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09/15/2010

Poverty under a goldmine

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Children play in the ruins of homes in Anwiam, a village near Obuasi in Ghana's Ashanti Region, where blasting at a nearby mine has destroyed dozens of homes. Photo by Jessica McDiarmid.

By Jessica McDiarmid

"You are now encroaching," says Eric Adjei.

"Eh?" I say. "On what?"

We were walking down a road in Obuasi, a mining town of about 250,000 in Ghana's Ashanti Region, before hopping a gutter and starting up a well-trodden trail under a canopy of palm trees.

"On their land," says Adjei, a Ghanaian journalist-turned-mining activist.

"So what happens if they catch us?"

He shrugs and starts to walk again.

"I was seeing what your reaction would be," he says. "It's not much."

AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) has the rights to much of the land in and around Obuasi, including the road we're walking on.

As we climb up the path, we come to another road, paved and winding past large, luxurious houses. All around us are green hills that fade off into the horizon under the rumbling clouds overhead.

An arch over the entrance to the town reads, "Welcome to Obuasi, the Golden City." Mine shafts are interspersed with shops and homes on the rough-paved streets. The AGA name is plastered everywhere.

Millions of dollars worth of gold — 381,000 ounces — have been pulled from these hills, refined and moulded and polished into rings and earrings, chains and statues and watches. But here, in the communities that have born the brunt of the extraction and production of what some call the world's dirtiest mineral, no one has gold watches.

In Anwiam, a community of about 500 directly below the mine, few have solid homes. None have safe drinking water. Most don't have a livelihood. They live in the shadow of the mine.

The community has begged AGA for years to be resettled, anywhere far, far away from a mine, to no avail. They say the company won't move them because its operation is scarcely active now and not bringing in enough money. Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, AGA generated $3.8 billion USD in profits last year.

And while the roar of the mine has died down, its effects have not.

"In Obuasi, we are dealing with legacy issues," says Adjei. "Most of the existing laws were not in place before."

Adjei works for the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining (WACAM), a non-governmental organization that promotes human rights in communities where mines operate.

He has lived in Obuasi all his life. He completed secondary school here and studied at the Ghana Institute of Journalism in Accra before returning home to take a job as a reporter at a local radio station.

He wanted to do stories about the plight of people affected by mining operations and the human rights abuses taking place. But at the radio station in town, "you didn't fight the mine," he says.

"There was a saying, AGC is Obuasi, Obuasi is AGC," he says, referring to the previous name of the company. "If you were writing any story that's at variance with the status quo, it became very difficult for you."

After being threatened with "sacking" a handful of times, Adjei looked elsewhere to air his stories. He began producing them and then sending them outside Obuasi to friends and acquaintances at stations in other parts of the country, hoping they would air there.

He met WACAM Executive Director Daniel Owusu-Koranteng through his work as a reporter, and eventually went to work as the assistant to the WACAM officer in Obuasi, who happens to be the news director from the radio station.

Most residents used to be farmers before handing their land over to the mine. Now, with few skills and no education, they resort to petty trading, menial labour, eking out gardens beside the village dumpsite—and illegal mining.

"If you take away their source of living, you are killing them," says Adjei. "It leads to TB, to street kids, to galamsey, you name it."

Referred to as galamsey, illegal mining is a tough trade; floods and disasters have killed hundreds of illegal miners in Ghana in the last couple years and scuffles with company security forces have led to beatings, illegal detainment and alleged deaths.

But, as Adjei tells me, people like those of Anwiam are desperate.

After talking with villagers, we make our way toward a steep trail that cuts up the side of the hill toward the spray of dark gray shale that towers overhead.

From a mining road high above the village, you can see the sprinkle of rough huts, crumbled time and again by blasting and patched together with whatever material could be scrounged up. Beyond stretches the town of Obuasi proper.

"Do you know how to run?" Adjei asks.

"Are we encroaching again?"

"Yeah, we are."

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Any attempt made to get the company's point of view? Actually talk to someone apart from activists with their own agenda? What about all the hundreds of Ghanaians who do have salaried jobs with these companies, how about some of them?

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  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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