Drawing of illegal small-scale gold miners “Galamsey” in Ghana       Image Credit: Samuel Debrah Adams


Small scale mining – the extraction of ore from the earth by small groups of individuals with inadequate technical knowledge and no mechanized operations, is an activity that is prevalent in many countries around the world. According to the World Bank, it is ubiquitous not only in African countries like Ghana, South Africa, Zambia, Congo and Rwanda but in other countries in Asia, Oceania and Central and South America.


In Ghana, small scale mining has been in operation for decades and it continually keeps expanding, serving as a means of livelihood primarily for semi-skilled and non-skilled rural folks. The perceived lucrativeness of and easy entry into small scale mining has led to a concurrent rise in illegal small scale gold mining, commonly called “galamsey” which has proved very difficult for successive governments to effectively curb. Additionally, over the last decade, there has been a surge in foreigners, particularly the Chinese in “galamsey”. Though the Ghanaian government for a long time has been battling this phenomenon through a series of arrests of locals and the deportation of foreigners illegally engaged in the sector, the recent strategy of placing a six month ban on the small scale mining sector in general is a serious cause for concern. The ban was placed largely to address the devastation of the environment – land degradation, water pollution, destruction of forest reserves, hazards to health and safety – caused by the activities and crude operational methods of small scale miners, particularly, “galamsey” operators.


An Environmental or Economic problem?

Dominant in the discourse in the fight against illegal small scale mining is this adverse impact on the environment, health and safety of individuals. An angle of the entire discourse that is largely overlooked by attempted policy actions against it is its huge positive economic impact. Small scale mining provides employment for several Ghanaians, especially natives of the communities where this activity is rife. The World Bank International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) additionally reports that the small scale mining sector is the means of existence of millions of families in rural areas of developing countries and it is estimated that circa 100 million people, both workers and their families, depend on it compared to about 7 million in industry, and the sector has made huge contribution to the extraction and production of ore in the world. In Ghana, small scale mining generated a whopping 1.49 million ounces of gold, which is approximately 34.3% of Ghana’s total output in 2014, and it has made substantial contributions to the foreign exchange earnings of the country.


In this regard, it is baffling that successive governments perceive small scale mining predominantly as an environmental problem for which reason all policy approaches toward tackling the ills of the sector have been drafted from the perspective of it being an environmental menace. In actuality however, small scale mining is not an environmental problem, it is first a socio-economic problem and hence, the government has to find more innovative ways of regulating the operations of miners in order not to deprive thousands of indigenes of their source of livelihood. Small scale mining, both legal and illegal, is crucial as a source of livelihood and income for poverty affected natives. As long as people’s livelihoods and means of survival are hinged to the sector, superficial policies to eliminate “galamsey” are a waste of time and if not well managed, could lead to feelings of deprivation and eventually, escalated conflict. This is again particularly important more so because of the already high levels of unemployment in the country currently, as there are a few alternative sources of income.


Additionally, the sector provides raw materials for expatriate and indigenous mineral industries. Such include kaolin used for the manufacture of local paint and cosmetic powder, salt for pharmaceutical products, mica used for the ceramic industry and gold for the manufacture of jewels (Acheampong, 2009). The World Bank also reports that small scale mining aids in curbing the problem of rural-urban migration that is so prevalent in developing countries. Hence, the economic impact of small scale mining is monumental.


In this regard, addressing “galamsey” as an environmental problem is a completely wrong approach. It is a socio-economic problem and the ills of it are primarily driven by poverty and unemployment and hence, it must be addressed from that angle. Placing a ban on the activity is a lazy and ineffective way of addressing the problem. More dreadful is the suggestion by the first deputy speaker of Parliament, supported by other members of parliament that the police should adopt a “shoot-to-kill” approach against illegal mining as a means of addressing its hazards. The Ghanaian government clearly needs to adopt a more innovative, less brutal approach toward addressing small scale mining, both legal and illegal. Considering the economic contribution the sector makes, it is potentially a great resource that can be harnessed to advance the industrialisation and development efforts of the country.


Links to Industry

A careful study of the trajectory of industrialisation of the now developed countries points to the fact that industrialisation is not just about manufacturing but that the primary sectors – agriculture, natural resources and forestry – are equally important. One of the means by which Brazil established its industrial base is by taking advantage of its natural resources to increase productivity and encourage diversification by establishing and expanding natural-resource-processing industries.


In light of this, the solution to the problems associated with small scale mining is not to ban the activity altogether, seeing its economic impact, but to manage and promote efficiency in the sector by training workers about more efficient methods, enforcing stricter operational regulations and licensing operations to enable the monitoring of activities.


The government should facilitate the establishment of stronger linkages between small scale miners and large-scale industrial miners to ease the transfer of technology, knowledge, worker training, and sale of by-products from small-scale mining to larger industries. This will enable large scale industries with more technical know-how to monitor and control the activities of small scale miners. Further linkages should be established with complementary industries like gold-processing, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and ceramic industries that will readily buy and process the raw materials from small scale mining – gold, kaolin, salt and mica. This will in the long term increase the productive capability of the mining sector, encourage diversification, expansion and hence, the creation of even more jobs. This, in addition to making the acquisition of licenses less cumbersome, will serve as an incentive scheme that will encourage “galamsey” operators to formalise their operations, thus making it easier for their activities to be regulated.


Moreover, to further facilitate the transfer of technology and knowledge-spill over and the creation of more jobs, the government can encourage foreign direct investment (FDI) in the sector by establishing a joint venture between the state, miners and China (which evidently has a keen interest in mining in Ghana). However, such FDI needs to be strictly regulated and the terms clearly outlined to ensure that such foreign investment does not override local development interests.


Aryee et al, 2003 also reports that unavailability of credit to the small scale sector is partially responsible for the dependence on cheap and environmentally hazardous methods of extracting ore. The government should therefore support the sector by providing credit, infrastructure and subsidies for the acquisition of more effective machinery to increase their productivity and mitigate the impact of their operations on the environment.


The small scale mining sector has largely failed to attract the services of more professional workers like engineers with the technical knowledge to effectively and efficiently oversee operations. This partially accounts for the hazards caused by the sector, because of the use of unskilled workers, crude mining methods and disregard for safety regulations. The government must put in place incentives to attract such people into the sector.


Lastly, the negative externalities of the destruction of the environment can further be mitigated by imposing corrective taxes per unit of gold mined by such small scale miners to compensate for the pollution and encourage miners to adopt more environmentally friendly methods of operation. To do this however, it is necessary that all such operations are formalized and licensed through the removal of cumbersome and bureaucratic registration processes.


In conclusion, the government should desist from the unnecessary arrests and bans on small scale mining, but rather, draft and implement more comprehensive and supportive measures to encourage growth and diversification within the sector. Those who engage in “galamsey” do so with no malice in mind. Most only want to eke out a living, and the government can capitalise on this sector to advance the industrialisation, structural transformation and poverty alleviation agenda of the country.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Future Africa Forum.