thesis research trip to one of ghana’s most affected mining communities

April 11th

The rain wakes me up. It’s such a foreign sound to me now, hearing rain falling on the ocean. I’m under the covers for the first time in months. I had wanted to get up early to go for one last swim in the ocean before beginning this three-day journey of visiting one of the most affected mining communities in Ghana, where I will be completing the bulk of my thesis research, but the pouring rain has changed my mind.

I’m nervous, but so excited, about this trip. I remind myself I am prepared: I have been researching and reading about extractive industries and specifically mining communities in Ghana for seven months. Ever since the Oxfam CHANGE Leader training I was part of in Boston last July, the role that extractive industries play in poor communities around the world has been on my mind and close to my heart.

Lying in bed, I think back to how impassioned I became after first hearing about the negative impacts natural resource extraction often has on impoverished communities. After initially getting bogged down by terms I had never heard before, like ‘extractive industries’ and ‘corporate social responsibility’, I looked at it in the most simplistic way I could and inserted a hypothetical me into the picture: how would I feel if someone came into my backyard, destroyed my home and my land, and took away whatever precious material happened to be within it, along with any possibility I had of supporting myself and my family by cultivating that land like I always had? What would I do? What could I do?

The more I learned about the unjust process of natural resource extraction, and how so often billions of dollars in natural wealth generated from the land of communities such as those in resource-rich Ghana does not translate into healthcare, education, or infrastructure for communities, the more passionate I became. I already knew that people suffer from multiple issues of poverty when they do not have access to basic needs. What I didn’t know was that over sixty percent of the world’s poorest people live in countries rich in natural resources – but they rarely share in the wealth. Alarm bells went off in my head. That makes absolutely no sense, I thought. We hear about so many causes of poverty every day – hunger, diseases, civil conflict – but I had never heard of such a tangible, specific root cause like this. While not all resource extraction is conducted in a harmful fashion, many times it involves quite a direct form of exploitation. And it bothered me on an entire other level that many poor but resource-rich communities were being taken advantage of largely by Western multinational corporations; companies I had heard of before, companies whose stores I saw in malls, whose emblems decorated highways, whose names I saw in newspapers.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Blood Diamond, or are knowledgeable about the nasty business surrounding conflict diamonds in parts of Africa, then it may be easy for you to see the connection to oil and gas mining operations in Africa, too. These are the kind of operations I have been focusing on in Ghana (it was nicknamed the “Gold Coast” for a reason, and oil has recently been discovered). Though multinational extractive companies profit from oil, gas, and mining operations, already poor communities suffer the costs of resource extraction – which often include displacement, polluted water supplies and toxic spills, and loss of livelihoods.

I spent last fall researching how community standards in mining areas in Ghana were affected by extractive industries and learning about many of these negative impacts. I came to Ghana ready to see, first-hand, how my research matched up to what I would observe while traveling to these mining communities. Today, I will start interviewing miners and community members and record their stories. Today, despite the rain, and any other challenges that lie ahead, I am going.

***

I traveled from Busua to Tarkwa and Prestea with Peter (he was still in Ghana visiting us and wanted to be a part of this adventure) and a young Ghanaian man named Michael, who is an acquaintance Dr. Tom Arcaro (one of my professors back at Elon) and who I had been in contact with throughout the semester. His good friend from school was now working as an illegal miner, or galamseyer, in Prestea, and would be acting as my gatekeeper. My nose was stuck to the tro tro’s window as we completed the last leg of the long journey, traveling the extremely bumpy road to the town of Prestea, which is just outside the more major town of Tarkwa (home to the largest gold mine in Ghana). I had never seen so much green lushness in Ghana, followed by so many huge dirt holes, dust, and evidence of mining operations all around. Signs demarcating blast zones (“DANGER: DYNAMITE”) and half-constructed water pumps peppered the sides of the road. I felt like I was in a completely different world.

a mine in Prestea

The hotel we stayed at stood as an anomaly in this poor town; its almost sole clientele are engineers from China and South Africa who visit Prestea on mining business. I could write pages on the details of that first evening and the following day – but I don’t think this is the place for that, so I’ll give an overview of our time in Prestea. (If you want those details, feel free to ask!)

Over the course of two days, I visited two illegal mining sites and one legal/corporate plant in Prestea. I even went INSIDE a mine (with bare feet and a headlamp), and also took photos while Peter went down into an underground one (females were not allowed to go down. “Too dangerous,” the miners told me, which it is – the number of mines that collapse in Ghana, especially those run by galamseyers, is astounding. But there was no stopping Peter!)

before going down

inside a mine

underground miners

Seeing the land around these mines showed me how impossible it is to cultivate it after surface mining has destroyed it. Miners’ work in areas where gold is in abundance feeds the world’s hunger for the precious metal, but so often leaves ruined landscapes in its wake.

