Ghana crackdown on illegal gold mining inflames tensions with Beijing

The Financial Times Newspaper

Financial Times, Sun, Apr 30, 2017

by Maggie Fick

Chinese mine operators accused of violating regulations in west African country

Ghana’s push to crack down on illegal gold mining is winning praise from the public but inflaming tensions with China, its biggest trading partner.

Beijing is accused by advocacy groups — and increasingly by the Ghanaian government — of standing by while its citizens break laws as they drive a boom in small-scale mining that began more than five years ago when gold prices were soaring. More than a third of the country’s 2.7m ounces of production last year came from small mines, up from less than a quarter before the boom.

In many cases the mines are officially owned by Ghanaians who have the correct permits but in practice are run by Chinese businessmen who are violating regulations in their attempt to extract gold as quickly as possible, according to government officials and
local experts.

President Nana Akufo-Addo, who took office in January, has pledged that no particular group or nationality will be targeted as the government attempts to reign in a variety of mining practices it says are illegal. But some of his ministers are singling out Chinese miners for using practices that are damaging protected forests and cocoa farms, and polluting rivers.

What had been a minor social and environmental issue for decades, officials say, spiralled out of control after Chinese miners flocked to the west African nation during the boom, bringing with them machinery and heavy equipment.

“It’s alarming. Before, the locals were not using sophisticated tools but now they have heavy equipment,” Kwabena Frimpong Boateng, the environment minister, told Financial Times. As he spoke he flipped through photos of floating machinery atop muddy brown waters and pointed to Chinese characters printed on one piece of equipment, citing it as evidence of the problem.

Accra issued an “ultimatum” to illegal miners to stop or face the force of law last month, and began arresting Chinese miners and their Ghanaian counterparts. Some Chinese nationals were charged with violating immigration laws.

Mr Boateng said the problem was exacerbated because the previous government had failed to police the mining sector effectively and curb the expansion of small-scale mining using heavy equipment.

“Because of neglect in enforcing the rules, people have become [more] emboldened,” he said. “They are doing this on a very, very large scale and with the help of the Chinese.”

The government’s tough talk followed a wave of negative coverage of Chinese mining practices in the Ghanian media. The reporting was at times xenophobic and prompted rare public criticism from the Chinese embassy this month.

Sun Baohong, China’s ambassador in Accra, urged the Ghanaian government to “guide the media” to cover the issue more “objectively,” or risk damaging the “environment for further development of our bilateral exchanges and co-operation”.

Mr Akufo-Addo responded by saying in a speech that the law “affects everybody including the Chinese”. . . .

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