ANO-OFFIN FOREST RESERVE, Ghana—For centuries, the people of Kyekyewere, a tiny town nestled in a forest in the Ashanti region of Ghana, got their drinking water from a winding stream called Desere, which runs out of Offin River within the Tano-Offin Forest Reserve. But today, deforestation upstream has muddied the water, making it unusable. More than 2,000 people are forced to rely instead on a borehole.
Residents fear more such change to come.
Beneath the lush forest that envelops the town lie what local officials estimate is 350 million tons of bauxite, a valuable mineral used to produce aluminum products from teaspoons to fighter jets.
As part of a controversial $2 billion deal struck with China in 2018, Ghana has set its sights on mining the forests of the Upper Guinean Forest, a delicate tropical forest that is vital to the planet’s carbon dioxide cycle and is home to thousands of plant and animal species, including forest elephants, chimpanzees, leopards, and hippopotamus.
The Chinese firm Sinohydro will build the infrastructure on these sites, and Ghana will pay back the costs with proceeds from its sales of refined bauxite. Beijing released a first tranche of funding—$649 million—in November 2019. “We hope that the rest will come through by March of 2020,” Ghanaian Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia said at a press conference that month. Despite mounting concern among locals and environmentalists, road construction has already begun.
As development continues, work in two areas in particular is proving controversial: Atewa, a mountainous stretch of the rainforest that, as the source of three rivers, provides drinking water to 5 million people, and the Tano-Offin Forest Reserve, which stretches 41,000 hectares along the hills of Nyinahin. Kyekyewere is the largest of around half a dozen farming communities inside this forest, which has lost more than 16 percent of old-growth plant life since 2001.
Ghana’s government designates both areas as Globally Significant Biodiversity Areas, which is supposed to limit commercial activities there to protect against species loss. Atewa “is of such exceptional biological and hydrological importance,” Alice Ruhweza, the Africa regional director at the World Wildlife Fund, told me this past December, “that it seems inconceivable [for it to be] exploited.”
For its part, the government says that mining will not harm the environment. But environmentalist campaigners accuse the project’s backers of ignoring scientific evidence—and the damage development has already done. According to Ruhweza, the vast majority of the Upper Guinean Forest was cleared over the last century. Endemic species are now reliant on small fragments of remaining forest for their habitats. “There are plants, frogs and butterflies (at least) in Atewa that are found in no other forest in the world, and over 100 species that are threatened or near-threatened with global extinction,” she told me in December via email. The case for protecting the remaining stretches of forest, “is so obvious and indisputable that it is hard to understand how [mining] is still being considered,” she continued. The government’s “few recent press statements have revealed a very low understanding of the risks that their proposals represent.”
The government’s lack of transparency extends to the people its mining schemes will most affect. In interviews this fall with two dozen people who live in Tano-Offin, residents said that the government had shut them out of discussions about the area’s future but also alerted them that they may need to relocate. “This community has been existing for over 250 years within the forest,” said Isaac Anane Frimpong, a local assembly representative for the area. “This is the only place we have to go.”
The consequences of deforestation are grim. Around 34 percent of workers in Ghana are in agriculture. But those farmers have experienced drought and soaring temperatures hitting 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit), which researchers have linked to climate change from deforestation, because trees in tropical forests release water and regulate air temperature. Over the past few decades, meanwhile, there has been 20 percent less rainfall because of climate change, according to Ghana’s Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology, and Innovation.
The cacao farmer Prince Kakyere has lived in Awisesu, in Tano-Offin for 22 years. He said longer, drier seasons were impacting his farm and causing cacao trees to die. “Cacao is the only income I have to take care of my family. I have a wife and eight children,” he said in September 2019. Pollution in parts of another major river, the Pra (of which Offin River is a tributary), has been blamed on mines. Reports suggest it was probably caused by illegal mining upstream. Legal mines are not without problems, either. “They try to put a lot of pressure on you to sell your land to them,” added Patience Antwi, who has a cacao farm near Atewa. And those whose land has been used have seen little in return for their sacrifices. “A lot of the royalties and profits that those mines take go into Accra, so not that much is getting to local communities,” Susan Keane, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental group, told me this past December via telephone.
As Africa’s largest gold producer, Ghana is a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a global accountability-setting body for mining. Under Ghanaian law, at least 10 percent of mining royalties should be handed from the central government to local authorities within mining areas. But actual payments have often been smaller, according to the transparency organization’s analysis. And local authorities may misuse the funds rather than spending them on development.
Ghana’s Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources did not respond to requests for comment.
In early 2017, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo swept into power pledging a “Ghana Beyond Aid.” He has made progress on that promise, recently ending a four-year International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout. At the time he took office, he stabilized debt levels at around 57 percent of GDP and brought inflation down to 9 percent in 2019 from almost 17.5 percent in 2016.