I was able to interview a great range of people, including:

– numerous illegal miners, including a man named Albert, who is aware of the dangers in galamseying but feels he has no choice but to engage in it because mining companies won’t hire him and he has to provide for his family

– a community hotel owner named John, who has, for ten years, watched Prestea be exploited and the standards of living of his community members degraded

– the Parliament Chief of Prestea and its surrounding areas, Nana Ntoaboa Pra IV – a delightful and well-educated young man who is a journalist by trade but also serves his role as the esteemed village Chief

– the Administrative Manager of a legal mining company based in Prestea

– Victoria, a mother of a miner, who is happy as a clam in Prestea but is sad and angry that her son barely makes any money

meeting victoria…
…followed by a heated interview

My thesis advisor/mentor Dr. Warner suggested I buy a number of Elon trinkets from our university gift shop before leaving for Ghana, to give to individuals who agreed to participate in my research and be interviewed. Doing so turned out to be invaluable – for many, it came as a very pleasant surprise; I’ll never forget seeing a 50-year-old man named Jackson, who had been illegally mining for ten years, holding up an Elon keychain to show the swarms of kids around him. Some people I interviewed expected something in return for talking with me, and if they asked for money or my number, I gave them a trinket (and a smile) instead.

first round of interviews

As is the custom with doing research or even just visiting many villages in Ghana, my party and I had to meet with the Chief and his Elders soon after arriving in Prestea. It was my first time meeting a chief! We were escorted into his “palace” (a stone compound) and were seated in plastic chairs. We had to stand up to address him and his Elders, and Michael explained in Twi why we were in Prestea and what I was hoping to do there. It’s tradition to present chiefs in Ghana with a bottle of gin when visiting them, which had slipped our mind – so his Elders asked for 10 cedis to buy a bottle, which I hurriedly handed over. Chief Nana then spoke with me for over an hour, and gave me his card and blessing of approval so I could interview his people. That card and the photos we took with him turned out to be very useful later on, when I was trying to interview very skeptical miners who wanted proof that I had seen the Chief and was actually a student researcher permitted to be in Prestea.

surface mining

It was incredibly difficult getting many of the signatures, Mining corporations have recently been sending employees into towns like Prestea pretending to be student researchers like myself or people working for NGOs, and they ask for interviews very similar to the ones I was conducting – which requires participants’ signatures and/or thumbprints documenting their agreement to participate in my research – and then use the signatures of illegal miners’ to get them into trouble with either the government or the mining company. I was very glad to have the help of Michael and his friend Godfred to interpret, as many of the miners only knew a little English. But while some interviews were hard to get, others fell into my lap. At lunch, someone nearby overhead me discussing my research. He came over and introduced himself, and asked if I would interview him – turns out this man Phillip was a mining subcontractor and a very successful business man who had a lot to say about the negative impacts of mining and what he thought should be done about it. After the interview, Peter pinned an Elon University pin on his collar, and Phillip and I both couldn’t stop smiling.

smiles in Prestea

***

Throughout my time in Prestea, I tried to be the least biased field researcher I could be. While the reading I had done since last fall inevitably led to me forming opinions of my own regarding the impact natural resource extraction has on poor communities, I did my best to keep an open mind while speaking with everyone I encountered during the trip – and I did. On the long way back to Accra, my mind was swimming with information, images, and so much more – I was, and still am a bit, confused. But I think that’s sort of the point with field research like this, to gather so much info and differing opinions at first, and then breathe for a little bit before diving in and sorting it all out. And thanks to the diverse perspectives I got, I also now have a few different opinions and many more thoughts on the complexity of this huge issue I am studying. I truly value that, and I have all of my interviewees in Prestea and everything they shared to thank for that.

After the trip, I was mentally and physically exhausted – but still as passionate as ever about my research topic. It was incredible to see first-hand how real everything I have been studying is, and to see how throughout Ghana, this issue is such a controversial and relevant one (largely because of the coming oil boom). And I will be the first to say that this kind of undergraduate, hands-on field research is one of the best things I’ve been able to do at/through Elon, and I truly loved every minute of it. (A huge thanks to my College Fellows program and my mentor, Dr. Bud Warner!) Now, though, the real work begins, as I begin transcribing interviews, writing my thesis paper, preparing conference proposals, etc etc etc! 🙂

discussing the first day over a meal of banku in our hotel room

Heading back to Accra was an adventure, to say the least. We took a late tro, expecting to arrive in Accra around 2 a.m. On the way, though, we got in an accident. A wheel on a truck traveling in the other lane and in the opposite direction came OFF, and the driver lost control and swerved into our lane. Our driver immediately swerved to the right to avoid getting hit by the truck, and we hit a pole instead – miraculously, though, it was the one fiberglass pole out of probably fifty other metal light post poles lining the road, and so it flew into the air when we hit it and our driver was able to stop our tro. Everyone was yelling and jumped out of the tro and ran to the truck driver down the road. I decided to stay in our tro alone, which was somehow equally scary. It took me a long time to stop thinking about what would have happened had that truck hit us or if we had hit one of those many metal poles. In the end, though, everyone was fine, and Peter and I were safe and sound in our beds at the university a few hours later.

If you’ve kept reading this far, thank you for reading about my research and an issue I feel so passionate about. I have uploaded many of the photos from this research trip onto a online web album. Feel free to check them out!

(link will be added very soon)

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