Gold Discovered Beneath Ghana's Forest Reserves
ACCRA, Ghana, March 4, 2003 (ENS) - Dozens of bulldozers and excavators belonging to five multinational mining companies operating in Ghana are poised to tear apart thousands of hectares of forest reserves in the Ashanti, Western and Eastern Regions of the country, if the government gives them approval to haul out what they describe as rich deposits of gold beneath the forests.
The miners, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say they discovered staggering volumes of gold deposits beneath the forests when the previous National Democratic Council (NDC) government gave them free rein to scavenge the forest reserves for gold. But, they complain, the government did not keep its promise to grant permits for exploitation of the gold they found. Now the NDC government is no more, the miners said, and we want the present New Patriotic Party (NPP) government to grant us permits to "throw out the trees and the animals in the forest reserves" to make way for full-scale surface mining operations. "Fact is, collectively we spent over 10 million dollars in the reconnaissance and prospecting exercise, and we have to recoup our money,' the miners said. Ben Aryee, chief executive of the Minerals Commission, confirmed that five companies told the commission they had identified economically viable mineral resources in the forest reserves, and they are requesting mining leases. He said the issue is now before cabinet.
Edward Nsenkyire, chief director of the Ministry of Environment Science and Technology, also indicated that the ministry has yet to prepare a report on the issue for the attention of cabinet.
Nsenkyire disclosed that Environment Minister Professor Dominic Fobih had just returned from a field trip to the forest reserves together with Minister of Mines Kwadjo Adjei Darko and Minister of Lands and Forestry Professor Kasim Kasanga.
'It is true that rich deposits of gold have been discovered in the forest reserves,' Minister Darko confirmed in an interview. 'We inherited the problem from the past government, whether they were coerced into granting the prospecting licenses to the mining companies or not we do not know, but we are in a crisis, and we do not know what to do in the present circumstances.'
The minister said, 'Some mining companies were given permits to do prospecting in the reserves by the past administration. The Forestry Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and all the relevant statutory bodies were party to it. The companies invested millions of dollars and found gold deposits in commercial quantities in the reserves."
"Are we justified morally in saying that these mining companies that invested money and discovered the gold should not go into the forest reserves again? Do we have to leave those rich deposits of gold there in the ground whilst we have a lot of problems on our hands such as poverty, underdevelopment and unemployment?' Minister Darko asked.
'It is true that we have to preserve the forests," Darko said, "but nature has also given us these resources to be tapped and managed for development, so it is the way we go about it in order not to offset the balance."
'If we say we won't allow them to mine in the reserves, what signals are we sending to other investors? the minister asked. "It means this is a country where investments are not secured, where there are a lot of uncertainties and by the stroke of the pen you can lose your investments and monies. So we are at a crossroads and as a nation what do we do?"
"As a ministry," said Darko, "our stand is that they should be allowed under strict supervision, we will make sure that enough money is set aside for restoration so that the balance will be eventually obtained.' Darko blamed critical nongovernmental organizations 'for looking at one side of the equation.' "The developed countries that are now at the forefront of environmental concerns took advantage of coal to develop during the Industrial Revolution," the minister said. "They mined it and used the proceeds for development and with technological advancement, they were able to correct whatever imbalance that was created as a result of the mining of coal.'
The minister said, 'Some of these areas that they are calling forest reserves are only on paper as forest reserves some of them have been logged, and farmers have taken over some of them.'
'It will not help us as a country to sit on the reserves only for illegal miners to rush into these areas and destroy the forest reserves with no environmental planing, no reclamation plan and no income to the state, Minister Darko said. "If we can ensure that the mining companies go about their mining plans properly, and reclamation is on course, it will benefit the nation."
"We will also ensure that the companies embark on alternative livelihood projects in the communities,' the minister declared.
The companies have assured the government that when given the permits, they will place all their auxiliary activities outside the forest reserves, and it is only the actual mining that will take place within the reserves.
