Magazine article New Internationalist

Gold Fever

Magazine article New Internationalist

Gold Fever

Article excerpt

WELCOME TO GHANA - Africa's second-largest producer of gold. Alongside the transnational companies which ply their trade in the country's mining district, more than 100,000 Ghanaians take part in small-scale gold-digging, using their bodies as tools. They are nicknamed galamseys (slang for 'gather and sell') and their work represents around 20 per cent of Ghana's total gold production.

The current state of the global economy has made the price of gold skyrocket - last year it reached the record price of $700 an ounce - and tempted new gold-diggers to Ghana. An influx of Chinese workers, who band together to buy equipment allowing them to carry out large-scale mining, now threatens not only the galamseys' work but also the livelihood of local farmers who are being talked into selling their land.

MERCURY AND LEAD are used to extract the gold from the mud. Highly toxic, these metals can damage the gastrointestinal tract and the kidneys as well as poisoning the water. Digging for gold is a dangerous occupation, and worker safety is often neglected. Accidents are common in June 2010, for example, 150 people were killed in Dunkwa-on-Offin, in central Ghana, when a galamsey mine flooded.

JULIUS AMEOUANYONA (above) works at a quarry which was run by a Chinese group until they were chased out by angry farmers last year. The abandoned huts where the Chinese lived are now covered with black tarpaulins (see top photo, opposite page). The quarry is called Mjhang, or 'Do not disturb'.

The mine remains a hive of activity, thanks to the galamseys who have moved in to pick up where the Chinese workers left off. 'The police come here sometimes. Then we have to pay them 300 cedi ($180), and we're allowed to continue,' says Julius. Although it is illegal for galamseys to dig on land licensed to others, the police tend to turn a blind eye, as long as the work takes place on a small scale and isn't carried out using machinery.

'We sleep on gold but have got practically nothing to eat'

THE DIN FROM the machines - left behind by the fleeing Chinese - which dredge up slime from the bottom of the river is deafening. Yet the galamseys work with no ear plugs and no protective clothing.

The galamaseys here were glad to see the back of the Chinese workers. Rumours abound that Chinese gold-diggers are exploiting Ghanaians, paying them slave wages to be their underlings at the mines. Last year, at least 60 Chinese nationals were arrested for illegal goldmining. …

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