Historical Background Or Genesis Of Galamsey In Ghana

By Lawrence M K Akakpo
Article Historical Background Or Genesis Of Galamsey In Ghana

Gold was officially discovered and given a name, ca. BC/BCE 6,000 (that is, about 8,000 years ago) according to Prof Alan W Cramb – A Short History of Metals, Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, 1996, most probably in Egypt. However, gold artefacts have been found in Palaeolithic (Ancient Stone Age) caves dating back to 40,000 BC. As if this is not puzzling enough, Michael Tellinger, Johan Heine and a team of leading scientists, show that the Sumerians and even the Egyptians inherited all their knowledge on gold from an earlier civilization that lived at the southern tip of Africa more than 200,000 years ago. They mined gold in South Africa’s Ancient Annunaki Gold Mines. Michael Tellinger: Vanished Gold-Mining Civilization of South Africa – Full Lecture Part 1

Gold’s modern production started in a number of countries and regions from around BC 6,000 on its formal discovery. Its worldwide production statistics however, started during the Chalcolithic or Copper Age, ca. BC 3,900.

Gold mining began in the area simply then called West Africa in the Bronze Age, ca. BC 2,100. The area was later narrowed down to Guinea Coast and later still narrowed further down to the Gold Coast in the time when regions in West Africa were named after the predominant commodity they produced – like Ivory Coast, (Cote d’Ivoire), which still bears the name; Grain Coast (modern day Liberia), Slave Coast (somewhere between modern Togo and Western Nigeria).

From 6 March 1957, the Gold Coast becomes Ghana. It's gold production which started during the Bronze Age, ca. BC 2,100, continues as a significant producer up to date, AD 2021 – making it the world’s longest continuous significant annual producer. That is, over 4,000 years of continuous significant gold producing nation, now. It was the world’s leading producer ca. AD 1000 to about 1700, once responsible for about 35.5% of the entire world’s production. Ghana is currently producing over 140 tonnes of gold per annum, making it the world’s 6th or 7th largest producer. Unfortunately, it has less than 50 years for the light to go off for good or for the country to fall off the production radar permanently.

There were some producers long before Ghana like, Egypt, India, Sudan (Nubia), Spain (Iberian), Turkey (Asia Minor), Ethiopia and Arabia which started production from ca. BC 6,000. However, many of them fell from the production radar because greater part of the deposits were exhausted and some for other reasons. Sudan, one of the leading earliest major producers fell from the radar for a millennium or two but now bounces back. It is now the third largest producer in Africa, after Ghana and South Africa. It is trying hard to become a leader once again.

So also was China, an ancient gold producer but fell off the radar for over a millennium. It re-started production by little from the late 1960s. It continued its annual incremental production to the extent that in 2007, it dethroned South Africa, once the world’s super-giant producer – which produced 1,000.4 tonnes or over 61% of the entire world’s production in 1970. China still continues as the world’s leading producer.

I am here to give you a short historical background to what developed from gathering of gold grains from mine tailings (mine wastes) to become famous or notorious, depending on one’s perception and experience, named GALAMSEY– gather them (the gold grains) and sell.

The operators started with using pan, shovel and a small container in which to put the gold concentrates. They later started to use pick axe and hammer to loosen up the caked tailings. Initially the concentrates were smelted at 1,064oC and the glass-like impurities separated from the gold. This was generally safe operation but less efficient and also required much energy. Few sold the concentrates to gold smiths who were and still are experts of melting and purifying them. Later, mercury was used to concentrate the gold to make auro-mercuric amalgam. The amalgam is finally melted and the mercury is evaporated away at temperature of 357oC, leaving the gold. The evaporation which is done in open fire is very dangerous and leads to mercury poisoning of various degrees because mercury is very poisonous and remains in the human system for long time, if not for good. This form of gold extraction is far efficient and produces gold of about 60% to 70% purity.

It all started in Prestea Goldfields Ltd of State Gold Mining Corporation (SGMC). It began in my presence. I was then a research mining engineer for the company solving its serious environmental engineering (popularly known as, ventilation) problem the company had. Prestea Goldfields was the largest gold mining company in the corporation’s holding companies starting from five companies in 1961 but reduced to four then. The other mines were: Tarkwa Goldfields Ltd, Konongo Goldfields Ltd and Dunkwa Goldfields. Originally, there was Bibiani Goldfields but closed down its operation in 1971/72. Prestea was the second largest gold producer in the country, but fell very far behind Ashanti Goldfields Company (AGC) in Obuasi. AGC was once the richest and the most famous gold mining company in the world. At any international conference, exhibition or course, when you introduced yourself as a mining engineer and from Ghana, the first question would be: from Ashanti? They meant whether you were from agc.