Darko said the government will give the forest reserves to the mining companies rather than allow illegal miners to do irreparable damage to the forests. "So if the companies can give us their environmental plans which will ensure that the damage that will be done to the forest reserves will be very minimal and reclamation will be done to restore the forest to its original state we will not have much problem with it,' he said.
But environmentalists and human rights activists criticize this kind of thinking and say they will resist any attempt by government to deposit the forest reserves into the laps of the mining companies.
The environmentalists, who did not want their names used, worry since the protected reserves are some of Ghana's last relatively undisturbed natural forests. They support forest biodiversity and are critical to water conservation, the environmental groups say.
Granting of permits for surface mining in these ecologically fragile reserves will aggravate the already alarming rate of deforestation and forest degradation in the country and wreak havoc on freshwater systems and watersheds, they warn.
Rivers and streams crisscross nearly all the forest reserves and feed the country's major rivers such as the Birim, Pra, Ankobra, Bonsa Offin, Densu, Tano, and others, which are sources of water supply to many communities including the cities of Ghana.
Surface mining operations require the clearance of vast stretches of topsoil and vegetation. This can pose threats to plant and animal diversity and can also adversely affect food and cocoa production, particularly in the communities fringing the reserves.
'It takes 40 years for these forests to regenerate and once you dig up any portion of the forest reserves you change the character of the place forever," the environmentalists lamented. "Operating a surface mine which requires heap leach facilities and the use of highly toxic chemicals such as cyanide and arsenic in these forest reserves with all these water bodies which are sources of drinking water is just not right.'
The environmentalists fear that when the rains come, water laced with deadly cyanide will run off the tailings or waste from the mining activities into these rivers.
The environmentalists warned they will fight hard to block any mining in Ghana's forest reserves. They urged the government not to be complicit in the destruction of the last vestiges of Ghana's forest resources as the issue could attract international attention and create a public relations liability for the government.
The mining companies eager to extract the gold from the forest reserves include such mining titans as Chirano Goldmines Ltd., Satellite Goldfields Ltd., Nevsun/AGC, Birim/AGC, and Newmont Ghana Ltd.
The forest reserves that the mining firms are eyeing include the Subri River Forest Reserve, a globally significant biodiversity area which is also the largest forest reserve in the country and a critical watershed between major rivers such as the Bonsa and Pra. Other forest reserves that may contain gold are the Supuma Shelterbelt, the Opon Mansi in the Western region, Tano Suraw and Suraw Extension also in the Western region, Ajenjua Bepo in the Eastern region, Cape Three Points reserve in the Western region, and the Atewa Range forest reserve near Kibi in the Eastern region, which is also believed to be the most mineralized reserve in the country.
The Atewa forest reserve, which protects the headwaters of the Birim, Densu and Ayensu rivers, has been declared by local and international conservation groups as a Special Biological Protection Area as well as a globally significant biodiversity area. Experts say that the Atewa reserve contains many plants species such as two unusual kinds of tree ferns and six butterfly species which are found nowhere else on Earth.
Disputing claims by proponents that these forest reserves exist only on paper since they have long been degraded by loggers and farming activities, the environmentalists maintained that 'the forest reserves are unspoiled, squeaky clean and contain the only significant blocks of forest remaining in the country, whiles others are shelterbelt reserves established to hold back fires and maintain local rainfall and humidity levels."
In an interview, Abraham Osei, a member of the national executive of the Timber Millers Association, scoffed at the demands of the mining companies and described as "misleading" claims that the forest reserves are already degraded by the timber industry. He said that logging does not destroy the biodiversity of whole forests as does surface mining.
'Are they saying that we have degraded it so they are going to further destroy it entirely? I do not think that its good to allow them to go into the forest reserves to dig gold, even when we go in to log, we select,' he declared.
Osei pointed out that 'surface mining is far worse than logging, after the miners have removed all the vegetation they plant leuceania, cassia, eucalyptus. These species are not of any relevance, not even as firewood, and the land never gets back to anything near the original.'
