A gold mining pit in Ghana. (Kwei Quartey)

Compared to the West’s neoliberalism, China’s approach to investment in Africa has often been somewhat idealized as more of a “partnership” with the host country, with less moralizing by the Chinese over human rights practices and fewer strings attached economically.

Ghana, the country of my birth, has benefited tremendously from Chinese interest-free grants for the construction of buildings, roads, and hydroelectric dams. But in recent months, a more irregular kind of Chinese investment in Ghana has provoked considerable controversy. 

After South Africa, Ghana is the second largest gold producer in Africa, estimated to have at least 2 billion ounces of gold in reserve. Over the last decade, thousands of Chinese gold-seekers have streamed into Ghana, most of them from Guangxi Province in Shanglin County, where an age-old tradition of gold mining exists. When the Chinese government cracked down on unscrupulous mining and private operations were banned, Shanglin’s miners sought other sources of gold outside China. When they caught wind of Ghana’s rich reserves, a mass exodus from China to the West African country was begun.

But Ghanaian law prohibits small-scale mining by non-citizens. For this reason, as well as the fact that many overstay their visas, the Chinese miners in Ghana have fallen into conflict with local authorities and regional rivals alike. Accounts have emerged of Chinese miners being ambushed by armed robbers and using pump-action shotguns for protection. A number of violent deaths have been reported on both sides, including a Chinese boy and a Ghanaian policeman.

In May 2013, following the release of a Guardian report on the conflict, Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama ordered a crackdown on the illegal Chinese miners. Their cash and equipment were confiscated, excavators and other machines were set alight, and the Chinese were manhandled and ejected from their mining camps. In early June, 169 of them were arrested or detained.

Ghana ultimately deported thousands of Chinese nationals, but some are finding their way back to Ghana to pick up where they left off. Deep in the bush, nervous and watchful Chinese prospectors can be spotted setting up for new operations.

Of course, most Ghanaians are not armed robbers, and not all Chinese miners are walking around with pump-action shotguns. The Ghanaian response to the Chinese is more ambivalent and nuanced than has been portrayed.

The chief of one of the villages close to a mining area told me that except for the fact that many miners failed to fill in their pits after using them, he had no issue with the prospectors in his region and would gladly have them back. According to him, not only  had the Chinese provided employment to restless village youth, they had rendered services such as improving local roads and providing much-needed boreholes to the village for a clean water supply.

With the departure of the Chinese, the chief said, he now had young, idle men hanging around with nothing to do—especially the many with no interest in farming. Having enjoyed an unprecedented taste of quick cash from small-scale gold mining, some of the youth “have turned to robbing and stealing,” he said.

On the other hand, farmers in that same village who faced devastating losses from the destruction of their lands were not quite as sanguine as their chief about having the Chinese back.

After all, wherever mining occurs, environmental crisis follows—and Ghana is no exception. Forests have been destroyed, and landscapes have been ruinously scarred with open pits. In many cases, cocoa and palm trees are bulldozed away, either after the miners have bought the land from a farmer, or after the local chief (in return for a payoff) has given the miners authority to destroy it. Ghana, a country with already depleted forest reserves, can ill afford to lose any more of its green cover.

Once the pits have been dug and used up—or found to be poor in gold at the outset—the site is abandoned. Because it costs money to backfill the pits, the miners rarely if ever bother, leaving vast spaces of land that can never be replanted or used again as farmland.

There are many other grave consequences. Heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, copper, arsenic, and mercury leak into the soil as gold is separated from its ore. Often these metals filter into local water supplies, where it is often pumped out into nearby rivers and the fish that dwell within them. Riverbed levels are often raised by excess silting, and local water levels are depleted. Changing drainage patterns due to the mining pits and silting and can lead to flooding of nearby villages, and the pits themselves have become well known drowning hazards.

As is often the case in Ghana, wrongs are not put right as long as money continues to change hands, and illegal gold mining has undoubtedly flourished because it is highly lucrative to people at several levels. Stories abound of farmers, chiefs, policemen, immigration officers, and highly placed government officials accepting bribes in exchange for leaving the illegal miners alone. Even Ghana’s Precious Minerals Marketing Company (PMMC), which is not supposed to buy any illegal gold, is suspected of being complicit. However, it is almost impossible to find out exactly who is paying whom for what, since few will speak up.

Illegal mining at the present uncontrolled pace is fundamentally unsustainable in Ghana, but the frenetic gold rush will not end anytime soon. Ghana now faces a challenge of staggering proportions to regain what has been lost and to prevent the wreckage from spreading further. It is an unenviable task—and as one senior police officer lamented to me, Ghana may not have the political will to tackle it.

Lessons of Sandy
Foreign Policy In Focus
 columnist Kwei Quartey was born in Ghana and raised by an African American mother and a Ghanaian father, both of whom were university lecturers. He lives in Pasadena, California where he runs a wound care clinic and is the lead physician at an urgent care center. He is the author of three novels.