Ghana’s Gold Endowment and the Involvement of Chinese Miners
Ghana is endowed with vast reserves of natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable. As the second largest gold miner in Africa, behind South Africa, Ghana is famous for its gold production and was once named the ‘Gold Coast’ because of the abundance of gold. Between 1493-1600, Ghana accounted for about 36% of the total world gold output. Also, between the first documentation of gold mining in 1493 up to 1997, Ghana extracted an estimated 80 million ounces of gold. The extraction of gold in Ghana is thus, an age-old phenomenon which has been carried out by local people using artisanal techniques known in local parlance as ‘galamsey’.
A key feature of Ghana’s gold is that small-scale mining accounts for about 30% of total gold output, employing about 3 million people directly and indirectly. The small-scale mining sector was legalized in 1989 for citizens while explicitly forbidding the involvement of foreigners. The legalization was done to formalize and regularize the sector for the benefit of Ghanaians by way of providing employment and contributing to the local economy. But since 2010, Ghana has become an attractive destination for foreign gold mercantilists, particularly those from China.
The relevant Ghanaian laws explicitly forbid foreigners from engagement in small-scale mining. The Minerals and Mining Act 2006 (Act 703) [Section 83(a)] states that: “A license for small-scale mining operation shall not be granted to a person unless that person is a citizen of Ghana.”
The issue of Chinese gold miners in Ghana sparked national tension in 2013 when the London based Guardian Newspaper and the BBC News documented a perceived broad scale of illegal Chinese gold mining activities in Ghana, alongside allegations of human rights abuses. The media sensationalism of the issue led to strong opposition and resentment from the Ghanaian public, despite the significant economic impact of Chinese involvement including the massive jump in the production of gold from small-scale mines due to the introduction of new technology and machinery by Chinese that has transformed the small-scale mining sector. Notwithstanding, Chinese miners have since at times fallen into a direct violent confrontation with local miners who feel displaced by the perceived sophisticated method employed by the Chinese.
The resentment towards Chinese is manifested in the 2016 ‘Afrobarometer’ survey on the perception of China in Africa, which revealed that the perception of China as resource extractor is highly dominant in Ghana than any other African country. There has been resentment in the past with Chinese involvement in other gold rushes throughout history, notably, in the United States and Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries – both of which resulted in violent confrontations and strict immigration policies. It is also reminiscent of Chinese migrants to South Africa after the discovery of gold and diamonds in the 1870s and 1880s. The parallel contemporary trend in Ghana is equally alarming as sensationalism of the issue and the often demonization of Chinese in the media as ‘invaders’ due to the activities of a small number of Chinese miners has led to rising in general resentment towards Chinese.
The ‘Small Group’ of Chinese Miners
According to a report by the 21st Century Business Herald, translated from Chinese to English by the China-Africa Project, a unique eye for gold and the fancy stories of rags-to-riches of Chinese miners has been the primary motivator and driving force of Chinese arrival to Ghana for mining. A study by Crawford et al. in 2015 entailing the arrival from 2006 into the central area of alluvial gold mining in Ghana revealed that these small group of miners that have become known as the ‘Shanglin gang’ came predominantly from the ‘Shanglin County’ in ‘Guangxi Zhuang’ Autonomous Province of China. However, the first phase of small-scale Chinese miners to Ghana was in 1998 that comprised a group of miners from ‘Hunan’ Province of China. The ‘Hunan’ group expanded to around 300 miners and was in Ghana from 1998 to 2005, but did not make much profit and their business venture collapsed. The South China Morning Post in a 2013 report estimated that more than 50,000 Chinese gold miners (mostly from ‘Shanglin County’) have been to Ghana since 2005. The 21st Century Business Herald report in May 2013 also referred to as many as 50,000 ‘Shanglin County’ native gold miners alone in Ghana.
The New York Times in 2013 reported that concerned residents of ‘Shanglin’ have blamed the arrival on the local government for shirking its responsibility after years of encouraging the Ghanaian gold rush. Likewise, many Ghanaians also blame the government of Ghana for its weak immigration policy allowing the arrival of the miners. A detailed report by the Ghana Bureau of National Investigation in 2017, however, cited extensive collaboration between the miners and some chiefs and political figures in Ghana. The Bureau’s dossier is perhaps most revealing as it in part explains the arrival of Chinese in the sector that by law, is reserved for locals.
Ghana’s Response to the Issue
The menace of ‘illegal’ mining by both locals and foreign involvement (mainly Chinese) first became a contentious issue between 2012 and 2013. By 2013, the involvement of Chinese citizens had grown to such proportions it triggered a persistent hostile media coverage of conflicts between Chinese miners’ and local miners, as well as an unprecedented rate of environmental degradation. The media sensationalism on the issue led to the formation of an Inter-Ministerial Task Force in 2013 to deal with the canker. The military-style task force was primarily aimed at ‘flushing out’ foreign miners, and by mid-July 2013, about 4,592 Chinese nationals had been deported, as well as small numbers of other foreign nationals.
The campaign died naturally partly due to ineffective enforcement measures and low public and media attention afterward. A change of government in January 2017 ushered in perhaps the most vocal and unprecedented anti-illegal small-scale mining campaign in the country after almost four years of public silence, and since the failed first Inter-Ministerial anti-illegal mining task force in 2013. Championed by a Media Coalition (comprising the major media organizations in the country), and supported by bipartisan members of the legislative body of Ghana (parliament), as well as various Civil Society organizations and Faith-based groups, the government of Ghana was pressured to take immediate action.