The operation instantly spread to Tarkwa Goldfields Ltd., which was less than 20 kilometres away but of different geological settings so the tailings contained lesser gold but still workable. Tarkwa faced the same problem as Prestea. What we can now describe as a world phenomenon, started in 1976. Nobody took any notice of it as something that was going to be of any significance and have lasting local effect, let alone worldwide.

A number of important factors was responsible for the success of the operations which later turn criminal and environmentally devastating.

1) Gold’s physical and chemical properties, in short – indestructible, heavy, beautiful, pure metal, are major factors.

2) The acute shortage of foreign exchange in the country made gold a substitute for US dollar, British Sterling, German’s Deutschmark, etc. for travellers. Instead of going to the banks for foreign currency which was non-existent, people came to the mining towns to buy gold for their foreign travels, especially women traders. Sometimes the gold was taken to the clients in cities like Accra, Kumasi, Takoradi, etc. in a small containers for the travellers. Furthermore, there were no stringent securities at airports then such as metal detectors and body search as of recent times, due to international terrorism.

3) The high rise of gold price: The price of gold broke through the unrealistic $35/troy ounce set in 1934 to $43.50/troy ounce in 1968; to average price of $160.87/troy ounce in 1975 and to average of $614.75/troy ounce in1980.

The question is: why and how did what has become ‘galamsey’ start in the first place? To go underground to work, the following conditions or requirements from Mines Inspectorate (The Government Agency in charge of mines) with the headquarters then in Takoradi (now in Accra) had to be fulfilled:

(1) The person has to be 18 years or over and pass a medical examination conducted in the Mine Hospital by the company’s physician to determine the person’s fitness for the hard and demanding underground work. Having passed the examination, the company has to provide the person with the following:

(2) Hard helmet lined inside to protect the head from rock falls, is required;

(3) Pair of Hard-toe boots to protect the feet must be worn; and

(4) Electric-battery fully charged light to provide the person with bright light which should last for at least eight hours is required.

From about late 1975 to about early 1980s and even far beyond, the country’s economy ‘derailed’. A number of factors was responsible for that but outside the scope of this discussion. The grown-up people in Accra then might remember that, if you were lucky to get a taxi, the driver and two passengers sat in the front seats was the standard. I saw 4 people once in the front – another passenger by the driver. The back seat took at least 4 people was standard. They might be 5 or even 6. Each passenger paid the full fare. The driver would drop you at the junction leading to your home. It might be a half-kilometre or even farther away.

The reason was that there was an acute shortage of spare parts for cars and other vehicles so only very few were operating at a time. The life-saver in the country then was the full railway service system was in operation.

The problem was that: there was an acute shortage of foreign exchange in the country to buy virtually any foreign-made things. Not even quota to buy the essential working tools for the gold mining companies that were and are still earning the direct foreign exchange for the country. There was not even money to buy pair of boots and helmets, the two most essential personal necessities for the workers. Other essential machinery parts were in very short supply. I personally experienced the lack of minor items problem in my research-and-advancing solution to solve the environmental problem.

When a person passes the medical examination and can provide a pair of the necessary specified boots and helmets, he would be employed to start the underground work the following day, if he was ready.

It must be said here that all the gold mines in the country then, were operating underground. The last surface gold mine, MARLU Gold Co. Ltd. in Bogosu, near Prestea, ceased operation in 1954.

Bogosu presently, has been a striving surface gold mining community for Golden Star Ltd. for at least two decades.

There was hardly any spare boots or helmets available to be got from the older employees. When a person’s helmet or pair of boots was worn out, it would be taken to the mine central store with the person’s number (every worker, both underground and surface has an individual unique number) to get a new one. The matter of spares did not exist.

How was a young man eager to start work and earn living, going to get an unavailable pair of hard-toe boots and helmet? By an ingenuity, which I did not know how it started, they began to get boots and helmets from some of the older miners. I later learnt that the items were rented to the young would-be-employees to become employees. I knew nothing on the terms.

Now, the people who rented their helmets and boots became jobless. Some originally took extended annual leaves, others concentrated on their farms. It must be pointed out that many older miners were also successful farmers. They farmed as they worked on shifts.

It was here that one, two or a group of people took the chance to start to pan the heaps of tens, if not hundreds of thousand tonnes of tailings (wastes) from gold extraction which everybody knew contained some gold. All that was needed initially were: shovel, pan and container to put the impure gold product. That was all to the genesis of Galamsey. The world-wide phenomenon was born in Prestea, Ghana, and spread like a wild fire across the proverbial 4-corners of the world.

The illegal gold mining operation which originated from Ghana has become world-wide with names such as: Galamsey in Ghana, Garimpeiros in Brazil, Garimpo in Angola and Zama-zamas in South Africa, which is Zulu expression, meaning, “taking chance”. Indeed, all illegal mining (even the legal official mining) is taking a seriously deep chance if not deadly one, into the unknown. People are regularly seriously wounded or die mainly, from the unsafe conditions under which they operate.

