Ghana is facing a serious risk of an environmental catastrophe due to the high level of environmentally unfriendly human activities such as illegal logging, illegal mining, and illegal farming within its forest reserves.
While these activities are not new, evidence shows that the extent at which they are being perpetrated might sooner than expected, wipe away all of the country’s forests.
Illegal mining, in particular, has done extensive damage to almost all of the country’s existing forests.
Although some licensed mining companies have been given concessions within some forests [and those areas later declassified as forest reserves], their activities are easily monitored and controlled by the mandated state agencies unlike illegal miners, whose footprints are widespread across the country, especially in the southern part.
Several hectares of fertile forestlands across the country have been destroyed due to the activities of illegal miners, especially within the last decade. The Desiri, Kutukrom, Kobro, Oda, Jimira, Atewa, and Tano-Offin forests in the Ahafo, Western, Ashanti, Eastern regions have all suffered from the illegality.
Many rivers, including the Birim River in the Eastern Region and other water bodies, that take their source from these forests have as a result been left heavily polluted depriving residents in nearby communities of a source of fresh water and putting at risk the lives of over five million other people in major cities in the south whose potable water are sourced from the forests.
The decline in forest cover over the years
In 1901, Ghana’s total forest reserve cover stood at 8.2 million hectares but is now estimated to be less than 1.6 million hectares according to the Forestry Commission.
The rate of deforestation based on the trend has been pegged at an unsustainably high rate of 65,000 hectares per annum.
Given the prevailing rate of deforestation, it is estimated that there will be no natural forest in Ghana by the year 2035.
Why this is a problem
Ghana is already facing the consequences of the fast depletion of its forest reserves. Temperatures in the country are generally rising with the Northern part of the country recording temperatures as high as 43 degrees Celsius. The rainfall pattern has also become unpredictable as the volume of rain has reduced by about 20% since the 1960s according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The decline is expected to continue to an estimated 20.5% by 2080 according to Ghana’s National Climate Change Adaptation Policy if things remain the same and this poses a threat to the country’s agricultural sector in which farming is largely rain-fed.
The existence of forests has huge benefits in terms of absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is the main driver of climate change.
In the local context, the existence of forests helps create suitable microclimate for crops such as cocoa, which is one of Ghana’s major export products to be grown in the country.
The crop generates about $2 billion in foreign exchange annually to the country.
Tano-Offin and Atewa forest under threat
The Atewa and Tano-Offin forests are among the many forest reserves in the country whose existence are threatened by illegal mining.
Located in the Eastern and Ashanti Regions respectively, the two forest reserves have been invaded by illegal miners who on a daily basis desecrate the forest in their quest to mine gold.
Ghana’s Minerals and Mining Act of 2006 requires that anyone who seeks to exploit the mineral resources obtains a license from the Minerals Commission, but illegal miners do not follow this requirement.
“We have been struggling for potable water for some time now. Our source of water has turned brown because the illegal miners in the forest have polluted the water,” a resident of Asiakwa, a town that sits at the feet of the Atewa forest in the Eastern region said.
The tale is the same for communities such as Kwabeng, Sagyimase, Asiakwa and Kibi, which are all towns close to the Atewa forest in that region.
Although the Tano-Offin and Atewa forest reserves are recognized as Globally Significant Biodiversity Areas (GSBAs) that serve as home to some of the world’s endangered animal species, including pangolins, rare frogs, birds and butterflies, not much has been done by the State to protect them in the face of the threats of illegal mining.
More than 12 hectares of the Tano-Offin forest have been destroyed by illegal miners while about 15 hectares of the Atewa forest have reportedly been lost to illegal mining.
The illegal miners presently use pickaxes, water-pumping machines, gold detector machines, among other low specification implements to pull down trees and dig several deep pits within the forest in search of gold hidden underneath the surface of the earth.
Although some use excavators to carry out the crime, that has reduced significantly over the past few months.
