In Ghana, clashes over small-scale mining have become a litmus test for China

Galamseyers or small-scale miners in Ghana. Photo by: Mark McGiffin

ACCRA, Ghana — Gloria Hiadzi, the executive secretary of the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association, was present at one of the regular, informal gathering of Ghanaian media bigwigs in April, when the discussion turned to galamsey — the local term for small-scale miners who dig for gold and other minerals. The editors and publishers began to share stories of the devastation they had seen in their trips around Ghana caused by the mining.

Stories of the environmental impact of the mining regularly appear in the media, Hiadzi said, but the publishers recognized that their coverage usually faded pretty quickly.

“In trying to find a way to get a solution, to get government involved, to get their eyes open, to whip up the enthusiasm of locals and everything, we felt it would be best to make it a national issue,” she said. “To launch a proper campaign.”

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That campaign quickly leapt from radio spots and print stories to the streets of Accra, Ghana’s capital, where there are now regular anti-galamsey demonstrations and marches.

A byproduct of the effort, though, has been heightened anti-Chinese sentiment. Though the extent of their influence is difficult to measure, Chinese nationals are frequently portrayed as funding and accelerating the boom in small-scale mining operations, which has caused widespread land erosion and contaminated vital rivers.

Though only two months old, this round of anti-galamsey campaigning has begun to sour Ghana’s relations with China and, inside the country, development experts are worried it could lead to disruptions in future funding. It has also put a new government in the difficult position of choosing between a key partner and its campaign promises to crack down on galamsey.

Globally, observers are also monitoring the situation for lessons about how Beijing will chart its increasingly complex relations with African countries, and whether it will use its development assistance as a tool to pressure those governments to stifle political or economic disagreements.

Rising tensions

This is not the first time galamsey has threatened a rift between Ghana and China.

For decades, Ghanaians have attempted to strike it rich — or, more realistically, just get by — digging in the gold-rich soil of the country’s south. Their methods have historically been crude and the chemicals they use to process the gold potentially toxic. But if they operated within some basic regulations, they were generally tolerated.

In recent years, though, the number of people engaged in galamsey has swollen — encouraged, experts say, by outside investors, who are also providing miners with machinery that allows them to work faster and dig deeper. The funders — and even some of the miners — include people from a number of European, Asian, North American and African countries, though the Chinese have been singled out for special attention.

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“The reason why they have become the focus is the sheer number of Chinese who appear to be involved,” said Isaac Odoom, a political scientist based in Accra. Exact counts are impossible to come by, but he said, “we’re talking about thousands of Chinese.”

One of the results of the ramped-up galamsey is environmental devastation. Officials at the country’s Environmental Protection Agency are now warning that the country might have to start importing water by 2030 because its own rivers will be too polluted by the run-off from the operations. But it has also created deeper rifts within communities, where people are increasingly incensed that international actors are profiting off of this destruction, and that the local leaders who should be protecting their rights have done little to stop it.

These anti-galamsey sentiments have been building since the beginning of the decade. It led to the creation, in 2013, of a presidentially appointed task force to deal with the issue, hundreds of arrests and the deportation between 2010 and 2013 of 713 Chinese, according to research by Dr. Richard Aidoo, an associate professor of politics at Coastal Carolina University. That represents more than two-thirds of the 1,065 total foreign nationals Ghana deported in that time period.

Those moves appear to have undercut the Ghanaian relationship with China. China has always had some involvement with Ghana since that country’s independence 60 years ago, but Odoom highlighted China’s growing interest in his country’s natural resources over the past decade, including minerals, cocoa and — since the discovery of offshore reserves in 2007 — oil.

China, in a pattern it has established across the continent, has attempted to bolster its relationship with Ghana through offers of development assistance, usually to help improve infrastructure. According to research by the Overseas Development Institute, China accounted for more than 70 percent of all non-traditional official development assistance between 2010 and 2012. One of the biggest ticket items Beijing helped build was the Bui Dam, which was paid for in part with a $270 million concessional loan from the China Exim Bank. That and another commercial loan were guaranteed through Ghana’s sale of cocoa beans.

“The Chinese don’t hide their development aims at all,” Odoom said. “You get your dam, we get the natural resources. You get the gas plant, we get the oil.”

China is traditionally secretive about how much official development assistance it hands out, but ChinaFile, a project that attempts to track Chinese assistance through media reports, estimates Beijing may have invested at least $10 billion in Ghana between 2000 and 2013. ODI’s report shows China may have invested $3 billion in 2011 alone, up from less than $500 million five years before.