But new loans related to bauxite extraction could reverse those gains. The IMF’s 2019 report warned of further debt risks given the amount of investment required to refine bauxite and the possibility that, even with such investment, the actual return on development of bauxite could lag. According to some loan agreements, Ghana is required to set up an offshore escrow account for revenue generated from selling bauxite. Yet “committing future bauxite receivables to debt service and locking bauxite sales receipts in the escrow account limits the [government of Ghana’s] ability to exercise discretion of how the proceeds are allocated,” the IMF noted.
In turn, in December 2019, the IMF forecasted Ghana’s debt would reach 63 percent of GDP from 59 percent in 2018. Making things worse, the $2 billion bauxite deal with China is part of a much bigger $19 billion loan agreement between Accra and Beijing. Also included in that loan are 100 vehicles for the Ghana Police Service, a 300 million-yuan ($43 million) grant for implementing economic cooperation projects, and a 250 million-yuan ($36 million) debt write-off.
China has similar deals with other nations on the continent. Between 2000 and 2017, it loaned around $143 billion for African infrastructure projects. Beyond the huge debt, the investment has led to some gains. Bui Dam, Ghana’s second-largest hydroelectric plant, was constructed by Sinohydro through a barter loan on cacao. Chinese lending has provided telecommunication networks, highways, water supply expansion, and schools within Accra. Skyscrapers, railways, and roads in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa—not to mention a $200 million African Union headquarters—have been built through Beijing-backed funding. But that doesn’t change the fact that many projects, especially the bauxite deals, have been damaging. According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, bauxite deals in Guinea had destroyed ancestral farmlands, damaged water sources, and coated homes and trees in dust.
Such examples hit home for Yaw Donkoh, a member of the farming community of Juaso, near Atewa. Pits of murky water dot the landscape. A few months prior to our interview, he said, the banks of some dug-out trenches from mining activities broke their wooden fencing and flooded homes with sludge, according to residents. “We fear it will break again at night,” Donkoh said. Residents complained that in some areas, there were less than 100 feet between their houses and mining activities. (Kibi Goldfields, the mining firm operating nearby, did not comment for this story despite multiple requests.)
But there are some in the area who are optimistic about development. “There is only one school here which is the basic [junior] school, there is no network coverage, no hospital,” Sampson Mensah, a farmer in Tano-Offin, told me in September. “At least it will help people get employment, get proper training on skills-related work.”
Francis Kwake, another farmer, concurred. He stepped lightly through the undergrowth as he cut cacao pods swiftly and with precision. His three-acre farm in the town of Awisesu, in Tano-Offin, will be cut by new roads as part of the plan. Despite that, he welcomed the deal. “Farming is not enough,” said Kwake, who is 27 years old, in September. “They can take me on as a worker.” But in reality, mining supports just a small percentage of jobs in the country.
Compared to other countries, Ghana “has much more capability in terms of environmental protection,” Maria Sarraf, the World Bank’s environment manager for West Africa, told me in December via video call from Washington, D.C. “If they actually implement their own policy.”
The World Bank’s $19.39 million Forest Investment Program has provided financial incentives to Ghana to save its trees. More than 15,000 hectares of land is now under sustainable management in the Northern Savannah Region. An additional $50 million will be paid out for reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. Meanwhile, Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency recently began using NASA photos to track and close illegal gold mining sites.
Joyce Okyerewa, a teacher at Kibi Junior High School and member of a coalition group against bauxite mining, has been educating pupils on forest management. “We teach them how they should conserve the forest so that it will be there for future generations,” she said. “The forest is very important to us. We get food from plants, medicine from plants, the animals we eat are all in the forest, so if the forest is destroyed it means everything is gone. Our life is gone.”
Despite campaigners citing Akufo-Addo’s own remarks that mining has not historically been beneficial for Ghana, though, it is unlikely his ruling New Patriotic Party will scrap bauxite plans. For one, it is facing elections in November or December. “You must know that the ones [bauxite deposits] in Kyebi are of a particular concern to me,” the president said at a press conference in December, “and whatever we can do to make sure that [mining] happens, I’m gonna make sure that it happens. Same with Nyinahin, same with Awaso.”
His vice president, Bawumia, is also quick to justify the deal. “Ghana has something that the rest of the world wants. We have bauxite which is not being mined. The rest of the world needs bauxite in a lot of industries, including steel,” he said at a meeting in Nyinahin in November 2019.
Still, locals plan to keep fighting.
In Kyekyewere, there is no electricity, no paved roads, no piped water. Leaders are pushing for what they term a “social contract” to be cemented in Parliament. They plan to resist any developers’ entry into the forest if the government body responsible for implementing the plans, Ghana Integrated Aluminum Development Corporation, does not listen.
And in January, a group of more than 20 local nongovernmental organizations started the process of filing a civil action lawsuit against the Ghanaian government over mining plans. “They still keep talking about looking at concessions within Atewa,” said Daryl Bosu, the deputy national director at the environmental group A Rocha, this week. The organization has been leading the fight against the government’s plan in Atewa while further supporting communities in Tano-Offin.
“We’ve seen so many communities that they mine and after 15 years they neglect the community entirely,” Anane Frimpong, the local assembly representative, said. He vows that his town won’t be next.