Obuasi, a town in the Ashanti Region of Ghana, also known as sikakrom, or the rich city is famous for its gold mining activities. Mining in Obuasi has been going on for over 130 years and the town has been the mining grounds for the Ashanti Goldfields Company (AGC) since 1897. It is common in Ghana to say that AGC is Obuasi and Obuasi is AGC. However, in 2004 the Anglo Gold Ashanti (AGA) took over the mining projects from AGC.

Figure 1 A Section of Residential and Commercial area in Obuasi Town
Figure 1 A Section of Residential and Commercial area in Obuasi Town. Photo Sam A. Kasimba 2016

Recently, there has been “rumours” that AGA is closing down and this has caused mixed reactions from AGA workers, local politicians, the public, and the civil societies. More so, there has long been an ongoing battle between AGA and the small-scale miners in the town. Even though mining in Obuasi has denied many people their prior livelihoods and caused environmental setbacks, there are still many lives in the town that directly and indirectly depend on the operations of AGA.

David versus Goliath
It must be understood that in the Ashanti region, gold mining has been going on long before 1897. I have personally met gold smiths who tell me that their great grandfathers have been earning their living from gold mining as long as they can recall. The clash between giant AGA and the small-scale miners has history. In 1897, when AGC got mining concession in Obuasi, an area of over 200 square kilometres (almost the entire city). This meant that any person involved in mining within this area was an illegal miner, hence the popular term galamsey. Galamsey, according to an informant, actually means gather and sell – which simply refer to people going around mining areas to gather small gold proceeds and then sell them. However, as many local people could not pronounce gather and sell properly, it turned to be galamsey. The term galamsey, even though not directly related to the Chinese, many people use it to describe many of the Chinese miners cooperating with the locals in illegal mining in Ghana.

The acquisition of the Obuasi mining grounds by AGC rendered most traditional miners the tittle, small-scale miners, sometimes referred to as illegal miners depending on who is talking. There is however two types of illegal miners. There are those penetrating the boundaries of AGA’s mining site, and those mining outside it. These groups are also a problem to the local government, as they are not formally controlled and have no mining licences.

Figure 2 Mining activities just 10 meters from the AGA boundary
Figure 2 Mining activities just 10 meters from the AGA`s boundary. Photo Sam A. Kasimba

The problem today, without going into details, is the prevailing scuffle between the small-scale miners and the AGA. According to the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the government of Ghana and AGA, the government should provide security to protect AGA’s property. The government has often failed to provide this protection.

Just before I visited Obuasi in February this year, an employee of AGA died during a clash between AGA security and small-scale miners. This was an accident as the death of the employee occurred in the middle of chaos when the government soldiers intervened a situation between small-scale miners and AGA officials. This group of soldiers were sent to Obuasi to restore peace and order. They stayed there for a couple of weeks, and then were withdrawn. This caused even more chaos as AGA thought that the government had failed them even at the time when they needed the security most. In the views of some people, this withdrawal was linked to political rivalry, and many claim that the tussle between the giant AGA and the small-scale miners is being used to further political agendas.

Priority versus Politics
Apparently, the calling home of the government soldiers was an order from the Regional Minister, who is a direct appointee of the president. He also gave orders that AGA should not interfere with small-scale mining activities outside the company`s boundaries. Secondly, the chairperson of the Obuasi Municipal Security Council (MSC) is also a presidential appointee, reporting directly to him. These appointments are influenced by their political affiliations, which suggests that they are the president and the ruling party sympathisers. The chairperson is also the leader of the small-scale miners association in Obuasi. Finally, they are both vying for two different parliamentary seats within Obuasi (Obuasi East and West constituencies) during the upcoming general elections in November 2016. The question is whose interest should the local and national governments prioritize? The company`s, the small-scale miners or the politicians?

Figure 3 Obuasi Airport AGA
Figure 3 Obuasi Airport. Built and owned by AGA. Photo Sam A. Kasimba 2016

At the same time, AGA activities in Obuasi provides jobs to many at different scales. The confusion around the closure of AGA has led to panic simply because some people are for and others are against the closure. Some argue for the continuation with the rhetoric that many will lose jobs if AGA closes down. On the other hand, those negatively affected by mining activities think that if AGA closes down, they might be able to recover their farming and small-scale mining activities.

Nevertheless, my thoughts rotate around the aspects of transparency and accountability in providing land and mining licences to the small-scale miners.

Approaches to Land and the Acquisition of Mining Licence
I use the terms transparency and accountability, as translated or understood by the many people I have talked to in Obuasi, and in other extractive regions in Ghana. The concepts have been described to me as openness and doing the right thing. Many claim that if small-scale mining in Obuasi were well regulated, there would not be an issue of illegal mining. This is however easier said than done. Rules and regulations of small-scale mining should be based on openness and followed to the point. This would in turn result to economic and social growth in the regions where big mining companies like AGA do not have mining concessions. In the Western and Ashanti Regions of Ghana, about 40-85% of households obtain regular income directly or indirectly from small-scale mining.

Figure 4 A house that collapsed during a mining blast
Figure 4 A house that collapsed during a mining blast. Photo Sam A. Kasimba 2016

The problem is how the land and mining licences are acquired. Reliable sources say that due to corruption and political influence, the land and the licence to mine is often obtained through fraudulent processes. Many people who get the permission are not even small-scale miners. However, when they get the land and licence, they engage in illegal mining. This they do by renting their land to unlicensed miners, hence the increase in galamsey or the illegal mining activities.

All in all, the long-term effects of mining in Obuasi has generally resulted into environmental challenges, loss of farm land, pollution of water sources, damages of people`s houses as a result of blasts just to mention a few. I see the root cause of the issue as a combination of frustrations from different stakeholders, specifically the local communities.