Mining giant Newmont has been seizing farms and dumping cyanide into waterways
YaaKonadu sits outside the farmhouse in Ghana that Newmont took away from her. Company workers spray-painted "Done" on the wall.
By Sophia Jones | Dec 14 2017
YAA KONADU wasn't at the farm when the men came to take it away from her.
"Come," said one of her workers, who called the 74-year-old grandmother at her home in town with the bad news. "Newmont has destroyed the farm."
By the time Konadu arrived, she says, many of the cocoa trees were ruined. There, waiting for her, was a red notice with a case number—Newmont's calling card, indicating that the world's second-largest gold-mining company had come to survey her land and evaluate how much compensation to offer before taking it.
A 13-year-old girl says she was raped and impregnated by a man working at Newmont's Ahafo gold mine. The Colorado-based mining giant had been seizing by fiat most of the farms in the village of Dormaa-Kantinka and surrounding communities to expand the Ahafo gold mine. According to Konadu, an illiterate, outspoken matriarch, Newmont offered her 1,500 Ghanaian cedis, or $343, for her eight acres of farmland that had supported her family for generations—land she'd inherited as a younger woman from her grandmother—and roughly $50 for the small farmhouse. There was no direct negotiation, no due process, she says. Later, at the Newmont Information Center, she accepted the $343 because she felt she had no choice but refused the payment for the house, intent on demanding more adequate compensation.
Six years later, she's one of dozens of women in the central Brong-Ahafo region of Ghana still fighting to defend themselves, and their rights to the land here, against Newmont and its destructive gold-mining operation.
The burnt-orange hills of Brong-Ahafo are rich with gold. Major U.S. and international companies, along with countless small-scale illegal miners, have plundered the region to fuel a multibillion-dollar global industry. Ghanaians were optimistic when Newmont came in 2004. They hoped Africa's second-largest gold producer would deliver lucrative jobs. It did for some, but at enormous cost for many: Thousands of residents—some of them locals who have lived here for generations, others who came more recently to farm—have been displaced by Newmont and its open-pit, cyanide-processing mine.
"I had independence. I wanted to build rooms for my grandchildren," Konadu says, sitting in front of her friend's blue-tiled shop just a five-minute drive from her land. She is now farming in a different community, on land that someone offered for free to help support her family.
“The women should have the biggest say [in negotiations].”
Before Newmont laid claim to her farmland, Konadu could use it as collateral to get loans. "I was proud of what I could do with that," she says. The crops provided a steady source of income in a region plagued by crippling poverty, where running water and indoor plumbing are seen as luxuries and job security is scarce.
Newmont says on its website that it "restores the livelihoods of those impacted by [its] operations while improving the quality of life" of affected communities. In 2006, the International Finance Corporation, the corporate arm of the World Bank, signed a $125 million loan agreement with the company to bolster Ghana's mining sector, specifically the Ahafo mine, on the condition that Newmont improve environmental standards and support community members. The funding was also intended to create opportunities for local women and provide HIV/AIDS education. The IFC, citing Newmont-commissioned audits, says that the company was compliant with its standards. The IFC ceased contact with Newmont in 2015 when the loan was repaid in full.
Many Ghanaians living near Ahafo, however, are reeling from the mine's expansion. For farmers, medical professionals, and activists alike, there has only been dispossession and hardship since Newmont came to town.
THE AHAFO MINE, one of two that Newmont owns in this West African country, produces some 349,000 ounces of gold annually, according to the company. It is a sprawling operation that cuts through a breadbasket region heavily reliant on natural water sources. Mountains of rocks piled by Newmont workers, muddy with standing water and mosquitoes, peek through tall grass. Much of the land taken over by the mine is now all but destroyed.
In the close-knit communities near Ahafo, generations of families live and work together. Like Konadu, women here often own or farm land. Some inherited it from a matrilineal line. Now, many are without work, barely able to support their families.
The Ghanaian government granted the Ahafo mining concession to Newmont, along with the right to seize land and negotiate and pay compensation packages to those impacted by its operations through a Resettlement Negotiation Committee. That committee, made up of Newmont representatives, village chiefs, community leaders, and other local representatives, is the same one that decided Konadu's fate. The company says it has resettled 644 households since 2005.
