on mining concessions unless permission is granted by the company.

Prestea, a historic mining town, has been at the centre of controversies for the operations of Golden Star. In 2001, the low price of gold (before its increase in 2002) caused financial difficulties for the Prestea underground mine owned at the time by a Ghanaian company. Not having paid its employees’ salaries for more than five months, it decided to sell its site to Golden Star. Golden Star closed down the underground mine and began surface mining right in the centre of town, which caused much uproar in the Prestea community. Indeed, this meant that most employees of the underground mine were going to lose their jobs while others would lose their farms. Moreover, the community expressed worries about the environmental degradation that would occur because of the new surface mine. Conflicts also arose within the community, as the head of the traditional area, Nana Kyie, was accused of receiving monies from Golden Star on behalf of the community without accounting for it. Riots occurred when two young men were shot dead by security forces. In June 2005, more riots occurred as the Prestea community gave the authorities of Golden Star 21 days to cease all operations that were destructive their environment. Once again, seven people were injured as shots were fired at the demonstrators. In an interview granted for the film, Ghana’s Minister of Mines did express his discontent with the actions of Golden Star.

However, conflict did not only arise in the area because of environmental degradation and loss of farmland caused by the presence of Golden Star. Traditional small-scale mining, locally known as galamsey (meaning ‘gather and sell’) has been an important livelihood in the area for generations. To this day individuals often risk anything, even their own health (mercury is a common chemical used in the process) to find nuggets of gold that will give them enough money to feed their families. The Ghanaian government attempted a few years ago to formalise this sector of the local economy by requiring that all small-scale miners obtain licences in the capital Accra. But as Gavin Hilson, a Canadian lecturer in environment and development at the University of Reading, has explained ‘all of the land is under the concession of mining and exploration companies…so it makes it very difficult for these small scale miners to obtain a licence to work as a legitimate small-scale miner.’ The persistent poverty in the region and the absence of alternative livelihoods undoubtedly encourage individuals to resort to small-scale and illegal mining activities in order to make a living.

In 2007, Golden Star lobbied the government for military intervention in order to stop galamsey activities taking place on its concessions. Under pressure from such important economic forces, the government eventually sent its soldiers and operation ‘flush-out’ took place. As small-scale miners were forced to cease all activities in the area, more conflict arose with a few people getting injured. To this day, local communities complain of intimidation by the military.

To what extent then, is Golden Star involved with the military in the region? In an interview included in my documentary film, Mark Thorpe, Golden Star’s Vice-President of Sustainability in Ghana, admitted that the company had lobbied the government. ‘We assisted the government operation at the time with a little bit of logistics’ he said, ‘but in terms of the actual planning of the operation, that was all organised by the central government.’ I was able to convince the military to take me with them on patrol in the nearby hills. Day and night, long after operation ‘flush-out’, the military still roamed the area in search of illegal miners. We rode in an unidentified pick-up truck, likely owned by Golden Star (as I tried to jump in the back of the truck, a soldier inadvertently asked me if I had insurance with the company) and the driver wore a Golden Star employee card. One of the soldiers even informed me that one of their commanders, who would wear civilian clothing and a construction vest, was directly assigned to work with the company. ‘It’s the corporate players who are behind the financing of the military,’ Gavin Hilson explained to me. ‘If I’m making $50 a month as a soldier,’ he said, ‘and you have Golden Star Resources come around and say I’ll give you a few hundred dollars if you help me get these guys off the property, of course I’m going to do it.’

The first day I spent filming the documentary in Dumasi, locals told me that the night before a few huts near the Golden Star open pit had been burnt down, probably by soldiers. When my crew and I visited the site, we found Nana Ofouri, a local farmer, in a rage. The roof of his hut had been burnt with most of his belongings inside. Nana usually used this hut as shelter when farming and considered himself lucky that he had decided to sleep instead in his house in the middle of Dumasi. Why would soldiers have destroyed such property, I asked? But no one could give me an answer. Months later, when I came back to Dumasi, I noticed that the area where the hamlets originally stood was now covered in waste from Golden Star’s open pit. Perhaps the company had tried to warn the community to stay away as they expanded their operations near Dumasi. Nana Ofouri’s fish ponds were also destroyed by mining waste, but Golden Star refused to compensate him as they claimed that these were ‘speculative’ fish ponds built after the company had announced their intention to work in the area.