According to the environmentalists, the reserves provide sanctuary for 34 plants species, 13 mammals, eight birds and two reptiles that are on the verge of extinction. Several species of forest monkeys, frogs, lizards, snakes and over 700 types of trees can also be found in the reserves.
Uncommon birds such as hornbills, parrots, the icterine greenbul, the great blue turaco, the blue-headed bee eater, and other birds of prey believed to be either extinct or rare in other parts of the world have been sighted in some of the reserves.
The environmentalists warn that if the present government grants the mining companies their wish, they will blast roads deep into the heart of the forest reserves, build camps and excavate vast stretches of topsoil together with the age old trees. Tons of earth and rock debris avalanching downhill will blanket rivers and streams and smother the spawning beds of fish.
The heavy influx of mine workers and roads that are etched into previously inaccessible areas may bring boomtown conditions and attract more squatters, loggers, illegal mining operators known locally as galamsey boys, lotto kiosks and container shops into the reserves.
Some fear that the expatriate staff of the mining companies, who are often armed with sophisticated weapons, will kill the wildlife for use as bush meat on their dinner tables.
Increase in noise levels and ground vibration in the forest reserves as a result of the use of explosives and heavy earth moving equipment in drilling and blasting during ore extraction and the trucking of ore to the processing plant could also drive animals in the reserves into the open arms of poachers.
Internal memos and reports viewed by this reporter reveal that the move is not enjoying a free ride within official corridors. The issue is provoking a rumble of disbelief, deep seated anger, intrigue, discord and disapproval among some highly placed government officials.
Some officials who are against mining in the forest reserves are already seething with discontent over the attention that their colleagues in government are giving to the demands of the mining companies. They said that they are angry, dismayed and disappointed.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, they disclosed that 'while the NPP Government did not dream up the 'dangerous' idea of allowing surface mining in the country's forest reserves, some of its officials have been among "its most enthusiastic supporters.' 'These remarkable forest reserves in Ghana are part of the earth's last unfragmented forest blocks," one official said. "Though not providing the instant wealth promised by gold, these forest reserves are gold in another form - treasure troves of rich biodiversity and natural services that, if properly managed, can provide substantial economic returns indefinitely." Mounting evidence also confirm that that some key personalities are resolute on the plan and are positive that optimizing the exploitation of mining is a strategic way to speed up economic recovery in the country even if the minerals to be mined are in conservation areas. A key argument of the hard line proponents of mining in the forest reserves is that, 'This country needs money, let's get the trees and wildlife out, get the gold and the forest can be replanted and the animals will come back.'
At the heart of this argument is the economic theory that suggests that 'developing countries should exploit their natural resources to develop, there will be pollution, displacement of communities etc. but these are the necessary and inevitable side effects of the larger good goal of providing jobs and modernising the country. For any country to go forward there are risks and we have to take these risks if we want a positive outcome. Let us worry about the environmental effects of growth when we are already developed and rich.'
For George Ahadzie, executive director of the GreenEarth organization, 'this development is indeed worrying, we need to look long term and consider the future in our actions. We need to understand that short term economic gain is not a responsible choice nor is it sustainable, we need to understand that real economic prospects are all tied in and dependent on the care and preservation of our natural resources.'
He indicated that 'even our very opportunity to exist as humans depends on the very capacity of the forests to support living things, but that capacity in this country continues to be threatened and damaged in many instances beyond its ability to regenerate.'
He expressed fear, that plans to conduct surface mining operations in the forest reserves will sound the death knell for the rest of the country's forests and wildlife and impoverish local communities. Valuable historical and archaeological sites in some of the reserves including sacred groves: ritual sites held sacred by communities will also be destroyed. Agricultural lands and important watersheds will also be endangered and the magnificent reserves turned into an industrial eyesore, blighted by roads, pipelines, construction debris, discarded sardine tins and plastic bags.
Ahadzie urged the government to recognize the enormous social, environmental and lost opportunity costs of the proposed surface mines in the reserves and make a responsible decision to turn down the request of the mining firms.
