The din of drills, excavators and water pumping machines common in the bushes of the mine town, Dunkwa on Offin, is loudly silent. The chirping of birds pierce the silence as we snake across the pot-hole-ridden dirt road bordered on each side by thick bushes. A truck belonging to one of the big mine companies whips up dust in its approach and a mix of stones, chipped rock and sand lash at our windscreen as it speeds past.
We’ve arrived in Dunkwa on Offin in the Upper Denkyira East district capital of Ghana’s Central Region. Its one of a number of locations at the center of Ghana’s crackdown on illegal gold mining involving foreigners.
Suspicion is high amongst the locals.
Later in the day the owner of a small mine concession will give me a false name and confide that though arrests have targeted foreigners, even Ghanaian owners of concessions, like him, have borne the brunt of the task force enforcing the ban. Keys for their mine diggers or machine parts have been seized by the enforcers.
But before all that, Dunkwa’s dirt roads are lined on both sides by what seems like lush undergrowth. The trees and leaves waving in the wind hide from view the product of illegal mining in unlicensed concessions. The land behind the partition has been cleared by now-silent earth moving equipment. Brown stagnant water in dug up pits the size of craters reflects the image of water pumps and other mining equipment used to turn the earth.
As the road stretches, we see more abandoned trenches and huge earth mounds left in the trail of gold diggers. Where trees once stood as forests, the earth is now exposed because the area was not reclaimed.
Then we catch a glimpse of the Ofin River snaking through the undergrowth.
Dunkwa on Offin lies along the Ofin River, which borders between the Central Region and the Ashanti Region, famed for its wealth in gold deposits. Gold is mined from the river’s sediment.
Philip Eyison works with Solar Fm, a local radio station as a reporter. He walks a tightrope when I ask how he feels about the deportations while we tour a polluted stretch of the Ofin River.
“I feel bad but it must be done”, he says.
An abandoned barge with two outboard motors floats on the river. Attached to it are two pipes connected to a dredger on one end. Sediment dredged from the riverbed flow through the pipe in to a basin on the barge where it’s washed with mercury to separate sand and gold particles. Our guide explains that expensive barges like that are out of the reach of the locals. The Chinese rent them in addition to water pumping machines and other equipment that make it easy to prospect for gold in the river. The barge was abandoned when police conducted a swoop along the bank recently.
Pointing to a group of galamsey miners digging on the opposite bank, Philip says “deep in the Upper East Denkyira municipality, people complain bitterly because some of them use the water from this Offin River to cook and bath. They have complained that the residue of the mercury used by those miners to extract gold gives them skin rashes. And is harmful to their health. Some use this water to cook.”
So why do locals offer themselves to be recruited to work with the Chinese if their operations harm their environment and health?
“Unemployment”, he responds.
The trip back to the main road is walk through a rubber plantation. Rows of rubber trees around the edge of the river have been cut down and the area dug up. The digging has loosened the earth and swirling water slowly washes the soil away.
We drive past yards with big tractors and diggers parked with one or two men standing watch. These are mining machinery for hire. A nervous watchman tells me the crackdown has slowed down the rental business these days. “The Chinese have money to rent for our brothers” he says. ‘Since they begun arresting them, our people cant afford these machines any more. Sometimes even we have to ran when the taskforce people come to town to escape arrest”.
At some areas, clusters of bare-chest locals muddied from head to toe slosh in knee deep murky water digging, shoveling in the mud. They look up warily as we slow down to observe. They aren’t sure of our intentions. We just might be interested in an interview or to film them working.
I need views from Chinese workers on the crackdown and to question why they dig for gold when the law prohibits them. The concessions we see along the road so far promise little of what we need immediately so we drive on into town.
The swoop by immigration police recently has seen hundreds of the Chinese picked from mine sites where they built and lived in shacks with stores of food, water and fuel. Those who escaped arrest have fled the mines and lodge with hotels in town.
Just in, a group of about thirty Chinese men hang around a hotel. Five Urvan buses and pick-ups trucks with Ghanaian drivers wait with engines humming. We’re in luck. This group is headed for the capital for the sanctuary of their embassy.
Their mandarin-speaking translator Francis Okyere is a teacher. We approach him and get introduced to Wei Ming Huang, delegated by the group to answer our questions. Wei tells me they had valid visas to be in Ghana but were unaware local laws barred them from mine sites. He says some locals have taken advantage of the swoops to steal from them. Out of concern for their personal safety the group was travelling to Accra to wait pending the outcome of talks between Chinese and Ghanaian officials.
Interview done I chat with the translator, Francis. His is the story of how the local economy thrives on the presence of the Chinese.
The 47-year-old math’s and science teacher gets an extra income every time he’s called out to translate talks between the Chinese and concession holders.
Under a government exchange programme in 1976, he went with a group six boys and four girls as national acrobats to China for training. He ended up living in the province of Xiang for two years. There he learnt to speak mandarin. Today his ability to speak the language earns him a translator’s call out fee of between $100 and $250.
While we spoke, other angry young men from the town inched close. They worked with the Chinese. With unemployment high, they blame government for their inevitable state of joblessness.
“What work should we do now?” one of them I call Kofi cuts in. “They say we do galamsey and we are illegal. It’s difficult to get a license. And even when you do, it is dangerous and difficult. Out people are always dying in collapsed pits. The Chinese people brought machines. They also give us money to rent tractors and diggers so we can easily do this work. We share the profit from our finds with them. So if you say they should go, will government now give us the support we need?”
Wei Ming Huang’s driver who was eavesdropping adds, “look at me, as a driver with a local company I made less than $100 a month but these people pay me about $600 to drive their bus. They employ and pay us to handle excavators and other mining equipment. Now what should we do? How would we feed our families?”
As we leave their anger is palpable. The local economy will feel the brunt of the law’s enforcement. Those whose mining jobs it seeks to protect feel betrayed. Momentarily judgment is clouded by the personal loss of income and jobs guaranteed by so-called investors.
Detaining foreign miners – whether Chinese or African, may have slowed the rush for Ghana’s gold, but others will risk arrest, for the prospect of a better future.