Galamsey: A process of destruction


Galamsey, which stems from the Ghanaian phrase “gather them and sell”, signifies the illegal small-scale gold mining industry in Ghana. The miners involved in this activity are often referred to as galamseyers, and the term extends to neighbouring Francophone nations where they are known as orpailleurs. This practice is a distortion of the traditional mining method introduced by the initial foreign large-scale miners, who referred to it as “gather and sell”. Ghana, once known as the Gold Coast, gained its name due to the abundance of gold hidden beneath its surface.

What is the problem with galamsey in Ghana?

The impact of Galamsey on Ghana’s environment has been severe.

The ramifications of galamsey on Ghana’s environment are profoundly distressing. Miners frequently employ hazardous substances like mercury to extract gold from the soil, leading to water and soil contamination, decimating aquatic life and rendering the land infertile.

Estimating the exact number of galamseyers in Ghana is challenging, but it is believed to range from 20,000 to 50,000 – including thousands from China. Some sources even claim there are nearly 3 million individuals relying on galamsey for their livelihood. These miners primarily operate in the southern part of Ghana, where substantial gold reserves are concentrated – often in proximity to larger mining companies.

Data from the CDC Emergency Preparedness and Response reveal that natural processes and industrial activities release chemicals like mercury and cyanide – contaminating water, air and soil, thus posing a potentially lethal threat to human health. The pollution of water-bodies due to illegal mining jeopardises community well-being, leading people to seek alternative water sources – many of which are contaminated with bacterial pathogens like typhoid.

Media reports have highlighted instances when communities are left with no choice but to use polluted water, resulting in a rise of skin infections and waterborne diseases. For example, in the Shama district, located in Ghana’s Western Region and comprising six communities heavily affected by illegal mining, cases of diarrheal diseases increased from 5,000 to 10,000 in just three years.

It is plausible that unsafe water in these areas also contains typhoid bacteria, potentially exacerbating the typhoid burden. Challenges in accurately diagnosing typhoid mean that individuals might become ill without receiving proper diagnosis and treatment, particularly in communities lacking adequate healthcare facilities for primary care services; which is especially concerning given typhoid’s ability to quickly escalate.

Economically, galamsey communities tend to be disadvantaged, often falling below the living standards of neighbouring agricultural villages. They face elevated accident rates and are exposed to mercury poisoning due to rudimentary processing techniques. It’s worth noting that many women also participate in galamsey, often serving as porters for the miners.

The root causes of galamsey are multi-faceted. A major driving factor is youth unemployment in Ghana, as even university graduates struggle to secure sustainable employment. Insecure job prospects contribute to this issue, as does a degree of greed and a level of ignorance about the detrimental consequences of illegal mining. Some individuals engage in galamsey simply because it appears to offer a quick path to wealth.

The problem of illegal mining poses a severe threat to Ghana’s environment, leading to deforestation and water, air and soil pollution from toxic chemicals. Mercury and cyanide used in these operations can lead to devastating environmental consequences, impacting human health as well.

The impact of galamsey on water sources has triggered an alarming rise in waterborne diseases, including diarrheal cases. Communities affected by illegal mining often lack proper healthcare facilities, which exacerbates health issues. The economic challenges faced by families dependent on artisanal mining create a complex situation where the need for income conflicts with the health and environmental consequences of these activities.

While illegal mining offers economic benefits to some, it exacts a significant toll on local communities and the environment. The loss of productive land, environmental degradation, and polluted water sources undermine the potential for sustained economic growth in Ghana.

Addressing these issues necessitates a comprehensive approach, including strengthening environmental regulations, promoting responsible mining practices and sustainable land management. Encouraging alternative livelihood opportunities, such as sustainable agriculture and eco-tourism, can mitigate the negative economic impacts caused by illegal mining.

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