The situation facing the country also alarms Conservation International's director of programs, David Kpelle, who explained that the fragile forest of unquestioned scientific value tucked away in the reserves are critically important for maintaining biological diversity. 'They perform priceless services to humanity, that is why they were set aside by the colonial administration and designated as protected areas to be maintained in a relatively undisturbed state requiring strict protection with minimal human disturbance.'
'To allow mineral prospecting and exploitation in the forest reserves particularly surface mining will mean that we are removing the conducive or appropriate ecological and environmental conditions that are required to maintain optimal agricultural productivity,' he stressed.
He said that the Miss Waldron's red colobus, a species of monkey that once foraged the rainforest in the southwestern part of the country, has not been sighted for years and is considered extinct. It is believed that Miss Waldron's red colobus is endemic to the forests of southwestern Ghana and southeastern Cote D'Ivoire.
Though mining cannot be singled out as the main factor for the extinction of the primate, Kpelle believes that mining in forest reserves should be given a serious thought since there are presently few areas outside the reserves where viable populations of larger mammals can be found. 'Allowing mining in the reserves will simplify the structure of the remaining forest habitats and remove ecological niches leading to further diminution of species diversity. For these reasons I will not support mineral exploration and exploitation in the forest reserves,' he said.
Ishmael Jesse-Dodoo, who is in charge of conservation programs at the Ghana Wildlife Society, said, "Government needs to look at what he interest of communities are, what the interest of conservationists are, and what the interest of development practitioners are. If there are any areas designated as Important Bird Areas under the BirdLife criteria or globally significant biodiversity areas we need to leave them out because they are our only reservoir of relics of representative species of interest not only to Ghana but the international community as a whole.'
"We have both a moral obligation and a priceless opportunity to save this natural legacy,' Dodoo urged.
At a recent anniversary celebration of the Wassa Association for Communities Affected by Mining held in the mining region of Tarkwa, Samuel Kangah, general secretary of the General Agricultural Workers Union, condemned the mining companies for planning to take over some of the country's forest reserves and other protected areas.
'The question we ask is, what is the real cost of such investments, what is the cost to our generation and the generations that would follow?" Kangah asked.
He disclosed that large tracts of lands have been committed to the extractive industry, adding that this is at a very high cost to the environment, human life and livelihood. 'We cannot continue to deplete our natural resources under the guise of poverty," said Kangah.
Friends of the Earth's Abraham Baffoe also acknowledges that the fundamental dilemma facing most developing countries has always been how to balance man's economic urgency with nature's ecological vulnerability. 'But we can prosper as a nation without having to raze down our forest reserves for mining. I do not think that the mining companies should be allowed to operate surface mines in the reserves,' he declared.
"We should not deceive ourselves, it's not just a matter of planting grass and trees here and there but the fact is that plantations do not make forests," said Baffoe. "In fact if the reserves had not been established we wouldn't have any forests left by now. I am greatly worried that forests reserves such as Oppong Manse, Subri River forest reserve and Tano Suraw Extension are going to be given to these mining companies. This is certainly a wrong move."
A number of mining companies are mastering public relations skills with increasing finesse. They have embarked on an initiative to bolster their image and tell the world that the proposed mining in the forest reserves will have benign consequences on the now unbroken sea of lush green forests.
Led by industry heavyweights such as Chiraano Goldmines Limited and Gold Fields Ghana Limited, the mining companies have increased their spending on community development and promoted visits of delegations of legislators and other government officials to some reclaimed sites and forest reserves which they claim are sitting on the 'golden eggs.'
With support from the Minerals Commission and Chamber of Mines, the mining companies are bombarding the public with success stories of the mining industry, particularly how they have embarked on forest plantations in areas devastated by mining, how they will limit their surface mining operations to only a small percentage of the country's forest reserves, and how they will manage the forests sustainably.
