Edem Srem Trading Ghana’s water for gold

Edem Srem, winner of the first African Fact-Checking Award, reflects on “Trading Ghana’s Water for Gold”, an investigation into claims by Ghana's government that they have curtailed illegal alluvial gold mining. The documentary was produced with Gifty Andoh.

In my country, Ghana, many leaders make public statements about action they plan to take in particular issue areas, but then don’t deliver on their promises. Unfortunately, some journalists simply report these claims as fact. Where there is follow-up, news stories are often presented as “he said-she said” statements of opposing views, with little investigation into the veracity of the claims.

As a freelance journalist, I take it upon myself to scratch beneath the surface, checking who has said what, when they said it, and whether any concrete action has been taken subsequently. In producing “Trading Ghana’s Water for Gold”, Gifty Andoh Appiah and I set out to do just this, investigating whether government was as effective in safeguarding Ghana’s water sources from illegal artisanal gold miners as it claimed to be.

Stamping out illegal gold mining

Artisanal gold mining, or galamsey as it is known in Ghana, has been blamed for contaminating water sources in the country. On rivers, dredging vessels called totototo pump gravel from riverbeds to extract gold. The process leads to siltation and the contamination of rivers, as materials such as mercury are used to extract gold from the gravel. The waste is released into the river, poisoning fish and rendering the water unfit for consumption.

The Kibi district is a gold-rich area in the Eastern Region of southern Ghana – and the heart of illegal mining in the country, according to a January 2014 statement by Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama. Back in 2010, Osagyefuo Amoatia Ofori Panin, the king of the area, vowed to clamp down on illegal miners in the district.

In May 2013, another of Ghana’s influential kings, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu of the gold-rich Asante Kingdom, similarly promised to lead the fight against the menace. He tasked his sub-chiefs with halting illegal mining activities.

That same year, government got on board, with the president setting up an anti-galamsey task force. Barbara Serwaa Asamoah, the Deputy Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, said government was working to eradicate the practice, with the task force from the land and water ministries working with police and the military to apprehend illegal miners. A year later, Minister for Lands and Natural Resources Inusah Fuseini told me in an interview that the task force had shown success – particularly on the country’s water bodies.

Our investigation into the truth of these claims showed a very different picture: galamsey operations were, in fact, on the rise.

Finding the facts

Our investigation took six months to complete. We began by mobilising resources and conducting preliminary research into the issue by contacting the Ghana Water Company and the Ghana Water Research Institute. We then traced the origins of the totototo to manufacturers at Suame Magazine, an industrial park and popular place for vehicle artisans in Kumasi. After randomly selecting sites to inspect, we set out along the rivers and found the totototo vessels at work, pumping gravel from riverbeds. One by one, we approached the mining gangs to gather accurate data and conduct field interviews with them. We also interviewed experts on the issue. 

In the Kibi traditional area, we discovered that the king’s promises had never materialised; worse, galamsey had increased. The Birim River, which serves Kibi Township and its environs, had become so heavily polluted that it was difficult for even the Ghana Water Company to draw water for treatment.

In the Asante Kingdom, the Ofin River had suffered a similar fate, debunking the king’s promise of clamping down on illegal miners. At that point, no action had been taken to address the problem.

In all the areas we investigated, illegal mining on water bodies had increased, proving the Minister of Lands and Natural Resources’ claims to be false.

The challenge of truth-telling

Our investigation was not without challenges though. The first difficulty lay in approaching the illegal miners, who had weapons and were prepared to use them. On two occasions the miners fired warning shots at our team of journalists and the security guards who accompanied us. We carefully had to explain our purpose to them: to produce a documentary that would reflect the situation around illegal mining as well as their opinions about what they do.

Poor infrastructure also proved problematic: the roads into the areas we visited were in such poor condition that we struggled to gain access.

Finally, the issue of funding the documentary and broadcasting it was challenging. Freelance journalism can be difficult in Ghana: funding can be a major issue when corporations believe their support of investigations may lead to victimisation by government. Most of the TV stations we approached were either not prepared to telecast the production or they demanded money to do so. Eventually, TV Africa, GTV, Metro TV and Joy News TV agreed to broadcast our work.

The impact of our investigation

After our documentary aired, the president and his ministers visited some of the areas where we had shown illegal mining activity to be on the rise. Some mining companies distributed copies of the video to schools to highlight the dangers of mining on water bodies and teach learners about protecting their natural resources. Some chiefs even invoked the spirit of their gods to punish the illegal miners.

Galamsey is still taking place in various areas, including Twifo Praso, Bempong Agya, Appiah Nkwanta, Kyekyewere, Diaso, Bawdie and Dunkwa-on-Ofin. It will take strong political will to eradicate it completely – but the invocation of the gods does seem to have had an effect in halting galamsey at least one area: Kibi Apapam.

Our responsibility as journalists

I believe that misleading claims can kill. They also hold back a nation’s development. Where this occurs, journalists have a responsibility to fact-check their stories and find the truth behind the statements of the nation’s leaders.

For our documentary, we took it upon ourselves to fact-check our leaders’ claims because we believe the citizens of Ghana have a right to know the truth about illegal mining activities in the country and their effect on common water resources. It was our hope that a balanced story would stimulate public discourse on possible ways of stopping the pollution of our rivers.


Additional reading

The African Fact-Checking Awards

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