In Brazil, the illegal mining started with an unwelcome violence especially on the aboriginal Yanomami people who live in the jungles for many thousands of years and others along the wide banks of Amazon River and its tributaries. The mindboggling violence continues unabated to date. In Brazil unlike Ghana, the Garimpeiros’ operation started with some rich people who took control. They provided all the logistics – food, accommodation and transport (light aircrafts to their airstrips) in the towns near the alluvial gold mining areas in the jungles. The miners virtually worked for the bosses – (the big-men and the big-women). That is now imported to Ghana. The people we see doing the hard dangerous work are labourers, technicians and supervisors (all employees) – some being paid daily or on whatever arrangement that is made with the bosses in their air-conditioned offices away from the action points.

In some Latin American countries in 1980s, the illegal gold mining was once virtual war among the different mining groups. Some miners had pieces of dynamite-stick primed with detonator and short lead in their bags or pockets. When or if confrontation arose, they would quickly light up the lead and throw at the opponents to blow them up into pieces. Thanks to God, that level of vicious and mindless violence has not been reported in Ghana and I hope it will never reach the country! We cannot however, be complacent. A lot is happening. We, Ghanaians in general, do not tell the truth and are often selective in reporting or narrating what is happening or what we see. We however, do not resort to mindless violence.

  1. In Ghana as, I have already said what has become galamsey, started in localised pockets in the mines’ wastes and around them. I personally, blamed His Excellency John Agyekum Kufuor, former president of the republic for being significantly responsible for creating the environment that led to the out of control galamsey and criminality that accompanied it in the country today. I choose my words precisely. Do not add any politically generated words to what I said. I stand by my expert analysed claim. President Kufuor gave 1,608 square kilometres (620 square miles) or about 0.7% of Ghana’s landmass of Ahafo land – made up of virgin forests, cocoa farms and other farms including communities’ dwellings to Newmont for 100% free to develop its Ahafo Gold Mine in Brong Ahafo. Similar land but lesser in area including forest reserve was also given to it for free, in once called Ntronang concession (with interesting history), now called East Birim, in the Eastern Region.

The NPP Government of President Kufuor of 2001 – 2009, handed over both Ahafo gold deposits and Akyem gold deposits, each 100% free to Newmont in the clear violation of: Mining Operations, Government Participation Act 1993, Act 465 [MO-GP Act 1993- Act 465]. The essence of the act was that the government must hold 10% shares in every mining venture in the country, except licensed small-scale gold mining. There is a very good reason for the joint-venture act. Ghana’s stake is only 10%, but it fulfils the basic objectives for which it was designed.

The government was warned by Ghana’s Minerals Commission, the country’s authority on minerals against the 100% shares handed to Newmont in the Newmont-Ghana Government Agreement as it was illegal in Act 465 above. The Commission further rejected to some sections of the Agreement, as they were in the least interest of the country. The country’s authority, on the whole rejected The Mining Concession Agreement mislabelled and called Investment Agreement. President Kufuor’s Government ignored the authority. It took the partly-illegal and partly-not-in-the-interest-of-Ghana Agreement unchanged to Parliament. Ghana’s Parliament took only a day to debate and approve the illegal agreement. Readers are referred to: Ms Ajoa Yeboah-Afari, of Native Daughter fame, exposé on the subject: “Galamsey apart, ‘marching forward to the past’” of 07 April 2017, Daily Graphic

In an attempt to exculpate the government from the illegal things it did, among others by giving Ghana’s gold deposits to Newmont for free, President Kufuor’s Government rushed to enact Minerals and Mining Regulation Act 2006, Act 703. In MMR Act 2006, the government repealed a number of very important Acts, among them were: MO-GP Act 1993, Act 465, which it flouted; and Small Scale Gold Mining Law, 1989 PNDCL.218 – The bedrock regulation to the establishment of small-scale gold mining in the country. I, personally contributed to the enactment by invitation from Ambassador, Dr Joe Abbey, then Ghana High Commissioner to United Kingdom and The Republic of Ireland., Lawrence M. K. Akakpo, Small–Scale Exploitation and Marketing of Ghana’s Placer Gold Deposits, Unpublished Research Report; May 1988. My section on Environmental Effect of Small Scale Mining – was an eye-opener for Minerals Commission. The paid consultants employed on the project did not make any mention of the environmental effect of mining. I saw personally in the outskirts of Kibi in 1969, near Kibi Women’s Teacher Training College where I was the mathematics tutor; the environmental devastation caused by the small scale gold mining projects of early 1940s. Both sides of footpaths looked and felt like death traps with deep holes and trenches. I learnt of similar or worse environmental destruction also of some areas near Osino.

