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Gold – a major resource

Electronic devices would be nothing without gold, which is used to make contacts and connectors – e.g. on PCBs in computers, mobile phones and even SIM cards. Germany imports over 75 tonnes of raw gold a year, a third of which is used in electronic products and components. Every year, 25.5 million smartphones are sold in Germany alone, each containing around 24 milligrams of gold. Although Ghana is the world’s tenth-largest gold producer, it only derives minimal financial benefits from its deposits. Instead, the country is suffering from the impact of gold mining: just the gold in a single smartphone generates 100 kg of toxic waste.

Little control despite independence
The country now known as Ghana was under British rule between 1820 and 1957. During the colonial period, access to and control of the mines were secured by mining companies on behalf of the colonial government. Although Ghana is now independent, this does not yet mean that the country is actually benefiting from its gold deposits. National laws and international treaties guarantee foreign firms a substantial share of the income. There are currently around a hundred mining and processing companies operating in Ghana. These extract about 108.2 tonnes of gold a year, some 3.4 per cent of global production.

Small-scale mining
Large international gold corporations mine 65 per cent of the precious metal, with the state only receiving five per cent of their income in the form of licence fees. Over a third of the gold that Ghana exports is extracted by small-scale prospectors known as galamseyers. Because it costs a lot to register in order to work legally, many of them do their mining illegally. Violent and even deadly conflicts between galamseyers and the military or the private security forces employed by the major mining corporations are not infrequent, as the latter do not tolerate prospectors on their concessions. Violence and arbitrary detentions of civilians trying to defend themselves at peaceful protests against the methods employed by the mining companies are also a regular occurrence. Ghana has also now been discovered by many small-scale Chinese gold miners.

Gold mining fuelling displacement
Under Ghana’s constitution, mineral resources belong to the Ghanaian state. In most cases, land in which gold deposits are found is handed straight to multinational mining corporations, regardless of whether it is currently inhabited or being cultivated.
In the late 1980s, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the arm of the World Bank responsible for promoting private investments in developing countries, invested in the rehabilitation of the gold mines in Obuasi and Prestea. Shortly afterwards, 70 per cent of the land in Wassa West District in the Western Region was given over to open-cast gold mining, giving the district the highest concentration of mines in the whole of Africa. Between 1990 and 1998 alone, for instance, 30,000 people in Wassa West District were forcibly displaced, often violently.

Advocacy in the face of human rights violations
A non-governmental organisation, the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining (WACAM), was set up in the region in 1998 to act as an advocacy organisation for the people affected by the mining industry. In recent years, the Ghanaian Government has officially acknowledged that gold mining has led to breaches of human rights. In 2008, for example, the country’s Commission on Human Rights & Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) published a report entitled ‘The State of Human Rights in Mining Communities in Ghana’, which details violations of human rights in mining communities.

Damage to health caused by water and air pollution
The consequences of gold mining are often disastrous for Ghana: dust particles in the air, polluted water and toxic chemicals released during gold production, mountains of waste and mine workings abandoned without following the necessary procedures – all of these cause skin and lung diseases (silicosis). Malaria also spreads rapidly due to the stagnant water in the mine pits, which attracts mosquitoes. The 4,000-strong community of Dumase, which used to be dependent on six rivers, is a striking example of the impact that the major water pollution caused by mining can have. Five of the rivers died as a direct result of open-cast gold mining and the sixth due to two accidents, in 2004 and 2006, in which cyanide leaked into the river. Cyanide is used to ‘leach’ gold from its ore. If this highly toxic acid gets into rivers, it will kill all animal life. This makes it much, much harder for people to access clean drinking water. Cyanide leaks are rarely reported straight away, if at all, meaning that locals keep on using their rivers unawares. This often leads to severe illnesses and disease.

Lack of participation and harm to livelihoods
Neither are locals provided with adequate or comprehensive information – or asked for their consent – before they are required to give up their rights to their land when land use licences are about to be handed to the major mining corporations. They have no way to participate in the process and no opportunity for self-determination. For those living in the area, being forcibly displaced to make way for a new mining project often means unemployment, the bitter loss of their livelihood and even more acute poverty.
Forests are also being destroyed in the service of the mining industry, depriving women in particular of a key source of income. Cocoa production, a potential lifeline for the population and Ghana’s most important export, is likewise having to give way to mining.

What can companies and consumers in Germany do about it?
Germany adopted a Raw Materials Strategy in 2010 that focuses on ensuring security of supply in the industry and removing export tariffs and barriers to trade. Yet it does not contain any binding standards on human rights that could curb the negative impacts such as those being seen in Ghana.

Although Germany had campaigned in favour of the Raw Materials Initiative at European level, this too is centred around trade policy. The initiative sets out to force countries to export their primary raw materials and forgo what are in some cases important tariffs and customs revenues.

With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN, Germany has committed itself to the sustainable management of resources, which in the long run will require a cut in the consumption of raw materials in absolute terms.

However, companies need to take much more responsibility for their supply chains than they are doing at the moment. The consequences for people and the environment of extracting and processing raw materials worldwide cannot simply be irrelevant. Although this needs to be enshrined in law, critical consumers can also do their bit.

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