Porous borders, corruption and the chance of riches have helped draw illegal gold miners to Ghana from as far away as China, prompting a crackdown that has so far netted more than 150 Chinese, experts said.
The continent’s second-largest producer of gold and a beacon of stability in turbulent west Africa, Ghana has been struggling with the impact of small-scale mining, which is illegal for foreigners and damages the environment.
Sydney Casely-Hayford, a prominent financial analyst, said that Ghanaian traditional leaders and businessmen encourage the mining, and the crackdown will not stop it for good.
“It’s quick and easy money,” Casely-Hayford said. “There is nothing you can do because the traditional authorities want the money, the operators want the money, the Chinese want the money — they want the gold.”
A task force of immigration, police and national security agents last month began a campaign to flush out the illegal miners, which authorities blame for harming water supplies and the environment.
Ghanian President John Dramani Mahama, who is under increasing pressure to halt the practice, ordered the task force.
Last week, it arrested 168 foreigners, mostly Chinese, as well as six Russians, said Francis Palmdeti, a spokesman for Ghana’s immigration service.
China was also helping by aiding repatriations of Chinese involved in illegal mining, he said.
Chinese began making their way to Ghana in recent years, aided by significant trade between the two countries, as well as Beijing’s increased investment in Africa as it seeks markets and access to oil as well as other natural resources.
Ghana has a nascent oil industry and China has expressed interest in investing. In 2011, Ghana announced plans to borrow US$800 million from China to build natural gas infrastructure.
That same year, Ghana’s government cited Chinese data saying more than 500 Chinese businesses were operating in Ghana, including those involved in electricity projects, water supply and road construction.
Involvement in illicit gold mining developed quickly from there.
“It only just needs or one two people to start it off and it takes off. This is purely a word of mouth,” Casely-Hayford said.
Yu Jie (余杰), a senior official for the Chinese embassy in Accra, said the embassy does not know how many Chinese are involved in the industry because it has no system for keeping track of its citizens in the country.
“You know that every Chinese has the freedom to get a passport to go abroad,” he said.
However, Chinese were leaving the gold mining areas, he said.
Over the weekend, authorities also arrested 57 people from west African countries for illegal mining.