In Kenyasi 1, or K1, one of three Newmont resettlement communities lined with rows of tiny houses, over 5,000 residents are living in shocking squalor despite the company's promise to improve people's lives. Newmont has wired K1 for electrical service, but individual families have to pay for it, which many can't afford. When a reporter visited in July, the neighborhood's water pump, provided by Newmont, was locked with a large metal padlock. Residents walk to a murky local stream to collect water for bathing, washing food, and drinking. The water, carried in white buckets back to homes, is brown; it's a woman's job to carry it.
The lack of readily available potable water at K1 is among the many water-related problems residents say they face, along with polluted sources and stagnant water that increases the risk of diseases like malaria.
In October 2009, community members near Ahafo noticed thousands of dead fish floating in a freshwater dam near the Newmont processing facility. The International Cyanide Management Institute had certified the Ahafo mine in 2008, stating that it was up to standard. But residents, as well as activists associated with the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining, blamed a cyanide spill. Newmont uses sodium cyanide to extract gold from gold ore, a common practice. The company referred to the incident as a "minor chemical overflow" and said it had been contained and neutralized.
WACAM was created in 1998 in response to Ghana's ballooning mining sector—both legal and illegal—and the host of environmental, economic, and social problems that followed its growth. The organization's representatives, many of whom are unpaid male and female volunteers and also community members themselves, work all over Ghana. In Brong-Ahafo, they help residents battle Newmont with all available legal tools and assist those who are illiterate, like Konadu, with support services.
"Even if they call at night, I answer," says AbdallahSalifu,who has volunteered with WACAM for 13 years. The 47-year-old schoolteacher says that Newmont capitalizes on the people's primary weakness: "Our weakness is our poverty." Salifu was briefly arrested in 2006 for participating in a local meeting about Newmont.
In 2010, the Ghanaian government fined Newmont 7 million cedis, roughly $1.6 million, for negligence related to the cyanide spill. Then, in December 2011, several thousand more fish died near the dam. Some local media, along with the Centre for Environmental Impact Analysis, a Ghanaian NGO, pinpointed cyanide as the cause. Newmont blamed the fish deaths on overpopulation. In early 2017, researchers at two local institutes released a report in conjunction with WACAM that slammed Newmont for an array of issues, including water pollution. The company says that the report's findings are "inconsistent with accepted methodology" and unreliable.
For local residents raising livestock, clean water is essential to their survival. "The animals used to drink the water," a local goatherd says, pointing at another water source where the company uses cyanide to wash the gold. "Now they won't, even if you push them."
YAA KONADU'S HOUSEHOLD IS one of more than 30 that have refused to give up their land or their homes, or both, to Newmont, according to Salifu. For Konadu and her neighbors, that has meant drafting petitions, translating and explaining legal documents, and taking the company to court.
One of WACAM's major issues with Newmont is its settlement and resettlement process.
Newmont does not negotiate with individuals themselves, so community members are at the mercy of the Resettlement Negotiation Committee. The committee is known to turn down resettlement requests, as it did in the case of Monica—a 31-year-old single mother with five children. Monica says they turned her down because she is unmarried. She was told she "didn't deserve a house."
But when it comes to the community elders and chiefs, it's another story. Impoverished locals complain that the company has built lavish buildings for chiefs while residents have to fight for suitable resettlement. "The chiefs were supposed to lead the fight [against Newmont]," says Asana Ibrahim, a 46-year-old cocoa farmer resettled in K1. "But they are benefiting."
During a tense interview with two chiefs near the Ahafo mine, one criticized Newmont for "taking advantage of the chief system." The other angrily shut the interview down, saying he would not continue without Newmont's permission. "We don't want to tell you too little or too much," he said.
Newmont claims it has assisted 7,175 displaced farmers through land-access programs but acknowledges that there are currently no farmers taking part in the programs. No displaced farmers interviewed for this story said they have benefited from such programs. In response to questions, the company says some 40 to 42 percent of Newmont's staff at Ahafo are local—424 out of 1,048 employees, according to company representatives. When a visiting reporter repeated such statistics to community members, most just shook their heads.