“As for the illegal people [illegal miners], it is greed that is creating all those things. Apart from greed it is more or less about livelihoods,” William Baah, the Ashanti Regional Forestry manager said.
From his office in the Ashanti Regional capital, Kumasi, Mr. Baah admitted that the health of the forest is threatened by the pervasive activity of illegal mining, although his outfit, the Forestry Commission, which is tasked with regulating the use of forest and wildlife resources as well as conserving and managing those resources, has been planting several trees within the forest to increase density.
“We are doing more plantations. Last year, we planted about 790 hectares using the Modified Taungya System. For direct plantation, we did about 360 hectares. We are planting, but we have the illegal farmers going in to farm, the chainsaw operators, we have illegal loggers and in the same Tano-Offin, we have illegal miners too. As we plant, people are destroying,” he lamented.
The Tano-Offin forest which covers a land size of about 41,392 hectares has several points of entry hence it is very easy for anyone to encroach into the forest to carry out an unauthorized activity such as illegal mining at the blindside of forest guards and other authorities.
The result is the death of water bodies, fast decline of forest cover and destruction of land resources.
Thirty two-year-old Kwame Asante, a cocoa farmer at Nyinahini a town in the Atwima Mponua District of the Ashanti Region where the Tano-Offin is located, said the activities of illegal miners in the forest leaves him frustrated because their activity is negatively affecting his cocoa farm.
“We have noticed that because of the illegal mining, the weather that previously made our cocoa farms do well has changed. Our harvests are not as before and we know it has something to do with the illegal mining, cutting down of trees and the rainfall,” he said.
River Offin and River Tano are two major rivers that flow through the Tano-Offin forest and both have not been spared from the negative repercussions of illegal mining in the forest.
Samuel Nkansah Twum, the Assistant Director of the Atwima Mponua District Assembly within which the forest reserve lies, says the current state of affairs concerning illegal mining in the area is far better than it used to be before 2017 when the government of Ghana, after intense civil society and media pressure, announced a ban on all small-scale mining activities to sanitize the sector and allow water resources to naturally regain their quality.
Being the Secretary of the District Committee Against Illegal Mining, Twum said the District Assembly has been working to deal with the menace due to the negative impact on people in the local community.
“Before 2017, we had some illegal miners who went into the forest. The Offin river flows through the forest so they mould a machine called the ‘changfang’ machine and they go,, and hide the machine on the river and they mine directly on the river,” he said.
“Legal mining encouraging illegal mining”
An illegal miner who claimed to have stopped the activity and spoke on condition of anonymity said the permission granted to some small-scale mining companies belonging to non-indigenes to mine in the area, pushes them to go into the forest to mine since they are poor and cannot sit aloof as others make wealth from mineral deposits “on our lands.”
As at March 2019, three months after the government lifted the ban on small-scale mining, 23 small-scale mining companies had been cleared to mine on various concessions within the Atwima Mponua District.
Although not all of them are actively mining, the operation of the few, according to the District Assembly, is constantly being monitored to ensure that they conduct their activities in a safe and sustainable manner.
The claim could not be immediately verified.
The havoc being wreaked in the Tano-Offin forest by some illegal miners was very evident during a site visit in March 2019.
There were many visible signs of degraded lands, pockets of turbid brownish water, and lands from which trees were cleared in the forest for illegal mining.
Some of the illegal miners have also taken to mining directly on the Offin River which flows through the forest.
The river has become polluted as a result.
Inadequate forest guards
The Ashanti Regional Forestry Manager, Mr. William Baah, said dealing with the situation has been challenging.
He blames the lack of forest guards and other resources for the height at which the illegality is being perpetrated.
There are barely twenty forest guards manning the entire Tano-Offin forest and the number is woefully inadequate to ward off the illegal miners, who could easily pitch camp deep within the forest where guards can barely visit.