Because of the proximity of Golden Star’s operation to Dumasi, Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had banned the company from mining near the community. But after an agreement with local leaders in 2007, Golden Star started digging again close to the Dumasi community. Such negotiations in Dumasi have engendered much distrust between the community, Golden Star and government agencies. In attempts to respect local social structures, traditional chiefs often serve as prime representatives for communities during negotiations. For Daniel Owusu-Korenteng, the executive director of WACAM, a grassroots organisation raising awareness about mining activities and of which Joanna is a key member, one of the ‘mistake[s] is that people think that chiefs represent the interest of the community. But they have a different outlook on mining.’ Golden Star has since attempted to negotiate a resettlement package with Dumasi local leaders. The company hired Canadian consultants specialising in resettlement to assess needs and possible procedures. Last time I visited Dumasi, the process was well underway. I learned that Golden Star had resettled another community a few hours away from Dumasi. I then decided to take Joanna, Nana and others to visit the new village to see for themselves what resettlement could mean. Although at first glance the new town seemed pristine with concrete pink houses as opposed to wooden or tin structures, we quickly realised that the constructions did not respect local ways of life. Joanna was shocked. ‘It looks like a cemetery’, she said,‘ there is no economic activity here, and it all looks like government housing.’ Traditionally, locals cook outside under a thatch roof, but no cooking area had been provided inside or outside the houses. Golden Star had also instructed the community not to build any additional structures. The new village was also far from the community’s farms and no transportation had been provided. After visiting the town, Joanna swore she wouldn’t let Golden Star resettle Dumasi. To this day, the company still has not been able to move forward with its resettlement plans.

CANADA’S SILENT RESPONSE

Throughout the production of the film, I tried to get reactions from the Canadian government about their different policies, or lack thereof, regarding Canadian extractive industries in Africa generally and Ghana specifically. I was refused interviews with the then Minister of International Trade, former Prime Minister Joe Clark, and many others. One of my visits to Ghana coincided with the Governor General’s trip to the country and I had the chance to meet with the head of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) who seemed apprehensive about my film. He later formally refused an interview. I finally was granted a meeting with the commercial section of the Canadian High Commission in Accra; I was however not allowed to quote or directly use anything said in the meeting for the film. The meeting was cordial but I could feel my interlocutors were on the defensive. I was asked how long would my film be, and when I responded that it would likely be about one hour, I was told: ‘That’s a long time for such a small country like Ghana.’

There are staggering contradictions in Canada’s policies towards Ghana. In 2004 Canada relieved Ghana’s debt of CAD$18 million in an effort to help combat extreme poverty in Africa. The same year, a Canadian company operating in Ghana, Bonte Gold Mines, went bankrupt and left over US$18 million in debt to different Ghanaian government agencies and private companies. Still the Canadian government did not assume any extraterritorial responsibilities. Most Canadians’ pension plans are financing the operations of Golden Star Resources in Ghana. Therefore, many have argued that as long as the Canadian economy is benefiting from resources in less developed countries the Canadian government should ensure that the activities of Canadian companies do not infringe human rights, good governance and development. As Gavin Hilson said to me, ‘there is a reason why these companies are operating in countries like Ghana: laws are generally lacking and are not enforced.’

