Ghana, gold mining, and a community rises, by Ed Kashi

Text and Images courtesy ED KASHI

What happens when a small, poor and in the eyes of the modern world underdeveloped community confronts a large, multinational mining company that wants to begin major gold mining operations on their land? (Recently) I witnessed the results when the unexpected occurs. The small, remote rural community of Tanchara, Ghana rejected an Australian gold mining operation and kicked that company off their lands. I learned about this and more while working on an eye opening film project in Ghana, a small West African country, with the New Media Advocacy Project. In the remote community of Tanchara, very close to the border with Burkina Faso in the upper west region of Ghana, I was inspired by how this small, rural community repelled a huge, multinational gold mining company from exploiting their lands and resources.

Do rural, agricultural communities understand the riches they possess? Tanchara was guided through this process of self discovery, or more accurately they were helped to see for themselves the riches that they already had and what would be at stake if gold mining came into their areas. A local NGO, CIKOD (Centre For Indigenous Knowledge & Organizational Development) has created tools to help communities in Africa and around the world to mobilize and use their cultural and environmental assets more effectively to manage and direct their own affairs without relying on external agencies or organizations.

Despite Ghana’s relatively modern and functioning political system, the majority of the population, especially in the rural areas, still organize around indigenous institutions to make important decisions about their development and whether to accept outside players into their lands to exploit the natural resources they possess. As CIKOD points out in their literature, “In rural communities, civil society takes the form of the indigenous organizations such as Nnoboa groups, Asafo groups, Susu groups, clan networks, and hometown associations through which poor rural families organize their social, economic and political lives. The resilience of rural people may be largely attributed to these institutions and forms of organization. However, opportunities to engage these institutions for sustainable community mobilization and development have been largely ignored or even undermined by development practitioners.”

The Tanchara community is located in Lawra, in the Upper West Region of Ghana, along the border with Burkina Faso. This community consists of approximately 4,000 people governed by intricate traditional governance structures consisting of the Divisional Chief, the Pognaa (the female equivalent), and the Tingandem (spiritual leadership). We interviewed representatives from each group and I was struck by the unity of their voices and strength in their appreciation of what they had and were not willing to give up. In my travels and works on extractive industries, and when you look at the long, destructive legacy of colonialism, the colonizer comes in, devalues the cultural traditions and civilized methods that existed, only to replace them with poorly adapted systems that allow for maximum exploitation of resources, usually devastating the people, their internal structures and ways of life. Extractive industry is often only a form of corporate neo colonialism, rarely working in concert and with respect to the people whose land they gain riches from. The landscape in Tanchara contains fruit and nut trees (including shea), small farms, and sacred groves that are preserved by the community because of cultural and spiritual significance and their abundance of medicinal plants.5 The entire region is ecologically fragile, with low rainfall and low soil fertility. Communities are heavily dependent on their land for their livelihoods.

What follows is CIKOD’s explanation of how things unfolded.

“When CIKOD began working with the Tanchara community in 2003, the goal of the community and its traditional leaders was to strengthen their capacity to respond to the challenges created by mining activity in the region, and to do so using the community’s own internal resources. As in many countries around the world, engagements between mining companies and communities in Ghana are often unequal. Oftentimes mining companies will only engage with government officials, excluding communities and their indigenous institutions. Over the last 11 years, the government of Ghana has continued to allocate foreign mining companies licences to prospect for gold in the Upper West Region of the country without the knowledge of, consultation with, or consent by local communities who have traditionally owned, occupied, and used these lands. The situation in Tanchara was no different: In 2004, the Ghanaian government granted the Australian mining company Azumah Resources Limited (Azumah) rights to prospect for gold in Tanchara, in the Upper West Region of Ghana, without consultation with - or consent by - the communities in the area.

The grant of prospecting rights caused an influx of illegal miners into the area, whose activities then resulted in water pollution, partial destruction of some of the community’s sacred groves, and the creation of large, uncovered pits that caused deaths in the community.”

“With the chiefs and elders’ consent, CIKOD began training a community-selected team of representatives. This team conducted an initial mapping of formal and informal institutions, assets, and resources within the community as a way to identify the entry points within the community to propel community development. CIKOD trained the team to use a number of participatory endogenous tools, including focus groups and individual interviews, participant observation, and resource mapping. CIKOD helped team members practice using these tools via role play with cross-sections of the community.”

“Once trained, the team then engaged in a process of gathering information on the community’s institutions and resources, through the Community Institutional Resource Mapping (CIRM) process with members of the larger community, enabling community members to collect the research data for themselves. The CIRM recorded a variety of different but equally important community resources – natural resources as well as cultural, social and spiritual resources. The information was depicted through hand-drawn maps, notes taken during interviews, and video. Once compiled, this information was verified at community meetings. This process gave community members the opportunity to identify their own resources, encouraging a greater appreciation of what they already had (as opposed to a focus on what they lacked) and motivating community members to protect and conserve the assets that make their community unique and strong.”

“It was during these initial meetings that members of the Tanchara community first raised the issue of foreigners coming into their community and marking trees with red ribbons, searching for gold. This revelation was a surprise to both CIKOD and the rest of the community, and whilst gold mining was not the initial focus of this endogenous development work, the issue of gold mining as an opportunity and a threat was soon propelled to the forefront of community discussions.”

With their community resources in mind, the community then engaged in a process of visioning. This process reflected on: where the community was 10 years ago and what resources it used; the community in the present; and a vision for the community in 10 years time. CIKOD facilitators recorded responses and prepared a vision statement based on the discussion. The community then engaged in developing community vision action plans. The planning process included: discussions on the resources needed; identification of key catalysts; and setting out key responsibilities, time frames, and priorities. The process supported the community to direct its efforts towards its own development, using the resources that the community had identified during the CIRM process. The community then drafted a community contract to commit to and remind the community of their plan.

Community by-laws were also developed to further some of the community’s goals. Investor and community interactions are usually characterised by a highly-resourced investor on the one side and a poorly-resourced, sometimes divided community on the other. To strengthen a community’s position in negotiations with investors, it is important for the community to mobilize itself, decide on a united stance, and develop a strong and clear vision for the future. From this unified and informed foundation, a community can more meaningfully evaluate whether a proposed project fits into their vision for their community’s future.”

I’ve excerpted CIKOD’s statements because I could not come up with a better explanation myself and what I respect is how Ghanaians have taken their own fate into their hands and formulated themselves a workable solution to what seems an incessant problem for developing communities, particularly in Africa- the constant concern of exploitation of their resources that does not lead to development, wealth or the well being of their lands and communities. I have seen this in Iraq, Nigeria, India and many other places in the world.

The work of NMAP is to highlight these initiatives through the video storytelling, with the purpose being to show it to other communities around the world facing these multinational behemoths, and thereby better prepare them to either enter into a more balanced and healthy relationship of development, or to reject these companies outright, as Tanchara has done.