During the period between 2000 and 2013, Ghana received $17.4 billion in net official development assistance from more traditional sources, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The anti-galamsey activities earlier this decade came as then-President John Mahama’s government was in the midst of negotiating a $3 billion loan from the China Development Bank. The disbursement of that loan stalled — and was eventually canceled — amidst the deportation of the Chinese nationals. Though the link between the two was never officially established, within the country, development experts said the connection was obvious.

“Both parties learned that this kind of tension is going to have some consequences,” Odoom said.

“The Chinese don’t hide their development aims at all: ‘You get your dam, we get the natural resources. You get the gas plant, we get the oil.’”

— Isaac Odoom, a political scientist based in Accra

Much to the consternation of the anti-galamsey activists, in the wake of that cancellation, the Mahama government backed away from the movement. That presented an opening to opposition presidential candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, who made it a key component of the campaign that swept him into power earlier this year. By the time he was inaugurated, activists were preparing for another showdown with anyone involved in galamsey — whatever the consequences.

It is no surprise that that effort quickly drew the attention of the new Akufo-Addo administration. The minister of information “made us aware that the president was really happy about what we had done,” Hiadzi said. “And he feels the media needs support and needs to be encouraged to continue with the campaign.”

It also drew the attention of Chinese Ambassador to Ghana Sun Baohong, who sent a letter in April to the minister of lands and natural resources, which quickly leaked. In it, according to one local radio station, she complained about “a number of distorted reports and stories on Chinese people, especially some reports and cartoons that are defaming Chinese leaders and senior officials.”

The administration immediately responded that the anti-galamsey activities, including official efforts to close illegal mining camps, would continue. The two sides now appear set on a collision course. And if Ghana doesn’t swerve, experts warn, it should consider that development assistance may be part of the collateral damage.

“I’ve had conversations with the Chinese ambassador,” Odoom said. “She’s not happy with the way the Ghanaian government is going about the crackdown on the Chinese miners. And so they are going to do anything to make sure their interest is protected.”

Still, Dr. Merriden Varrall is not convinced that’s going to translate into cuts to development assistance or any attempts to use it as leverage against the government. Varrall is the director of the East Asia program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

“I would suspect that the only thing that would really cause China to, in any meaningful way, limit or rescind or withdraw aid would be non-recognition of China,” she said. Instead, she expects the Chinese to respond by pushing its citizens to meet Ghanaian rules and regulations.

Varrall also cautioned against overstating any link between the channels for diplomacy and development. “The ministry of foreign affairs doesn’t usually have a big role in Chinese aid,” she said. “They often don’t have much communication at all.”

And China remains interested in Ghana’s natural resources and its trade.

Still, if Beijing is unable to demonstrate to Ghanaians its own seriousness in cracking down on Chinese involvement in galamsey and the Ghanaian administration continues to support the growing anti-Chinese sentiment, Aidoo does expect the relationship between the two countries will gradually be undermined.

“There is no doubt this will create bad blood,” he said. “It may not be explained as the reason why one aid project or another was discontinued, but it will filter into some decisions that are made later.”

The Ghanaian government is obviously aware of that possibility, and might actually use any cuts to underscore an electoral promise Akufo-Addo made to wean Ghana off of foreign assistance. Aidoo questions, though, whether Ghana, which has seen its access to assistance shrink as its own economy has developed, is actually in a position to forgo Chinese help. Ultimately, he expects Beijing might find itself with the upper hand, forcing Accra to recalibrate its stance.

Meanwhile, he is certain other administrations on the African continent are keeping a close eye on how this situation unfolds, eager to see what happens when an administration — or an opposition — stands up to China. 

“The optics don’t look good,” Aidoo said. “It might change the dynamics of the relationships.”

That could include countries such as Nigeria and Kenya, where China has made significant investments, but that also have robust domestic economies and traditions of political debate. Suddenly there might be more political points to be gained in attacking, rather than cozying up, to Beijing.

In this six-week special series, Devex examines China's expanding role in aid and development across the globe. From tensions in Ghana to projects in Pakistan, from climate financing to donor partnerships, from individual philanthropy to state-financed investment, this series traces the past, present and future of Chinese aid and development. Join the conversation on our Facebook discussion forum.

About the author

  • Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Correspondent based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.