“If they go in the middle of the reserve, you might not know and there are so many routes to enter the forest so they may enter through a point and if they are there doing the mining, unless somebody inside there hints you or if the guards maintaining the boundaries see footpaths, they follow it and get to that point. Some work under the cover of darkness but even in the daytime they do it. The forest guard cannot be everywhere at the same time. [He will be moving so they may study him and operate at his blind side.] It is not an easy job. We do our best but the people always try to outwit us,” Mr. William Baah said concerning the illegal miners in the forest.
Arrests for mining in Tano-Offin forest
Although there is a popular belief that arresting the illegal miners will deter others from carrying out the crime, the challenge persists.
The local assembly says the arrests, not just those carried out in the forest, has helped to reduce the incident of illegal mining with a few notorious persons still mining illegally.
The Nkawie District Forest Manager, Ebenezer Mensa, who oversees the Tano-Offin forest said only eight illegal small-scale miners have been arrested since the beginning of the year.
“What we are encountering now are those using shovel and pickaxes and periodically we go in to arrest some of them and bring them to the police and then to the court. Now, you don’t see excavators…Basically, it is just small guys who are inside the forest, deep inside the forest… this year  eight people have been arrested. All of them were using shovels and pickaxes but with the excavators we have arrested only one,” Mr. Mensa said.
Equipment of illegal miners are in almost all case seized.
A November 2018 audit of seized equipment from a report of the District Committee Against Illegal Mining in the Atwima Mponua District Assembly indicated that 40 gold detectors, 20 mobile phones among others equipment were retrieved from various operations in the district.
Indeed, the commitment of the culprits to spend days desecrating the forest even with the simple tools they wield gives a clear indication of how much their activities within the forest cannot be underestimated.
Drone technology to fight illegal mining
The government in September 2017 announced plans to procure drones worth $3 million to help fight the illegality, especially in hard-to-reach areas.
According to Samuel Twum Ampofo, the Atwima Mponua District Assembly has taken delivery of its drones and assigned pilots to fly them to gather information about the movement of illegal persons within the forest and enable the assembly and security officials take action.
“The district has received the drones. We have two drones and drone pilots allocated to the Atwima Mponua district. They will be flown into the sky to see where people are flouting the mining laws. It will give us an indication as to where an illegality is being conducted so that the task force can be alerted and they can go into the place to remedy the situation,” he said.
Atewa forest’s slow death
About 62 kilometers from the Eastern Regional capital of Koforidua is the Atewa Forest Range.
Like the Tano-Offin Forest, it is fast declining in coverage.
The moving in the forest range is a daunting task due to the steep-sided hills, however, the knowledge of the large deposits of gold and low-grade bauxite underneath the forest reserve, with the level of poverty and unemployment in the area, has driven many young people into the forest to mine illegally.
Abraham [not his real name], is 19 years of age and a final year senior high school, student.
He was spotted alongside two other friends illegally mining at the foot of the Atewa forest in an already dug out pit.
Like his friends, the school was on vacation and so he decided to “do the illegal mining to get something [money].”
He said there were no jobs in the community hence his decision to go to the site to mine.
Although he admitted that his action was illegal and had dire negative effects on the environment, he said the monetary reward was a motivating factor.
“My friends just brought me here and told me that if I come here, by all means I’ll get something to put in my pocket. If you come, you will get what you want. A day you can get GH¢ 100 ($20). Anytime we come, we get something…. It is good to ban it, it is destroying the land and the water so if it is banned it is good but for us, we are just students and we don’t do this all the time,” he said.
Together with three other they sometimes make as much as GH¢ 500 ($100) a day, digging up old pits left behind by more sophisticated illegal miners.
“How these illegal miners are operating in our community is making us suffer. It they mine and cover the pit afterwards, we’ll not have so much problem with them but they leave the pits uncovered, endangering our lives. They take this same attitude into our forest and destroy that place,” Maame Akua, a cocoa farmer said.
