At the MDG Centre for West and Central Africa, where I have worked since September 2011, much of our focus is on scaling up the package of Millennium Village Project (MVP) interventions and on sustainability for Phase Two of the project. I expected scale-up and developing phase two programs to be a top preoccupation at the Centre, but I was surprised to find myself working on both with regard to extractive industries, particularly gold mining.
From Ghana’s Gold Coast to the goldfields of the Guinean highlands, the increase of gold prices over the last decade has created a 21st century gold rush for companies and communities across West Africa. In January, I got a first-hand view of the rush with colleagues from the MDG Center, the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment (VCC), and local MVP site teams trying to assess how the Millennium Village approach can be adapted to communities that depend on mining, rather than agriculture, for their livelihoods.
For the Bonsaaso, Ghana MVP cluster this means looking at how a gold rush in the area will affect sustainability. In new sites that partner with extractive industries it means recalibrating our traditional sector approaches. Baseline assumptions about agricultural livelihoods, human disease, environmental health, infrastructure, and population stability all need to be adapted for the mining context. This is the longer term work that the MDG Center, in collaboration with the VCC, will be carrying out.
In starting to do this work in both Bonsaaso and in a new MVP site in Guinea-Conakry, the more immediate focus is on understanding the mining economy and how to engage with all the stakeholders involved. For me, the initial trips to these sites were an eye-opening introduction to the scale of mining operations, and to how global forces shape the lives and land of people living in some of the most remote areas in the world.
In Guinea, where we were privy to a large-scale, industrialized mining operation, what struck me most was the amount of earth being moved. Small scale, traditional miners with shovels and woven grass baskets were but shadows in pits of stripped landscapes, with giant dump trucks and excavators operating just a few hundred feet away. To produce ten tons of gold per year, the company’s machines move 11 million tons of earth containing microscopic specks of gold dust. Images I'd had of people pulling gold nuggets out of the earth were erased as the mining operators explained that output is measured in grams of gold per ton of ore.
The economics of these mining operations only make sense when gold prices are high enough to outweigh the costs of extraction. Large-scale companies are opening up previously closed pits, expanding their areas of exploration, and intensifying existing operations. These operations overlap with small scale, traditional miners known as galamsey in Ghana and orpaillaige in Guinea. Globally this type of mining is known as artisanal, small-scale mining, or ASM. Most ASM communities—in Guinea, Ghana and across Africa—have been extracting gold on a small scale for centuries, long before prices rallied in the last decade. Today, the overlap of ASM and large-scale operations causes problems for both mine companies and for traditional miners alike, highlighting that there are no easy answers to questions of land and resource ownership and opportunities for alternative, non-mining livelihoods.
In many cases ASM is technically illegal because the operations occur inside a mining company’s land concession (an area of land that a government leases to extractive industries). Galamsey in Ghana refers to illegal mining as laws meant to legalize ASM created a registration process that is very difficult for small-scale miners to complete. Today, most ASM operations in Ghana remain unlicensed and illegal. These illegalities, along with complex policies and traditions for land ownership in West Africa, make it hard to work with ASM operations on land planning and compensation.
As small-scale mining grows in both numbers of operations and intensity of extraction, developing programs that work with miners, companies, and communities alike on land planning also is growing in importance. New financiers, foreign miners, and more mechanization are increasing extraction rates and stripping away forest and agricultural land at unprecedented rates. Beyond the environmental damage, gold profits pouring into communities cause problems ranging from corruption to road damage to declining school attendance. Although ASM operations may not move 11 million tons of earth, they do remove precious topsoil and reroute rivers and streams that are lifelines to farmers in the region.
These are some of the issues the MDG Center and the VCC will be tackling as we analyze the stakeholders, economics, and environments of mining communities in Guinea and Ghana. Beyond this work is the larger question of what it means to have a sustainable mining operation. When considering that gold and other minerals are finite resources, it is clear that extraction itself is not a sustainable enterprise. With this in mind, what we must create is a model in which the resources and profits generated by mining are harnessed for sustainable community development.