By Nosmot Gbadamosi, first published by South China Morning Post
On a warm morning at the end of the rainy season, Vida Dede, a cocoa farmer, tossed the burnt remains of a plantain stem on a pile in Ghana’s Atewa Range Forest Reserve.
It sits on a hilly trek through a dense grove just past the rural town of Sagyimase, a two hours’ drive north of the capital, Accra.
The charcoaled ground beneath Dede’s feet was the result of controlled fires by farmers to clear old growth for new crops. But the pristine landscape had been equally pockmarked by illegal gold miners.
“They don’t ask permission from anybody before they fell your trees,” Dede said.
Ghana has the world’s fastest deforestation rate and mining is a major factor, according to the World Resources Institute. The activities poison farmland and drinking water sources with toxic chemicals including mercury, lead and cyanide.
Still, farmers can gain more lucrative work on mines operating without permit. It takes three weeks for Dede and her husband John to weed and burn a quarter of a hectare of land for farming, while in a day she said she can make 200 Ghanaian cedi (US$36) working at an illegal gold mine.
“When the bauxite comes it will bring jobs,” she said, referring to the government’s plans to tap bauxite deposits in Atewa.
Ghana aims to use the proceeds of refined bauxite sales, the ore of aluminium, to finance a US$2 billion deal with China’s state owned Sinohydro Corp to build roads and bridges.
In May, the government of President Nana Akufo-Addo invited international investors to submit bids on mining bauxite deposits in Atewa, Nyinahin and Awaso – said to be worth a combined US$460 billion, according to the government.
Ghana has created a state-owned company – Ghana Integrated Aluminium Development Corporation – to help establish an industry.
While some are swayed by the prospects of better paid jobs, there is fierce opposition to the deal. Environmentalists have led public demonstrations and petitions, gathering more than 160,000 signatures since the deal was finalised in 2017.
Atewa is a part of the Upper Guinean Rainforest, named one of the most critical ecosystems on the planet by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
The forest, which is crucial in mitigating climate change, once extended more than 103 million acres from Sierra Leone down to Togo. But 80 per cent has been felled – and Ghana has the third largest cover remaining.
Its lush upland vegetation harbours endangered pangolins, white-naped mangabeys and butterflies not found anywhere else on the planet. The reserve is a source of Ghana’s three major rivers: the Ayensu, Birim and Densu that serve 5 million people including residents in the capital with drinking water.
“Once the Atewa forest is destroyed we are going to lose the carbon [sink],” said Richard Pomeyie, coordinator at Ghana Youth Environmental Movement. Atewa holds an estimated 9.3 million tonnes of carbon.
This is why Pomeyie, who is a freelance graphic designer, has helped create billboards across Ghana, warning about the deal.
“The government responded saying that we are going to have responsible mining. There is nothing safe about mining bauxite,” he added.
Local scientists agree. Alfred Oteng-Yeboah, a professor of botany at the University of Ghana, said: “the trees are sitting on soil and you are removing the soil – so where will the trees be?”
Bauxite ore requires surface mining which strips forests, he said.
On taking office in 2017, Akufo-Addo’s government set about fulfilling its popular manifesto of trade investments and a “Ghana beyond aid”.
Ongoing Chinese finance includes the US$50 million construction of a port in the capital. Beijing will also provide a US$7.3 million grant to build the country’s military headquarters, according to the Ghanaian government.
But deals have been criticised for binding natural resource agreements with projects that potentially have big ecological impacts. A similar deal with Guinea, exchanges bauxite concessions for infrastructure loans worth US$20 billion.
Ghana is Africa’s second largest producer of gold, and was tenth globally in 2018. Recently, unregulated hand dug mining, a practice known locally as galamsey (gather and sell) has contaminated water, caused immense deforestation and threatened its other major export – cocoa.
The Ghanaian government estimated the environmental damage caused by illegal miners would cost US$29 billion to restore, and has been using open source satellite data provided by Nasa to try to fight illegal mining. Despite this, it lifted a 2017 ban on small scale mining last year.
Critics argue that adding bauxite to the mix was likely to cause further damage.