Emmanuel Akyeanor Tabi, the Assemblyman for Sagyimase, a community at a foot of the forest reserve, said the problem of illegal mining in the Atewa forest is getting out of control because of many more youth from within and neighboring communities are attracted to perpetrate the crime due to the possibility of high profits.
“They are everywhere in the forest and it is very difficult [for forest guards] to get there. They are able to go there and stay there for days, using manpower…They can take an acre of land in a day because they are many. As they dig, the trees will fall and they mine around them. You will see a lot of devastation, a lot of areas in the forest have been mined and that is our worry. In the past, it was very few of them in the forest but now it is serious,” he said.
He added that due to the monies many of those who are involved in the illegality make, they are never satisfied if they are convinced to shun the activity and take up alternative legal jobs.
“Unemployment is one of them. Some of them are arrested and released so people think that if you are well connected you can easily get released and that has motivated them. The money that they are getting, they get a lot of money and that is the motivation so they are not afraid of the risk. If someone can get GH¢300 ($60) a day and he cannot find that money in another job that he goes to do, if you give them another job, they wouldn’t like to do it,” Mr. Tabi said.
With the fewer number of forest guards and other resources available to man the Atewa range, it is easy for illegal miners to hide in the forest and pitch camp for days digging up the precious mineral illegally.
They take to obscure locations that will ordinarily not be visited by any forest guard or state security apparatus unless in the few occasions of targeted operations after a tip-off from informants including hunters.
It will take nearly two hours, climbing up the steep hills to reach the closest illegal mining site in the forest.
Further activities of illegal mining take place farther away from each entry point of the natural reserve.
Politicians encouraging illegality
Some community leaders pointed accusing fingers at top politicians and local chiefs as persons sabotaging the fight against illegal mining in the Atewa forest.
They cited instances where illegal small-scale miners were released back into the community hours after they were arrested after intervention from top state actors, including those in the current New Patriotic Party (NPP) government.
Besides the example of politicians helping to free arrested illegal miners was the instance of those who recruit known illegal miners to run the illegal business on their behalf.
That claim could not be immediately verified.
Evidence gathered from happenings within the forest however is indicative of some perpetrators connected directly or indirectly to sources of political power and local authority.
Indeed, some of the illegal miners, use the names of influential persons including politicians they have some relationship with to get unfettered access to the forest and also intimidate local vigilantes to enable them carryout the act without hindrance.
While some of these perpetrators may have received blessings from influential persons they are connected to, others use their names without their knowledge.
Also, there are claims of the police and the government’s anti-illegal mining taskforce compromising their ethics by taking bribes to free persons caught mining in the forest but the those accused, including the joint military-police taskforce, Operation Vanguard, have denied the allegations.
Government giving a boost to illegal mining
The government’s decision to trade the Atewa forest reserve for $2 billion worth of infrastructural development from China has severely undermined the efforts of environmentalists and locals fighting for the conservation of the mineral-rich natural forest.
Per the agreement, the Sinohydro Group Limited of China will provide the infrastructure of Ghana’s choice including hospital, roads, electricity, housing and sanitation projects and in return be allowed to mine bauxite in the forest.
Ghana has already been given access to $646.6 million being value for the first batch of projects all across the country, and that may be the final nail in the coffin for the Atewa forest.
“This forest cannot be saved, if the government’s interest to mine bauxite is not rescinded,” Daryl Bosu, Executive Director of A-Rocha Ghana explained.
He explains that to the extent that the government has consented to the destruction of the forest in the Sinohydro deal bauxite batter deal, there is now very little consideration given to the protection of the forest.
“That declaration is having a toll on the level of care and vigilance that even the state agencies are applying to manage the forest. People are thinking that it s going to be mined anyway so let me see what I can salvage before the big players come to hack it away,” he added.
