Society and the Environment: Gold from Ghana

Geologists and miners inspect core samples at an underground gold mine in Obuasi, Ghana.The world market price of gold rose from $260 to $1,730 per ounce between 2001 and 2012. Most people don’t think about it, but the environmental and social consequences of this price increase have been substantial. This is especially true in countries where many people live in poverty. The situation in Ghana illustrates the complex interplay of societal and environmental processes that can lead to local crises or, alternatively, show cause for …hope.

Ghana, which is located on the west coast of Africa, has an unusual geological history in which gold deposits were concentrated in several bands that cover about one-sixth of the country. Historical records show that gold began to be exported from Ghana starting in the 16th century, and now Ghana is Africa’s second largest producer of gold. Much of the gold is in deposits suitable for large-scale mining operations, but a substantial amount is located in river deposits that can be mined in small operations with primitive… equipment.

The government of Ghana is working diligently to overcome the economic challenges remaining from a history of colonial exploitation. Until recently, export earnings depended on just a few commodities. While Ghana’s primary product for world trade used to be cocoa, gold is now the country’s most important export. The literacy rate was 67% in 2009 (up from 58% in 2000), and about 28% of the population lives below the poverty level. In order to improve economic opportunity (and to recover some income), the Ghanaian government passed laws to regulate small-scale gold mining.

Underground mines in Ghana provide about 90% of exported gold. At least some of these large operations use environmentally friendly processes, such as bacterial oxidation instead of separating gold from other material with toxic mercury. Small-scale gold mining produces 10% of Ghana’s gold. This segment of the industry is performed by people who lack the resources to apply modern gold-mining methods. In small-scale mining, gold is separated from alluvial sediments with environmentally harmful processes.

Using mercury is the most harmful process by which gold can be extracted from sediments. Mercury that enters the environment through water or air is toxic to humans and ecological systems. Mercury-containing fumes are carried far from extraction sites, and mercury contaminates agricultural areas and drinking water. In addition, small-scale gold extraction can redirect rivers, increase erosion, and cause water pollution from acid-bearing rocks exposed by the mining. Contaminated and stagnant water increase diseases. These problems create major challenges to economic advancement for impoverished people.

While providing much-needed economic benefits for Ghana and many of its people, small-scale gold mining may be harming the long-term future of agriculture, including economically valuable cocoa and coffee plantations. Poisoning people and damaging subsistence agriculture add to the problems. The government is trying to address these issues, but people in poverty appear to have few options.

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