By October last year, about 100 Chinese men and women were living in makeshift camps around Mpatasie, according to the village chief, Nana Agya Owusu. Some carried guns to protect their claims. Locals, who had hoped to benefit from the gold production but had seen few benefits, were becoming angry. So were the Ghanaian authorities, who had recently deported dozens of illegal Chinese miners.
“Six trucks carrying armed forces came and attacked the Chinese,” Owusu said, describing the Oct. 11 raid in the Mpatasie area, a two-hour drive from the regional capital, Kumasi. “They took many of them away.”
When a group of miners tried escape into the forest, a 16-year-old Chinese boy was killed by the security forces. His shooting prompted a rare public complaint from the Chinese Embassy in Ghana, which is more used to trumpeting the two countries’ growing trade, worth more than $2.3 billion in the first half of 2012, a 72 percent increase from the same period in 2011.
The killing highlighted the mounting social and environmental problems in the booming small-scale mining sector in Ghana, Africa’s second-biggest gold producer.
For decades, tens of thousands of local miners called “galamseys” — a word derived from the English phrase “gather them and sell” — have scraped a living toiling in shallow pits and tunnels, often illegally on land belonging to big mining companies such as Newmont, Gold Fields and AngloGold Ashanti.
But the soaring gold price, which has doubled to $1,650 in four years, has attracted Chinese workers and heavy equipment to the sector, drastically changing the scale and nature of operations. In 2011, 30 percent of the country’s 3.6 million ounces of gold production came from small-scale mines, up from less than 25 percent in 2010, according to Toni Aubynn, chief executive of the Ghana Chamber of Mines, an industry association. Production is expected to increase further, and with it the involvement of small-scale miners.
“You now have bulldozers and other heavy equipment being used in small operations,” Aubynn said. “What could be done in five years is now taking five months and leaves a lot of environmental damage. It’s a serious issue.”
Aubynn estimates that “thousands” of Chinese are working in the gold-mining sector. By law, only Ghanaians are allowed to obtain mining licences for small-scale operations and to do the work. But foreigners can provide technical services and equipment. Before the influx of foreign workers began, Chinese traders had started supplying rock crushers and other machines to local miners.
“We don’t have machines. The Chinese have machines, so they help us,” said Akwasi Abu, chairman of the Amansie-West Small-Scale Mining Association, near Mpatasie. “There is no problem.”