More surprisingly, the environmental impact of bauxite mining far exceeds what small-scale illegal mining causes. Bauxite mining has a direct impact on the environment by polluting air, water sources and soil and may require the resettlement of nearby communities due to the potential health hazard.
The mining of bauxite is however yet to commence but advocates within the communities say while fighting illegal mining in the forest is important, the purpose is defeated if the government is giving up the sanity of the forest reserve in a trade deal for bauxite mining.
Lenient court sentences
A-Rocha Ghana, a nongovernmental organization, has been campaigning actively for at least four years for the protection and preservation of the Atewa forest.
The organization believes that the lenient sentences have been a great disincentive to the fight against illegal mining in the forest.
Some convicted illegal miners are fined as low as GH¢ 1,000 ($200) and this is a great source of worry for all persons concerned about the conservation of forests in the country.
It is worthy of note that some illegal miners make that money out of the illegal trade in a matter of hours.
“On the punishment, yes, some are not deterrent enough which is also a reflection of the low value we place on the impacts caused by such illegal activity. There need to be a review of the current mining regulations, not only to serve as deterrent but also to internalize the true costs of mining in every permit, that way I am not sure, miners will find mining to be as lucrative as they see it now. Currently miners destroy the land, make their money and leave public to deal with the mess,” Daryl Bosu of A-Rocha Ghana said.
The government’s joint police and military anti-illegal mining team, Operation Vanguard, has also had the cause to complain about what they described as “weak” sentences for persons they arrest for illegal mining.
Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, expressed the same sentiments in October 2018 when he urged judges to consider the highest form of punishment whenever they are to exercise their discretion in handing sentences to suspects in any of such crimes.
The Eastern Regional Manager of the Forestry Commission also expressed worry about the situation.
“It continues to be a source of worry, that persons caught in the act of destroying our environment and polluting our water bodies, the inheritance of our future generations because of the phenomenon of illegal mining, popularly referred to as galamsey, get away with lenient sentences. As it is at certain places, the discretion must be exercised for the upper end, for the maximum,” he said while swearing into office four new Supreme Court judges in Accra.
He said his outfit is helpless as its powers only end at the point of effecting the arrest and assisting the police to pursue the matter in court.
“We arrest them and take them to the police [but] when it comes to prosecution, we don’t have control. Ours is to try and arrest the people and get them there for the judiciary to do their part,” he said.
The complexities involved in getting illegal miners arrested, prosecuted and sentenced by a court has been a great disincentive to most locals who feel it is a fruitless venture.
A resident who spoke on condition of anonymity revealed that his life was once threatened by an illegal miner who he reported to the police.
He said the miner was arrested but released after a day.
“He came to my house and threatened to kill me if I try to report him again,” the resident said.
Data from the office of the Kyebi Range Manager of the forest reveals that 102 illegal miners have been arrested from the forest since 2017. 88 of them have been convicted, jailed or fined while 13 are in prison custody. One other suspect jumped bail and is on the run.
The Range Manager, Jones Agyei Kumi, said to the extent that only four have been arrested so far this year, the incident of illegal mining in the forest can be said be declining.
The lack of proper coordination among the various state-backed security task forces means that the figures may be much higher.
The government and other state actors including the Forestry Commission have said they are stepping up efforts to tackle the incidence of illegal mining in Ghana’s forests which if left unchecked, could spell doom for the country’s forest resources, but they seem to be losing the fight through the complicity of some officials supposed to be guarding the interest of the state.
The conspicuous lack of coordination between various security groups established to deal with the menace and firefighting approach of tackling the problem must be changed.
Although continuous planting of trees to replenish the forest is important, it must not be prioritized over the foremost duty of ensuring that no single act of illegal mining is undertaken within the country’s forest reserves.
The environmental impact of illegal mining in Ghana’s forest reserves and the effects of climate change the country is currently confronted with should serve as a wake-up call to the government to quadruple its efforts to save the dying reserves.
This investigation was supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.