Impacts of Surface Gold Mining on Land Use Systems in Western Ghana

Conflict will invariably occur between mining companies and local rural communities especially in developing countries as mining displaces people, causes land and water degradation, and ultimately changes the social and economic dynamics of the area. Schueler et al. (2011) studied the effects surface gold mining had on the land cover and land use of a mining district in western Ghana. Using Landsat satellite images, field interviews, and field mapping, the authors were able to quantify the deforestation, farmland loss, and expansion that occurred between 1986 and 2002 as result of surface gold mining in the Wassa West District of Ghana. Schueler et al. found surface mining to blame for 58% of deforestation and 45% of farmland loss in the mining concessions. Furthermore, as a result of inadequate compensation schemes for the rural farmers and displacement, gold mining caused discontent in the communities, further deforestation for new farm land, agricultural escalation, and even more land degradation. The authors suggest that the opportunity cost of surface gold mining in Ghana may be greater than initially thought. —Monkgogi Otlhogile
Schueler, V., Kuemmerle, T., Schröder, H., 2011. Impacts of surface gold mining on land use systems in western Ghana. Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment 40, 528–539.

Schueler et al. studied the Damang, Bogoso-Prestea and Tarkwa mining concessions in the Wassa West District. They obtained and adjusted two satellite images from NASA of the Wassa West District; one from December 29, 1986 and the other from January 15, 2002. Using a Global Position System (GPS) receiver and the aid of local residents, the researchers physically mapped the mining, farmland, and forests areas, and documented the land cover type of close to 19, 000 ha of the Wassa West District. To accurately map the land cover changes, the scientists stacked the satellite images and categorized the land into deforestation, farmland loss, permanent farmland, permanent forest, permanent mine, and farmland expansion classes. Finally, the scientists held a workshop in a typically impacted mining village to assess the community’s reaction to the gold mining. They also held 35 interviews with government representatives and agricultural private companies and 40 interviews with farm representatives. This allowed the authors access to the immediate social, environmental and economic impacts of the change in land cover and land use they had observed.
The authors found that surface gold mining had resulted in massive land cover change in all three of the areas they studied. In 1986, mining sites only accounted for 0.2% of the land but in 2002 the sites had taken over 41.9% of the land. Over the sixteen year period, 3,168 ha of forest and 4,935 ha of farmland in the three concessions was lost to the surface gold mining companies. Additionally, 3,067 ha of land was converted from forest to farmland by displaced farmers. During the interviews, Schueler et al. noted the lack of a consistent process for compensation as well as a lack of knowledge of the consequences of gold mining among rural farmers. Most of the farmers and community members of the Wassa West District viewed the impact of gold mining as negative as a result of the insufficient compensation they received, farmland loss and the degradation of clean water. In an effort to supplement their income, some disgruntled farmers have even become small-scale miners. The authors found that though government officials and NGO representatives were concerned with farmland allocation, land use planning in the district was dismal and resulted in additional land pressure.
The authors suggest one of the root causes of the diverse impacts of gold mining to be the lack of a neutral arbitrator during compensation negotiations. The inadequate compensations caused the discontented farmers to either take up mining themselves or to continue vigorous farming elsewhere. The small-scale miners have faced conflict with bigger mining companies because of the threat that they each pose to each other. The small scale miners also have a harsher effect on the environment as a result of the mercury used in their mining process and this has caused even more land degradation. The remaining farmers, however, did damage as they cleared forest for farmland. As a result of scarce farmland, many farmers increased cultivation causing land degradation, which induced further deforestation. The authors point to this cycle as the reason for the forest loss, within and even outside the mining concessions. The authors indicate spatial planning would break this cycle as it would reconcile farmland loss and decrease the pressure on the land in the Wassa West District. Though surface gold mining is profiting the Ghanaian economy, the social, economic, and health disadvantages that have been put upon local communities seem to have caused a cascade of problems which will have to be mitigated at the government level. 

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