The Ahafo gold mine, Newmont's first mine in Ghana, has been implicated in human rights abuses and irresponsible practices since before it began operating in 2006. The mine is located in a farming region northwest of the country's capital Accra and has caused major displacement and social impacts.
In October, 2009, a cyanide spill occurred at the Ahafo mine that killed a large number of fish and threatened the water of local communities. A Ghanaian Ministerial Panel that evaluated the spill and its aftermath recommended that the company be fined $4.9 million for failing to prevent the spill or to properly report on and investigate the spill.
Newmont caused a number of major problems even before this latest spill. The first phase of the mine (Ahafo South) has displaced roughly 9,500 people, at least 95 percent of whom are subsistence farmers. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank's private sector arm, approved $175 million in loans to Newmont for the development of the Ahafo project in spite of calls for the IFC to postpone the Ahafo loan and independent reviews highlighting the problems with the project. Compensation for lost houses, land, accessibility to Kenyasi, water access, fish ponds, and crops was woefully inadequate and public pressure forced the company to allow a review of compensation rates in 2008 by representatives of the civil society, the government, and the company.
Security forces associated with the mine have also been implicated in human rights abuses. Activists were arrested because of a Newmont complaint that they were allegedly using the company name to hold a meeting; they were then remanded in prison custody for two weeks for organizing a community meeting without police permission, even though the Ghanaian Public Order Law does not require such permission. Security forces have beaten and arrested protesters who were demonstrating over unfair Newmont practices. On one occasion protesting workers were shot. Some residents who were displaced have been assaulted by security forces for allegedly trespassing on company property.
The company itself recognizes that the region where the mine is located is Ghana's breadbasket and supplies about 30 percent of the nation's food. 97 percent of the people affected by the project identified agriculture as their primary livelihood activity, and the displaced people are mostly poor subsistence farmers. There is widespread concern among groups monitoring the project about food security and future of the displaced people.
Communities are also rightfully concerned that the project poses a serious threat to the environment and community health. An independent technical review of the mine s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted by the Center for Science and Public Participation indicated that Newmont did not adequately assess risks of serious water contamination by acid mine drainage. Indeed, in 2010 Ghana recommended fining Newmont $4.9 million for a cyanide spill. Newmont has not provided a meaningful financial guarantee to ensure clean-up and reclamation of the site. A similar review of the EIA conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed these environmental risks. The construction of the dam on the Subri river may also have contributed to an increase in mosquito populations and malaria cases in the area. The dam also caused the drowning death of two residents who were crossing the dam instead of going several miles around it. The sewage disposal at the Newmont operation also was cause for concern because of the overflow of sewage into a stream and the river.
The Ahafo mine is currently operating despite these concerns. In fact, Newmont recently proposed an expansion of its processing facility at the site.
Gold Fields Ghana's relocation office near the Tarkwa mine. The Atuabo village school and several homes were bulldozed when residents refused to leave.
Photo: Jamie Kneen/MiningWatch Canada
On October 16, 2001, a tailings dam burst at the Tarkwa gold mine in the Wassa West District of Ghana sending thousands of cubic meters of mine waste into the Asuman River and contaminating it with cyanide and heavy metals. The Tarkwa mine is operated by Gold Fields Ghana, a South African gold mining company. The disaster left more than one thousand people without access to drinking water. Virtually all life forms in the river and its tributary were killed. Hundreds of dead fish, crabs, and birds lay on the banks of the river and floated to the surface.
At least five villages were affected by this spill. According to Daniel Owusu-Koranteng, executive director of the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining (WACAM), “People in the villages of Abekoase and Huni have lost their clean drinking water and their livelihood as they can no longer sell or eat produce from their farms through which the river runs. Gold Fields should not hide from their responsibility for damages. We need to demand compensation for those directly affected by mining disasters.” The worst-affected village, Abekoase, took legal action against the company to claim compensation. In December 2003, an out of court settlement was reached between the village of Abekoase and the mining company to establish a development fund for the village. But the cyanide and heavy metal residue from the spill could remain for decades, posing a health and environmental threat to the people and animal life in the area.
Once known as the Gold Coast in colonial times, Ghana is Africa's second largest producer of gold after South Africa. The spill at Tarkwa was one of five cyanide spills in Ghana over a period of seven years which have polluted water supplies and forced many families to abandon their farms. In the Wassa West District alone, eight large open-pit mining companies are operating within a 2,354 square kilometer area. This is quite possibly the highest concentration of open-pit mines in all of Africa. To make the situation even worse, in January 2003, water from an abandoned underground mine at Tarkwa seeped into the Asuman River creating new worries of water contamination.
Gold mining in Ghana has been touted by the government of Ghana and international financial institutions as the path to economic development. Massive privatization of the mining sector began in 1986 under a World Bank-IMF Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). Environmental regulation was minimized. As a result of the favorable investment climate, 70 to 85 percent of the large-scale mining industry is now foreign-owned. But, communities are feeling the toll. In the Wassa area, mining displaced 30,000 people between 1990 and 1998. At the same time, mining has caused social turmoil in affected communities by taking away large tracts of land from farmers, often using force and without adequate compensation.