In response, the government of Ghana launched another anti-illegal mining campaign. Yet another Inter-Ministerial task force was inaugurated by the President of Ghana with a mandate to enforce a ban on all forms of small-scale mining and develop a comprehensive strategy to guide the activities of small-scale miners. The task force in August 2017 inaugurated a heavily armed Joint Military Police Taskforce dubbed “Operation Vanguard” to clamp down on illegal small-scale mining in any form throughout the country. The task force in precisely a year later (August 2018) had conducted a total of 1,179 operations with over 1,370 arrests including 247 Chinese nationals. The media campaign and sensationalism got some foreign diplomatic backing from the Australian and the Israeli governments. Andrew Barnes (the Australian High Commissioner to Ghana), while acknowledging the economic, environmental, and health problems associated with illegal mining activities, applauded the campaign with a promised to support the effort. Likewise, the Israeli Ambassador to Ghana (Ami Mel) in a statement declared Israel’s steadfast support and commitment to the ongoing campaign against ‘illegal’ mining, promising the State of Israel will help Ghana recover from the devastation wrecked the environment by the menace.
China’s Response and the Threat to Ghana-China Relations
The media sensationalism of Chinese involvement has become a worrying issue for both China and Ghana regarding their future relations. The official admonition by the Chinese Embassy in Ghana to the media and the Ghanaian government in April 2017 perhaps sums up how the issue of Chinese mining activities could affect the bilateral relations between the two countries. This diplomatic concern climaxes the contentious issue of Chinese mining activities in Ghana. The argument and a deep-seated concern by many ordinary Ghanaian are that the presence of the Chinese miners in the Small-scale mining sector reserved for locals is as a result of Ghanaian government unwillingness to act due to fears over its relations with China – a country that has become Ghana’s biggest trading partner and essential aid and investment partner over the years.
The arrest and deportation of several Chinese mine workers, as well as a police crackdown resulting in the death of a 16-year-old Chinese miner in October 2012, prompted the Chinese government to voice its serious concerns and reservations. A further series of arrests and deportations of Chinese miners in 2013 and a notable report by China’s state-owned China Daily in June 2013 concerning the detention and deportation of about 124 Chinese miners prompted yet another diplomatic concern between the Chinese and Ghanaian governments. A New York Times report noted a warning issued by the Chinese government regarding how the mining issue is a ‘disharmony’ with the bilateral relations between Ghana and China.
In a nutshell, the issue of Chinese miners has provided a stern test to the bilateral relations between the two countries that have long been considered as a springboard for China’s African policy. Concerns and the attempts to resolve the issue diplomatically is not new. In April 2013 and May 2013, two important meetings were held between the government of Ghana and two separate delegations from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Province of China to deal with the tension that threatens to mar the excellent bilateral relations between the two. The parties committed to establishing a high-powered working committee to examine the circumstances that underpin the influx of Chinese miners in Ghana to fashion out an integrated roadmap to bring an end to the menace.
However, after the repatriation in July 2013 of over 4,500 Chinese nationals in a series of security swoops on unauthorized gold mine sites, the government of Ghana became skeptical of retaliatory measures from China. Reports of new tightening visa rules at the Chinese Embassy was seen as a counter-reaction by China. Although China rejected the idea that it has taken retaliation actions, the government still wondered whether such difficulties including the inability to access a $3 billion loan facility granted by the China Development Bank was related to the events surrounding Chinese miners.
A renewed series of further arrests involving Chinese nationals and the seizure of high-end mining equipment in 2017 led to an emergency meeting between the representatives of Ghana and China to discuss how both governments could collectively deal with the role and activities of Chinese nationals engaged in illegal mining. However, the Chinese mission not enthused with the vicious anti-Chinese sentiments in the media landscape issued a strongly worded statement cautioning Ghana and Ghanaian media. The statement noted the negative repercussion such as rising anti-Chinese and critical media reports could have on Ghana-China bilateral relations. In response, the Ghanaian government reiterated its commitment to ensuring robust relations between the two countries while reassuring Chinese investors that Ghana remains keen to encourage economic cooperation. The government subsequently caution against the creation of a non-existent diplomatic row between Ghana and China in the wake of the campaign. Ghana further maintained that the issue is not anti-Chinese campaign, but a warning that Chinese miners should respect the laws of Ghana.
China is Africa’s most significant economic partner and a critical alternative aid and investment source. However, media sensationalism of Chinese resources interest has exposed China’s presence in Africa to skepticism and increasing resentment from some Africans. In Ghana, despite the encouraging Ghana-China bilateral relations over the years, the issue of Chinese small-scale miners has not only increased public resentment toward Chinese but at times presented tension and setback in the bilateral relations between the two countries. The bottom line, however, is that China’s influence and interest in Ghana regarding Chinese investments and aid has made it difficult for the menace involving Chinese nationals to be dealt with appropriately considering how strategic the economic cooperation between the two countries is at the current stage. Most importantly, the potential repercussions that a sharp reprimand from either side may have on their bilateral relationship is in line with the strategic interest of both sides.
Hagan Sibiri is a Ghanaian currently pursuing Doctoral program in International Politics at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University, Shanghai.
A shorter version of this article titled “Chinese miners illegal hunt for gold in Ghana” was first published in the East Asia Forum.