But environmentalists and human rights activists point out that over the years, safety problems and cases of broken promises have plagued the mining industry. They say nothing has changed as the mining firms continue to rack up abysmal environmental records and show utter disregard for community interest in preserving the environment and culture.
Assurances by the mining industry that they will abide by ' Guidelines for Mining in Forest Reserves,' prepared jointly by the country's Environmental Protection Agency, Forest Services Department and the Minerals Commission, have been dismissed outright by environmentalist as a sham. They argue that the production of this guidance document was funded by the mining industry, and it cannot be trusted since it parrots the wishes of the mining companies who are interested parties.
'Sometimes, I wonder what the mining companies and their friends mean by they are only asking for a small part of the forest reserves. The fact is, once you start tearing out swaths of ecosystems you upset the existing balance in ways that harm even areas you didn't intend to touch' warned Owusu Koranteng, executive director of the Wassa Association of Communities affected by Mining.
For Joachim Ayitey of the League of Environmental Journalists, 'Many species of mammals, birds, and inverterbrates require continous canopy cover to maintain their required habitat size. These animals in the forest reserves need space, large contiguous areas of habitat, linked by viable verdant corridors to enable them to maintain a viable breeding population. To compromise on this by allowing just a little exploratory and prospecting activity in only a small part of the reserve area is like being locked up in a tea kettle.'
Visits to the Western Region of Ghana reveal that Wassa land is a painful example of the devastation of livelihoods and the environment as a result of surface mining. Drinking water is polluted, fish have disappeared from the rivers and streams, and crops have ceased to grow on large stretches of once fertile land.
Thomas Akabza, a lecturer at the Geology Department of the University of Ghana and author of the much acclaimed publication 'Boom and Dislocation,' points out that, 'While mining companies and central government reap the benefits of mining if any, very little benefits go to the people in the mining communities. These people who mostly practice traditional and subsistence agriculture are displaced from their land on which they farm leading to loss of livelihoods and the breakdown of social ties."
"Mining has led to growing conflicts among communities displaced by mining operations as well as serious mining related health and social problems such as malaria tuberculosis, conjuntivitis, skin diseases, prostitution and drug abuse,' Akabza warned.
The Wassa West district is known to be the single largest cluster of mines and mining companies on the African continent. The district has over eight international companies operating surface mines.
According to Akabza, mining concessions have taken over 70 percent of the total land area, resulting in the destruction of large tracts of land and the scramble for farmlands. Lands that were previously used for farming and those that could be so used have now been swallowed up as mining concessions. Consequently, food production has decreased considerably, creating the conditions for increased food prices.
Concerns have been expressed about inadequate housing as mining has led to the displacement of thousands of people. Akabza says that between 1990 and 1998 a total of 14 communities with populations of over 30,000 people were displaced. The Environmental Impact Assessment of four mining companies operating in the area gave a total number of people displaced as 22,267, from 20 communities.
Human rights violations also continue to rise in mining settlements with several cases of arbitrary arrests, violations of the right of access to food, forceful evictions, inadequate compensation and demolishment of villages.
A recent fact finding mission conducted by Ghana's Human Rights and Administrative Justice in the Wassa area confirmed these reports when it also found 'overwhelming evidence of human rights violations occasioned by the mining activities which were not sporadic but a well established pattern common to almost all mining communities.'
Local opposition to large scale surface mining projects continues to grow after Goldfields Ghana Ltd. spilled cyanide into the River Asuman at Abekoase in Ghana's Western region several years ago.
Networked with each other nationally regionally and even globally, mining affected communities worldwide are refusing to tolerate mining and other projects that despoil their land, threaten their health and destroy their livelihood.
For the communities fringing the forest reserves that the mining firms are eyeing, the consequences of allowing surface mining there are disturbing. From Asankragwa, Enchi-Yakasi and Nyame Bekyere, Cape Three Points, Daboase, Huni Valley, Bonte, Sansu, Twifo Praso, Abekoase, Bibiani Sehwi Wiawso to New Abirem, the villagers say they are seasoned enough to know how adept the mining industry is at circumventing regulations.
