“Even if we deposit gold bars the size of Mount Everest to our descendants we still will not have helped them at all.”
Upper West Coalition on Mining, Food, Water and Sacred Natural Sites, Ghana
Peppered through Ghana’s Upper West region, clusters of indigenous trees stand tall against the low savannah grassland and fields. Breaking the long, low skyline of this arid region, these are the sacred groves that lie at the heart of community life for those who call the Upper West home.
Protected by the Tingandem– community custodians of the groves – these Sacred Natural Sites are respected as inviolable spaces in customary law. For generations the groves have played a vital role in sustaining communities’ spiritual and physical health, both as places to commune with the ancestors through ritual, and to gather medicinal plants. The groves are also proven to benefit and conserve biodiversity, soil and water sources in local ecosystems. Due to their enduring sacredness no one cuts the trees down here, leaving vital habitat intact.
“Since I became a Tingandem, have grown thicker. They are used to protect the gods who protect all of us.”Sawbere Dakora Yirguru, Tingandem of Tanchara
In recent years, however, sacred groves have come under attack from those who do not share in this reverence.
In 2000, without consulting local communities or NGOs, the Ghanaian Government identified the Upper West as an area of ‘high mining potential’, especially for gold, and began granting mineral concessions in the region. Large multinational mining corporations soon moved into the region. Hot on their heels were illegal ‘artisanal’ miners known as galamsays who, motivated by poverty and desperation, gathered to feed off the scraps.
To date 28 mining concessions, accounting for 31% of the Upper West region, have been granted in Nawdowli, Lawra and Jirapa districts. Illegal mining is rife and the consequences of this 21st century gold rush have been catastrophic, but they are not going unchallenged.
Tanchara Community Stands up to Save Sacred Groves
Azumah Resources, an Australian mining company, was one of those given permission to prospect for Gold in the Upper West region. Its Wa gold project encompasses the agricultural community of Tanchara (amongst others), and its sacred groves.
Galamsays also moved in and, whilst Azumah’s plans stalled, began extracting gold illegally near the community. Using armed guards to protect their operations, the galamsay’s activities polluted local water sources with cyanide and mercury and scarred the land, jeopardising people’s agricultural livelihoods and threatening the health of their sacred groves.
Seeing that things could get even worse with large-scale mining on the horizon the ten Tingandem of Tanchara came together to decide on a path of resistance. With the help of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Development (CIKOD), who had been working with the Tanchara community to facilitate community-led development, the Tingandem formulated and sent a statement to the Ghanaian Government. This protested the mining in the region and asked the authorities to protect the Sacred Groves.
Following the lead of the Tingandem, the Tanchara community and traditional authorities began to organise with others threatened by gold mining. CIKOD organised a study on the impact of mining on community well-being. Their findings allowed the community to engage with local government in the form of District Assemblies who, hearing the findings, became deeply concerned about mining’s impact across the entire Upper West.
From this engagement a further region-wide meeting emerged in July 2010. This brought district assemblies together with the Upper West House of Chiefs and a representative from Azumah Resources. A joint statement was formulated demanding that Azumah listen to communities and organise a public hearing to discuss their impacts.
Through a weekly local radio programme elevating community voices on the issue of mining, awareness around the impacts of mining was raised throughout.
To date the success of this multi-faceted resistance process has been astounding.
The galamsays have been driven out of Tanchara and, by formulating a bold Biocultural Community Protocol – a legal tool that affirms the community’s traditional knowledge, practices, laws and connects them to formal legal systems – the community has also protected itself and its sacred groves from Azumah Resources. The company is yet to begin extraction, 10 years on.
Building a Movement in Solidarity: Communities, Chiefs and NGOs say Yes to life, No to Mining
Whilst the community of Tanchara has protected itself, the threat mining poses to the 600,000 people and precious ecosystems of Ghana’s Upper West has shifted rather than disappeared. Galamsays continue to mine illegally and large companies like Azumah are seeking to extract gold in equally fragile areas where resistance is less prevalent.
Crucially grassroots resistance is growing in response.
CIKOD and allies have come together to form of a region-wide coalition of NGOs, governments and traditional authorities, journalists and community groups named the Upper West Coalition on Mining, Food, Water and Sacred Natural Sites.
“The formation of the Coalition is a wake up call to the environmental genocide committed in the name of mining in the Upper West. As would have been done to perpetrators of war crimes, we need to be morally strong to prosecute illegal miners with free conscience.”
Daniel Banuoku, CIKOD
Recognising mining as a common threat to livelihoods and ecosystems in the Upper West the coalition is uniting to educate people on the impacts of extractive industries, strengthen communities to say No to mining, and lobby Ghana’s Government and mining companies on their behalf. The coalition is also providing guidance on alternative livelihoods to mining- such as growing, processing and selling Shea nut products- helping communities to say Yes to life in the form of healthy agriculture.
Recent triumphs for the coalition include winning the support of the Upper West House of Chiefs who recently called upon Ghana’s Minister for Lands, Forestry and Mines to establish a moratorium on mining. Through their network of political allies and media contacts the Coalition has also submitted several petitions directly to Azumah Resources and Ghana’s President stating the case that the Upper West should not be subjected to mining.
The coalition’s story reveals the deep value in bringing together a diverse group of communities, institutions and organisations and pooling knowledge and expertise in efforts to resist mining and create life-enhancing alternatives. The battle to keep mining our of the Upper West continues.
Search the ‘Upper West’ tag to discover more stories of resistance from Ghana’s Upper West