“Atewa is gradually becoming an island surrounded by mining concessions,” said Daniel Kwamena Ewur, collaborative resource management officer for environmental advocacy group A Rocha.
A six hours’ drive from Atewa is the remote town of Awaso. The red earth that coats houses and vehicles mark it as Ghana’s only bauxite mining community.
The Ghana Bauxite Company has changed hands numerous times since it was created in 1941.
Its current owners, Chinese minerals group Bosai, bought 80 per cent stake in the company from British-Australian multinational miner Rio Tinto in 2009.
It has been plagued by controversy. Much of the ore is transported by road to the Takoradi port for export.
The resulting dust has been a major health concern for residents living nearby. Villagers told South China Morning Post that promises made on mining included infrastructure, hospitals and schools.
They said these were not delivered and a quarter of residents live without electricity. In June, trucks and offices were burnt by workers striking over pay at the plant, forcing a temporary shutdown.
On an early Sunday morning in mid-September, most in the purpose-built workers village were out. Families had gone to church service. But a skeleton crew remained on site.
“You can see the town of Awaso, they were promised so many things and you see how the people are living,” said one plant worker who asked to remain anonymous because he feared being sacked.
He said workers decided to damage property because an earlier peaceful demonstration was ignored by managers.
Another worker who requested anonymity complained of repeated delayed salary payments, despite earning just 360 cedi (US$65 per month).
William Liu Xin, vice general manager of Bosai Minerals Group in Ghana, denied the workers’ claims. He said the dispute had long been settled.
“We have clarified in all the local media,” he said.
“They are paid much more than they claim.”
Despite this, the conflict over mining grows.
“China is not helping Ghana. And it’s not helping Africa,” said Oteng Adjei, an elected member of the regional assembly in Kwabeng, another town that will be affected by the Atewa mine.
“Just look at the red dust that falls on them [in Awaso]. They don’t even have roads.”
Critics argue that the bauxite estimates at Atewa of around 180 million metric tonnes was less than at Nyinahin, estimated about 350 million tonnes and at Awaso, around a billion.
“If they have technology, that will preserve the flora and fauna let them practice it at Awaso,” Adjei said.
“The forest means a lot to us as a community. Spiritually, economically, we are dependent on the forest,” added Emmanuel Akyeano Tabi, a regional assembly member and minor chief in Sagyimase.
He said many people thought the president would protect Atewa because he comes from Kibi, bordering the forest.
“When we realised the government has committed itself we began asking for environmental impact assessments and other documents,” said Tabi, who is part of the Concerned Citizens of Atewa, a broad coalition of residents campaigning against the plan.
“We asked all those things, which has not been given.”
After Ghana’s environment minister said some people who were campaigning against the deal were also illegally mining in the forest, Tabi and other ‘Concerned Citizens’ members published an open letter in local media disputing it.
Oteng Adjei claimed some locals faced backlash as a result of the minister’s assertion: “Many suffer in silence”.
The United States Forest Service was consulted by the Ghanaian government on the proposed plan.
Their technical assessment recommended the “development of a robust list of proven mitigation measures before any development takes place in Kibi”.
However last month, work on clearing access roads into the forest began.
Sinohydro did not respond to requests for comment. The Post contacted the Ghanaian government for a comment, including the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, but has not had a response. The Environmental Protection Agency declined to comment.
Subsistence farmers like Dede know they were unlikely to get work at a legal bauxite mine.
At Awaso, just a few hundred workers are employed.
“But if it is going to be an open illegal mine then definitely we will have something to do.”
Mines that operate without a permit tend to hire more people for manual labour, while legal mines are equipped with sophisticated machinery.
Ewur argued that turning the forest into a national park for eco-tourism was more likely to directly benefit locals. A Rocha’s study estimated it could generate more than US$5 million annually. A petition on this received more than 24,000 signatures.
“Mining has been in this country for a very long time. The question has been how much have we gained?” said Oteng-Yeboah.
“It is the investors and the mining companies who get all the profits.”
In the country’s central region the Kakum National Park, which opened in 1992, has protected 350 square kilometres of rainforest from illegal mining, unsustainable farming and deforestation. It attracts an average of 180,000 visitors a year.