The unfolding drama over mining in the forest reserves is about their lives and they stand united in opposition to the impending projects despite promises that the mines will bring jobs, electricity and paved roads. They explain that the almost impermeable expanses of rainforest in the reserves protect a complicated web of tiny rain fed ribbons of streams and rivers which serve as their sources of drinking water.
'When the forest reserves are destroyed, the rivers will dry up and so will our lives,' they declared. 'We have heard it all before. They came with all sorts of promises, but we saw nothing. They devastated our lands and livelihoods and showed little respect for basic civil rights. Our rivers and streams are now polluted with cyanide and arsenic from mining. Fish have disappeared from the rivers, and streams. Even snails, mushrooms and some medicinal plants are no longer available in the area. Crops also find it very difficult to grow on the large stretches of now barren land," the village spokesman said. "Our villages have already been so rapaciously deforested by mining, and the health and the quality of remaining forests continue to decline, and now they are asking for the forest reserves, do they think Ghanaians wash their faces from their chin upwards. Please write all that I have said and tell the authorities that I said so," emphasized Akosua Birago, a 62 year old farmer at Abekoase in the Western Region.
'When we went into the forest to plant cocoyam, plantain and pepper to feed our families, government people chased us out and told us not to farm there again. They told us it's a forest reserve and farming is not allowed there, they wouldn't even let us collect snails from the reserves, but now government itself wants to send bulldozers there to destroy the forests because the white man says so," said Sisi Nana, a 30 year old mother of four at Bibiani.
Farmers in the Ashanti, Western and Eastern regions surrounded ENS with a storm of protest explaining that deforestation in their villages is already drying up the soils and denying their crops the shad they need to blossom, and they cannot afford to lose the forest reserves.
Lambert Okrah, coordinator of the Institute of Cultural Affairs, says Ghanians need to look at whether it was even appropriate for the former government to give out prospecting licenses based on the legal code that established the forest reserves.
'Was it abrogated before the land use change was proposed? If it was not abrogated then the mining companies have themselves to blame. It is not a government reserve but a national reserve, and for it to be gazetted as a forest reserve it had to go through some processes. If it has not been de-gazetted to allow surface mining then I'm sorry, no one can help the mining companies,' said Okrah.
Dr. Yao Graham, coordinator of the Third World Network, Africa Secretariat, told ENS, 'The old law is very clear, there is no automatic movement from a prospecting license to a lease, the question is, was the government then acting in the best interest of the nation?"
'Let me give you the example of the United States. When there was the huge gold rush, many people made huge fortunes, people became millionaires and multi-billionaires, and the money remained there. Point me one millionaire created by more than 100 years of exploitation of gold in Ghana," demanded Dr. Graham.
Huge fortunes have been made by all kinds of foreign firms operating in Ghana, he said, but the returns do not remain in the country. 'These are extractive industries which are linked to circuits of exchange and accumulation outside this country."
'It s not a case of whether we should go hungry while the gold sits beneath the trees. Gold mining has been going on in Tarkwa, Prestea and Obuasi for so many years now - are the people there not hungry? asked Okrah. "Look at Samreboi, they have given this country so much timber and what did they get in return - go there and you will see stark poverty.
Information from Ghana's Chamber of Mines suggests that the industry contributes about 40 percent of Ghana's gross foreign exchange earnings and directly employs about 18,000 people.
According to the findings of a research report on the social and environmental impacts of mining in the Wassa West District, the perceived importance of the sector to the economy is reflected in the foreign investment over the past 10 years. But despite the massive investment of over $2 billion, it has yet to make any impact on the country's overall economy.
The report, sponsored by ThirdWorld Network, attributes the dismal input of the mining sector to the country's development to the level of foreign exchange earnings allowed in offshore accounts of the various mining houses. Only a small percentage of their earned foreign exchange actually trickles back into the national economy, the report shows.
