Monday, January 10, 2011

Health for Gold

‘Galamsey hijacks our future’

It used to be a myth, now it is an obvious reality from which is developing a nuisance we have to grapple with every day. Its effect could even devastate the future of a town.
When we were young, we heard stories of how gold used to be so common in our community that you could see this precious mineral in the gutters and gullies when it rained. As I type out these words, I wish sincerely wish it was just as we heard it; a myth!
Why such strong sentiments against discovery of such precious minerals in my area you may ask me?
My story begins now.
I come from Akrokerri, a small town in the Adansi-North District of Ghana. Akrokerri is about 7 miles from Obuasi; a town nicknamed the Golden city due to the quantity of gold that is mined there. Ashanti Goldfields Company Ltd started from here and had its largest gold mine and head office here in those days until it the merger which saw its transformation into AngloGold Ashanti. Obuasi still remains an important town on the map of Ghana because of its supply of mineral wealth for Ghana’s economy. Akrokerri may be considered as a suburb of Obuasi in a sense. What has made Akrokerri popular is the location of one of the four Colleges of Education in the whole of Ashanti Region here. As a matter of interest, it was during the 23 years of my father’s stay at AKROTCO (a popular abbreviation for Akrokerri Training College as it used to be known) that I was born. This was where I spent most of my childhood until my father’s retirement some five years ago. We have since moved to the main town some minutes’ walk from the Campus. Akrokerri boasts of one of the best Colleges of Education in Ghana, a feat that has earned it the nickname, ‘Adansi University’.
The Obuasi gold deposits occur along a zone of intense shearing and faulting within Precambrian greenstones. Mineralisation in Obuasi comprises two main types: quartz veins containing high-grade free gold and the main sulphide ore in which narrow veins contain gold trapped within arsenopyrite. Ashanti Goldfields Company was established in 1897 in London and underground gold-mining started about ten years after.(1)
There is a myth held by the local people that the gold underground is some kind of a god with head, hands and feet. The people in my area believe this gold-god has its head right beneath their town. I am not sure my folks are aware of the geology outlined in the previous paragraph but to them, the mineral wealth is from this god beneath. I cannot recall when young men in Akrokerri became as adventurous and daring as to begin digging for the head of this god! Maybe that should have been the title of this article; Digging for the god’s head.
As is common in parts of Ghana where mining is done, illegal surface miners known as ‘Galamsey’ set up their own business and begin their own exploration for the bullions. Galamsey is a Ghanaian lexical item for illegal surface mining. The activities of Galamsey operators have often resulted in conflicts between mining companies that operate in such areas and the youth in the affected communities. (2)
There have been numerous reports of accidents of various sorts including cave-ins, drowning in deep ditches, etc at Galamsey sites.
Despite the dangers involved, every day I see enthusiastic young men each day carrying their tools, walking past my house to their work site. The numbers keep increasing every day.
What could be pushing such young men to take such risks? Social injustice has been cited as a cause. People don’t find it easy getting jobs in this part of the country. Some also claim it is because mining companies cheat the communities they operate within and hence the youth must virtually take back what belongs to their community.
That cited, I must state my opinion on this matter now. I have lived in Akrokerri virtually all my life with the exception of time spent in high school and university. Even now, I come back to this place anytime I have a break from academics. One thing is very clear, I find it true that genuine job seekers are lacking in my beloved Akrokerri. The human resource is also lacking as most indigenes do not take education serious. Most young people dream of getting rich over-night and look for ways of achieving this dream. Some of us deem ourselves lucky to have attended school from basic level through to Junior High school level here and still managed to pass to University level.
Illegal surface mining (Galamsey) has many implications on the environment and the health of the people. Aside the morbidity and mortality associated with accidents at these sites, myriads of health problems arise because of these clandestine activities.
Most of these miners are illiterates and have no idea the hazards or effects of the chemicals used in the process. Mercury is used in the purification of gold. This can have serious debilitating effects on the health of the miners and the community at large. Some of the mercury also goes into the underground and surface water sources around. This pollutes the water and poses a serious threat to both flora and fauna in the whole community.
Environmental issues include erosion, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from the mining processes. Just to re-emphasize again, groundwater and surface water contamination.
In some cases, additional forest logging is done in the vicinity of mines to increase the available room for the storage of the created debris and soil. Contamination resulting from leakage of chemicals can also affect the health of the local population if not properly controlled.
It all started out as very simple and all mechanical with workers using axes, mattocks, shovels and instruments as such. It has become more sophisticated now as electric pumps and other machines are used in addition. This has also added on to the nuisance. The noise from such machines is sometimes unbearable. As if this were not enough, now workers run shifts. This means some work during the day and change over during the night! That translates into 24 hours of complete clamor and clatter! That constitutes a social problem too; Noise pollution.
The most devastating effect from the above is the loss of vegetation and usable landmass. The scars these nefarious activities leave on the environment is as devastating as the health implications it brings. It is not an unfamiliar sight anymore; the mudflows and pits, dirty ponds serving as breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and the general mess of a once beautiful Akrokerri. We are gradually losing our forests and even home environments too.
I almost burst into tears one day as I looked on from a distance at my friend’s house. He was a classmate in Junior High school. Their house was surrounded by what seemed like twenty groups of Galamsey workers. It seemed like an island in a stream. Ponds of water had surrounded it and I could just imagine the sort of problems they had to grapple with every day; the loss of privacy and the general nuisance from the hum and clatter of these machines not to even mention the army of mosquitoes the ditches created will be serving. Here, you could identify all forms of pollution, air pollution from the dust, soil and water pollution from the chemicals, and noise pollution which I found particularly disturbing. All the vegetation that once surrounded the house was gone! The land was bare and desolate, such a pity. I used to complain a lot when these activities were being undertaken about 70 meters from my house and here I was, as close as they could get near Mr. Agyin’s house.
If I am not exaggerating, the ever-increasing proportions of this mess amounts to a calamity. The misery of it is that, the people have come to accept such an ignoble activity as a welcome development. Not being judgmental, in my opinion, this trend hasn’t brought any significant wealth to those engaged in it nor any development to the community. The money the laborers get from their daily activities is spent on alcoholism and other risky lifestyles. Not to sound like a prophet of doom but it seems to me the future for the town hangs in the air. I say this because those engaged in galamsey here were once the major workforce of the town. Carpenters, masons, drivers, farmers and most disheartening of all, students across all levels of the academic ladder. Drop-out rate is on the ascendency as most junior high school kids don’t continue to the senior high school level. Unless there is an intervention from across sectors, I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel for this town.
Obviously, it is not just the physical health of the miners they are trading for gold here. They are trading the physical, mental and social well-being of the whole community for bullions. The future of the community is being traded for a few bucks in the pockets of few.
Government through the district assembly, the traditional council, the youth and all stakeholders must wake-up, cooperate and find ways of developing the capacity of the youth here. They need education and empowerment. After this, force maybe applied if persuasion should fail in the greater interest of the community itself. The mineral wealth could be extracted in a more appropriate and environment-friendly way for the development of the area. The health of the innocent by-stander should be safe-guarded. It is a human right issue since it concerns survival of this generation and even future generations of this community that has produced eminent personalities such as P.V Obeng, a renowned politician in Ghana, doctors, nurses, soldiers and others who are serving the country in various capacities. Not to even forget the College of Education that has produced several hundreds of thousands of teachers serving all over the country.
As a medical student, maybe I can do more than just raise awareness about this canker. I will stop here and get to work on protecting the health of the town and its future in ways that I can. I hope you join me in my quest whoever my reader may be.

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