The deaths of illegal miners reveal a social fault line in Africa

OBUASI, Ghana Every few months Daniel Spies finds dead bodies. The managing director at AngloGold Ashanti Ltd.


Every few months Daniel Spies finds dead bodies.

The managing director at AngloGold Ashanti Ltd.’s mine at Obuasi, in central Ghana, arrived here soon after the 2004 merger between the AngloGold Ltd. and Ashanti Goldfields Ltd.

The first interloper to die during Spies’ watch jumped off the back of a truck filled with quartz that he had been pillaging. He miscalculated the dismount and was crushed beneath the lorry wheels.

Another was discovered when workers followed their sense of smell to a decomposing body in an underground shaft.

Others have been found hacked apart by machetes, set upon by fellow thieves seeking their booty.

Most recently, on February 18, Spies received an anonymous phone tip telling him that a trespassing crew of illegal workers was trapped in a deactivated part of the mine.

The procedure was routine: dispatch a rescue team and security personnel, arrest anyone caught trespassing, get the injured to hospital, search for bodies.

Six men carrying mining tools, weapons and bags of quartz were arrested.

Others escaped and took three men to hospital in nearby Kumasi, said Spies.

“We understand those people say they were involved in a car accident,” he said with a wry grin during an interview at AngloGold’s headquarters in Obuasi on February 21.

The injured and the arrested never help the search-and-rescue teams, he explained.

But “informers” do come forward.

One man, on condition of anonymity, led a team into an abandoned shaft, where they found a mass of limbs that might have been one body, or two.

“Our people went in and they took a photo of one corpse,” said Spies.

“There was a leg or something sticking out, but you cannot make out whether that leg belonged to the same person because he dropped down into a hole.”

The workers were probably injured and killed when the shaft collapsed beneath them, into another shaft deeper underground, he said.

Conditions are too unstable to recover the bodies, said Spies.

“We believe, totally, we’re going to kill more people if we go in there.

“We have at least determined that there are no people that are captured alive, and that two are missing.”

Despite the deaths, Spies does not expect illegal mining on AngloGold’s property to stop.

It’s been a problem for more than 100 years, since the first holes at Obuasi were drilled in 1897, he said.

Looters used to trespass only at the surface, prospecting or digging through tailings.

But when the surface ore played out and the South Africa-based company took its operation underground, black market miners followed.

In recent months they have been digging their own access tunnels through the treed area along the ridge above the mine into abandoned shafts.

AngloGold has sealed off all manmade adits and destroyed the illegal access holes when it found them. But it’s a never-ending task.

The thieves also steal mining equipment, such as bells and electric cables.

There seems to be a new market for copper, because pipes are often stolen.

“They cut off all the copper pipes from this building, on the outside,” Spies said, thumping his hand on a boardroom table.

“There is total theft. If they can lay their hands on, they lay their hands on.”

Spies is the only white man I’ll see today.

He has a South African accent and decades of experience in the mining industry, and he is adamant that AngloGold is committed to safe working conditions and human rights.

His comments were buoyed by the presence of two Ghanaian men, both AngloGold managers who investigated the accident.

The trespassers were not locals, explained general manager Kwesi Enyan.

They were from the Dagarti ethnic group in Ghana ‘s Upper West Region, where there is less industrial development and fewer jobs, compared to southern parts of the country.

Theft happens every day at the Obuasi mine, and AngloGold chalks the losses and extra security expense as costs of doing business in Africa, said Spies.

“It is a symptom of unemployment.”

The latest statistics peg Ghana’s unemployment at 20 per cent, mostly concentrated in northern regions.

AngloGold employs almost 5,000 people, and the company has also invested in two sustainable development projects — fish farming and tree planting – in the Obuasi area, to offer illegal miners a legitimate source of income.

But there’s more money to be made scavenging for gold, despite the risk.

However, the government is poised to crack down.

“We cannot give already-owned concessions to these illegal miners,” said Stephen Asamoah-Boateng , minister of Rural Development, at a news conference following the recent Obuasi incident.

“We have engaged the company to improve the lives of the people in the area.”

As Ghana prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its status as the first sub-Saharan African nation to declare independence from colonial masters on March 6, the trapped bodies of illegal Dagarti miners at the Obuasi mine can’t help but illustrate the north-south disparity that continues to divide the country.

 Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.