'Due to the liberal mining policies, most companies are now operating open pit mines with relatively short span: and with generous tax incentives provided in the form of capital allowances. The companies enjoy virtual tax holidays throughout their operation and most often run out of reserves and close before they are ready to pay corporate income tax,' says the report.
The role of the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, have promoted resource led development and cajoled African countries to deregulate, liberalize and privatise their extractive sectors to attract foreign direct investment. They have provided startup capital for mining ventures in Ghana.
In an interview with a team from the IFC in Accra recently, Dr. John Middleton, team leader, who is with the IFC's Mining, Environment and Social Review Unit, Technical and Environment Department, said the IFC has a natural habitat policy which prevents them from doing anything that will destroy a critical natural habitat.
Asked whether the IFC will invest in mining projects in forest reserves in Ghana, Dr. Middleton explained that the IFC uses definitions of critical habitat written by the IUCN-World Conservation Union.
'IFC will not invest in a project that will degrade a national park, for example," he said. "If it is a primary forest I do not think we will go there, If it means destroying a forest reserve then no, if it's a secondary forest, then we will see. If it conflicts with international conventions on biodiversity and nature conservation, then no.'
He said that the IFC will look at the issue on a case by case basis. 'I can't really give you a blanket no or yes to your question' he added.
Meanwhile, Ghana's Minerals Commission, in collaboration with the World Bank, is in the process of reviewing the country's Minerals and Mining Law.
A former head of a government department who does not want to be named told ENS that he warned the previous government of the potential damage of allowing prospecting in the forest reserves. Subsequent exploitation of the 'lucky streak' could be severe as it could lead this country into more poverty and environmental crisis, he cautioned. But he was disregarded by the bureaucrats and found enemies rather than allies.
"I was dismissed as a lunatic, naïve, anti-development a spy and called various names, so I kept mute. The fact is, these miners are influential, they have the financial means and they can be ruthless, so you do not joke with them," he said.
Ghana is signatory to a wide range of international agreements and conventions on advancing protection of the world's forest and biological diversity. It was the 12th of the 157 countries which signed the convention on biological Diversity during the earth summit in June 1992 and has since August 1994 ratified the convention. In countless speeches at local and international fora, including last summer's World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Ghana government continues to state its commitment to biodiversity and forest protection.
Despite these strong opposition and forewarnings of environmental damage and possible violations of human rights, the mining companies say they are already in motion, and if all fails they will go to court and fight anyone in the way of the proposed project and fight them trench by trench.
'We shall close down our operations in Ghana and relocate to Tanzania or Guinea where they have more friendly legal mining environments' said one mining executive. 'We might go out of business and be forced to throw out our workers onto the streets if we are not allowed into the reserves,' said another.
Public anxiety over the possibility of government acceding to the request of the miners however seems to be on the rise. In the current context of plant closures, downsizing and persistent fear of job losses and threats to seek justice in the International law courts, observers fear that the government will be blackmailed to override national laws protecting the environment and the forest reserves in particular and grant the miners their wish.
Others simply are of the view that 'there is a huge incentive for the government not to give up this project because the country is broke and in their haste to replenish the national kitty the government will grant the miners their wish.
Several Ghanaians interviewed believe that government should keep mines out of protected areas and other fragile ecosystems particularly forest reserves. For them, ecotourism seems a logical way to preserve the forest reserves while at the same time feeding the country's coffers.
According to the Ghana Tourist Board, the tourism sector constitutes 3.7 per cent of Ghana's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and provides over 360,000 jobs. Tourism yielded $400 million for Ghana in 1999. It is also estimated that the industry will generate $1,562 million as gross foreign exchange earnings in 2010, the realisation of this economic gain, however, depends on the development and marketing of the various portfolios such as high forests, wetlands and savanna's with their component wildlife resources.
For many, the battle royal that is shaping up will be a pivotal test of the environmental mettle of the present administration. If the government takes the country down the miners' path, they would have failed a key conservation litmus test.
Meanwhile, the mining companies have secured the services of private security companies to guard the gold laden forest reserves as they await the final decision from government.