Ghana is one of Africa's biggest gold producers – and that's taken a heavy toll on its environment thanks partly to widespread illegal small-scale mining. But expert Yaw Britwum Opoku tells DW why things are looking up.
DW: Gold mining is big business in Ghana – its total gold output was 4.1 million ounces (116,233 kilograms) in 2016. Small-scale miners account for nearly a third of total gold production there, but illegal mining is a serious problem. How is the environment in Ghana currently being impacted by gold mining?
Yaw Britwum Opoku: Gold mining has had a really bad negative impact on the environment. The lands are degraded. Most of the water bodies are muddy and of course we have a lot of environmental damage there.
But I would say there’s now been a different phase to that, because the government has made a plan to solve the problem. Currently there's a temporary ban on small-scale gold mining, whether legal or not.
The government has developed a five-year plan – the plan is to be launched in February or March for the next five years, it's very comprehensive. It's a project which looks at how to reclaim the land. Most of the land is now degraded so the second component is how we are going to improve the surfaces so we can use it for agriculture.
The third component also looks at the social development of the mining communities, so it's looking at how to provide skills for mining communities. It's also trying to ensure that they practise gold mining sustainably.
The last component looks at technology, how can we bring technology from outside and inside the country to promote sustainable mining in the small-scale mining sector. We as an organization played a key role in the development of the project because we have, over the past five years, been promoting sustainable mining in the small-scale mining sector.
One of the big issues is the use of mercury, a toxic substance, in gold mining. What is being done about that in Ghana?
For us as an organization, the focus was to help small-scale miners produce gold sustainably. We use the Fairmined Standard, which helps ensure sustainable practices, and it looks at the use of mercury in mines as well. Our work involves going to the mines to train them there, and we have to provide working gear, so that's a bit expensive. But for us, this is one of the biggest parts of the project because it's one strategy that has really helped - it will help provide skills over the years.
We don't expect the mines to change practices overnight, but we encourage them to use mercury-free technologies. We are going to try to bring mercury-free technologies to Ghana. We did another project to address some of the challenges we saw with this. It looks at going to talk to a few entrepreneurs interested in supporting the small-scale mining sector.
So, for example, if we are able to get a mercury-free technology from Colombia and we can bring it to Ghana, we want to talk to an entrepreneur, encourage them to come up with a business plan and for them to invest in the mine.
What are the biggest environmental impacts from mining in Ghana?
Dredging as they look for gold makes the water muddy in the river – in Ghana, mercury is quite expensive so they don’t waste mercury, and don’t release that into the rivers, but the muddiness, it’s not appealing to the eye.
Another issue is that when there's mercury in the land, it can't be used for agriculture. So first the mining site has to be filled with rocks, then nitrogen-fixing plants are planted, and when the mercury is gone from the soil, then crops can be planted.
What are your thoughts on the future of the environment in Ghana in terms of its impact from gold mining?
I think that the way forward looks clear. If the plan is well implemented, it will help ensure sustainable practices.
Yaw Britwum Opoku is gold programme manager in West Africa for international network organization Solidaridad, which focuses on supporting sustainable global supply chains.
This interview was conducted by Melanie Hall.