In the enactment of MMR Act 2006, Act 703, the usual neoliberal ideology of right-wing governments – that is, to protect the interests of companies and their own personal-selves, did not escape the government. Apart from the repeal of the regulation that the government flouted in the interest of Newmont, it introduced new ones in the further interest of the mining companies.

The two unacceptable enactments I took most exception to were:

(1) The concessionaires, called investors, should annually take 80% (four-fifth) of the gross revenue free until their investment and interests are exhausted, if ever. No colonial government would dare to enact that regulation in any colony. There would be revolt the next day; yet our own elected government did it without caring about the interest of his own people. Unfortunately, our own Parliament approved it in a record time. The provision in MMR Act 2006, Act 703 led to Newmont’s claimed of extra-huge fake investment in 2007, a year after the enactment.

(2) There was the introduction of most absurd unusual concept into the surface gold mining industry called, Transition Agreement. What the concept boils out to was that: any initial privileges given to a mining company to start operation should never be changed for a minimum of 15 years. The 15 years would re-start if the company changes its ownership or name – Newmont as it did in 2019 by taking over Gold Corp and changed its name to Newmont Goldcorp. Luckily, late Prof. Atta Mills’ NDC Government introduced an amendment to the original regulation in 2011 to change the excessive give-away.

The farcicality of the original concept and its practice, was that surface gold mining generally has lifespan of about 10 years to 20 years – with average lifespan of 15 years. In other words, the gold mines are truly given away free to the mining companies. Any initial incentives given (usually for three years up to maximum of five years for underground mines which last longer, in mining/minerals economics, called period of grace) are for the physical lives of the mining operations. It was transposing of whisky distillation economic principles and practice to surface gold mining. Johnnie Walker, born 1820, still going strong; was the advertisement! Now it is over 200 years! Minerals do not have that level of luxury.

President Kufuor’s Government did not end up with the above accounts. When his government came to power in January 2001, there was only a state-owned Precious Minerals Marketing Company (PMMC) established by Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s CPP Government in 1963. It was setup to buy and market diamonds from the licensed winners who exploited small deposits.

On the government allowing the setup of small-scale gold mining companies from 1989, PMMC’s role was enhanced and expanded to: assay, purchase, manufacture jewellery and sell the physical gold and its products. By the time the president left office in January 2009, his government allowed the setup of 17 gold purchasing and marketing companies. With the explosion of companies came the dishonesty of some companies in league with some small-scale miners’ who sold and are still selling outside the government reach so depriving it of its royalty and other payments. As of 2020, there were 41 gold purchasing and marketing companies in the country apart from PMMC. 29 of them operated during the year, 12 did not.

Philosophically, psychologically and morally, if large Ghana’s gold deposits were given to a foreign international gold mining company (the world's number one largest gold producer) by the country’s president for free, why on earth should Ghanaians not have the right and the incentive to help themselves to extract their own gold for free? That is very strong shrewd persuasive point. You may agree or disagree with them, but you cannot deny the logic. The flood gate was open or rather genie was out of the bottle!

Galamsey: using shovel, pick-axe, pan and container was localised nuisance, but not out of control. President Kufuor’s government policies and actions created illegal-mining out of control in the country. River Pra, of clear water, which I crossed several times in the past has become rio tinto, real muddy-river – and other rivers like Ankobra, Ofin, Birim, etc. destroyed for the sake of greed and selfishness! We all see what is happening now. No galamsey operator uses $120,000 caterpillar, let alone a fleet of them. Neither do they go to start gold mining in national forest reserves.

We must remember one thing: it is rule of law that separates human beings from all other species of living bodies!

What is happening in the “Galamsey” front is a well-planned and being executed without thinking of or realising the serious environmental destructive consequences until it starts to explode in our faces. The flood that occurred in Kumasi on 24 June 2021 when courses of streams and small rivers are blocked to build houses, is a test-tube model of what is going to happen in Ghana in the near future – if real concerted actions do not start right now in the mining areas where rivers are being blocked. Yes, you can fully or partially block the courses of the rivers upstream to extract gold downstream. However, during the rainy season, the water will find somewhere to pass! That is law of nature. Farms, villages, towns may be swept away. The rich who are mainly the cause, with their mansions in United Kingdom, Florida, California, etc. will run away living you and me who never benefit an iota from galamsey – without homes and without even food, if we are lucky to be alive. The Chinese will run away to their country. What is happening has far reaching implications.

The slogan and the thinking is that the anointed enact laws and regulations for the masses to obey. They carry on with the galamsey unabated, others should stop! New so-called community are still shooting up daily.

Let us stop deceiving ourselves. NO ONE DETERS MOSQUITOES WITH FISHING NETS!

# The author is a retired: Mining Engineer, Environmental Engineer, Mathematician, Analyst and Author with 55 years’ experience in mining, teaching, learning and research in: Ghana, Australia and United Kingdom.

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