Some say that the Canadian government cannot have exterritorial responsibilities towards the actions of its citizens abroad. But Canada does acknowledge its indirect extraterritorial responsibilities regarding child sex tourism. In 1997, Canada was one of the first countries in the world to enact extraterritorial legislation allowing for the prosecution of Canadians who sexually exploit children overseas. As Craig Scott of the University of Toronto has noted, ‘there is a good reason to believe that transnational regulation of child sex tourism may well prove to be the Trojan horse for a new paradigm of extraterritorial human rights responsibility.’ It is therefore clear that Canada does recognise to some extent its obligations in ensuring that no impunity prevails when it comes to certain human rights violations committed by Canadians abroad.

Although CIDA’s primary sectors of intervention in Ghana are basic human needs and governance, none of its framework mentions the mining sector or communities affected by mining. In its programming framework, CIDA does acknowledge that Ghana has ‘one of the world’s richest and largest gold reserves’ and that ‘the need for efficient management of natural resources has become more urgent in light of the rapidly increasing population.’ Still, the content of its programs ignores this important aspect.

Therefore, CIDA does not collaborate with Natural Resources Canada (NRC) for any of its projects in Ghana. This is unfortunate as Canada is the prime example of a country that has been able to use its natural resources to develop its economy for the general benefit of its population. It could therefore be constructive for Canada to share this experience with less developed countries so that they can too make the best use of the resources on their territory.

In an interview granted for the film Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, emphasised the notion of responsibility. ‘I think it’s important to look at the different responsibilities,’ she said. ‘The companies themselves have a direct responsibility if they are violating human rights…but I also think that where governments are aware that companies that they lobby for, support, negotiate for sometimes, they also need to accept that they have a responsibility to ensure that there is not a track record of abuses and a country like Canada shouldn’t overlook that if that’s the case.’

WHAT NOW?

In a few decades Ghana’s mineral wealth will have significantly decreased while the potential negative economic, social and environmental impacts will still be felt by generations to come. This underlines the urgency of the current subject matter.

Mining has thus exacerbated social inequalities in Ghana where communities affected by mining are becoming poorer as their natural resources are being depleted. A vicious cycle is thus taking place where the plight of communities affected by mining is silenced while poverty increases and the power of mining companies is strengthened.

Some positive steps are being taken to address the situation affecting mining communities in Ghana. In June 2008, several months after the release of my film, Ghana’s Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice published a draft of an investigative report pronouncing several mining companies, including Golden Star, guilty of human rights abuses in their host communities. The Canadian government held national roundtables on extractive industries to consult civil society and companies on recommendations for ensuring the respect of human rights abroad. But to this day, the government has yet to respond to the report submitted following the roundtable process.

Looking back at the time I spent in Dumasi, I now realise that the major obstacle facing the community is lack of information. Whether through the company or local authorities they have never been able to access information pertaining to their situation. This is something Joanna understands too well. ‘If I had known that the mining act says that compensation must be prompt, fair and adequate, and they should give me life expectancy of my crops’ she told me, ‘I wouldn’t have given them all my family lands for them to mine on it without giving me anything.’

Today, Joanna is going back to school to improve her English and perhaps proceed on to college. ‘I am learning and I will learn, so that maybe I will become a parliamentarian or a lawyer so that I will defend my community,’ she proclaimed proudly. ‘I won’t sit there and let the company cheat them. I will use the law.’

* The author is the Co-Founder of Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) and the director of a documentary film also titled ‘When Silence is Golden’ made possible thanks to a Global Youth Fellowship from the Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation in Toronto. For more information on the film, please visit: www.when-silence-is-golden.org
* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/


Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

I appreciate this work, to educate and advocate for the people who are affected by gold mining. Gold should be a source of wealth, not poverty.

I have sold my shares of Golden Star. Thank you.

Andy Bayliss

I was forwarded an article from Mikhael Missakabo and I decided to visit your site. Eventually, I don't regret, but I feel ashamed to be African, and unable to defend our continent.

I think we might need to setup sit ins and demonstrations in all Canadian embassies around Africa and Europe, even America, as to highlight strongly these world injustices. Canadian companies in Ghana, DRC, Tanzania, etc... are all doing the same....

I think we need some actions here.

Conga, Focas South Africa




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