With the price of precious metals surging on the world market, Ghana is experiencing a new gold rush as more people try and get access to its most famous export. Unfortunately, much of that effort revolves around unlicensed - and hence illegal - mining operations, known locally as galamsey, which are often funded by foreign speculators and criminals. The potential profits are huge but few if any of the groups and individuals involved will spare a thought for the environmental destruction illegal mining causes or for the safety of workers they hire, on pitiful salaries, to extract the gold on their behalf.
As Ghanaian investigative reporter, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, has been discovering, the consequences of this indifference can be tragic. In June 2010 for example, one galamsey operation near Dunkwa-on-Offin, in central Ghana, went disastrously wrong when the mine flooded and 150 people were killed. It devastated the local community, but it was by no means an isolated incident. Often accidents occur when miners build unstable river dams to create a large pool of water, which they can then drain to allow digging down into the soft exposed soil. Unfortunately, the dams can burst and the miners are trapped in oozing mud without any means of getting themselves to safety. Or it can result in widespread local flooding, which devastates local communities.
Galamsey also causes serious environmental problems and water pollution. Many mining operators are now focusing their efforts on the rivers themselves, using specialist imported machinery to suck up mud from the river bed. This is then treated with chemicals, including poisons such as cyanide, lead and mercury, to extract the gold before the waste is deposited back into the rivers. Aside from the dreadful consequences this has for aquatic life, the toxins are absorbed by humans because fish is a necessary food source and the rivers are often the only source of water for drinking and bathing. Dozens of people have died and hundreds more have been poisoned because of the after effects.
The problem of illegal gold mining has become so serious in some parts of Ghana that President John Atta Mills has said that he will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it. But somehow, despite the best efforts of the authorities, who occasionally launch high profile raids to shut the galamsey operations down, illegal mining continues to thrive. Indeed, as this investigation reveals, the operations have proved so lucrative that in parts of Ghana, a wave of Chinese speculators has moved in to provide the funds to hire the workers and import the necessary machinery. At one point Anas goes undercover to work in an illegal mine run by one of these groups, for less than $6 a day, and finds that children are being employed too and in the most primitive conditions.
Anas also discovers, the single most important reason for all this activity, aside from the promise of big profits for the mining operators, is that corruption is allowing it to flourish, even among those who are supposed to be stopping it. At one point, posing as a would-be mine operator who wants to bring in boats and machinery to dredge a river for gold, he finds it is distressingly easy to bribe local police officials to look the other way.
Watch more Africa Investigates for reports by undercover African journalists who face intimidation, beatings and death threats.