The company also says that it provides training, health development, and vulnerable-peoples programs. Newmont's Ahafo Development Foundation builds schools and social centers and offers educational scholarships and other opportunities to affected communities. Newmont donates $1 per ounce of gold produced and 1 percent of annual net profits to the fund. But many locals say it's far from enough, considering how much damage has been done.
Ghana is not the only country in which Newmont's mining practices have provoked controversy, even violence. Newmont has also battled local farmers and activists near Peru's Yanacocha gold mine, the largest in South America. In 2000, a company contractor spilled hundreds of pounds of mercury along the Pan-American Highway in northwest Peru, allegedly sickening 1,100 people. Violent protests have erupted over the company's plans to expand its Yanacocha mining operations, though those plans now appear to be on hold. Security forces have beaten and even shot and killed protesters. In Indonesia, villagers living near Buyat Bay, on a northern Indonesian island, sued Newmont for $543 million in 2004, citing bouts of dizziness, breathing problems, skin diseases, and tumors among the community, which they blamed on Newmont. They, along with environmentalists, accused the company of dumping millions of tons of waste, laced with mercury and arsenic, into the bay. Newmont was later cleared of the charges in court.
On Konadu's land in Dormaa-Kantinka, a sign plastered on a tree near the farmhouse reads, "Newmont Land!! Stop farming. Land will be cleared very soon please!!" Konadu refuses to accept the final payment from Newmont until it builds her a new house and resettles her.
Newmont states that it only resettles people who are residing primarily at the property it is seeking. In Konadu's case, she farmed at the property and owned the house but did not always live there. Because of this gray area, Newmont says it is legally justified in taking land from people like Konadu for cash compensation only, without also paying to resettle them. She and other community members insist that they're residents and legally entitled to stay, or be resettled.
Some have taken the money instead of pursuing expensive and time-consuming legal battles that could take years. Ibrahim's husband was one such person. "The money wasn't enough," Ibrahim says, her children sitting next to her, shoeless and in ragged clothing. "If the money was enough, we wouldn't be here." She now farms illegally on land Newmont plans to use to resettle more people. Ibrahim has 13 people to feed, mainly children, all living in a tiny house. Her 21-year-old son, Isaak, drowned near Newmont's mine, she says, while he was hunting grass cutters (large ratlike animals) for food.
In a letter dated December 5, 2016, Newmont told residents of Dormaa-Kantinka who refused to give up their land that their "continued occupation" would "hinder access." It read, "As such you are being advised to take the necessary immediate steps to salvage any assets of yours from the Subika East Waste Dump Expansion (Dormaa-Kantinka) Moratorium Area."
Konadu, along with two dozen other community members, most of them women, signed a letter addressed to the local police stating their opposition to a forced eviction. The residents denounced Newmont's notice as unlawful, citing numerous sections of Ghana's constitution, including Section 3, Article 20, which says that inhabitants are required to be resettled on suitable alternative land if they are displaced by the state. Newmont says its resettlement criteria are in line with the requirements of Ghana's mineral and mining laws.
Konadu signed the protest letter with her thumbprint.
THE WOMEN SHOULD HAVE THE biggest say [in negotiations]," says 52-year-old AfiaSarpong, Konadu's daughter and an assemblywoman for K1. She was elected by community members to represent them on a volunteer basis.
Sarpong, dressed head to toe in white and surrounded by her children and grandchildren, says that Newmont's operations affect women the most. That's why she ran for assembly, to vocalize what people, particularly women, in the community will not or cannot say—especially when it comes to Newmont, a company with a largely male-dominated leadership and workforce.
When Newmont first arrived, the company promised to spread the wealth of its gold-mining operations. Glossy, well-publicized stories told of how it would support local women and boost sexual education by investing in women's initiatives. The company made a show of advocating for girls to pursue engineering, donating money to national breast cancer outreach efforts, and establishing women's groups to teach handicrafts and entrepreneurship.
Most local residents tell a very different story.
According to Regina Dufie, a 58-year-old nurse who has worked at the maternity clinic in a local health center for nearly four decades, the rates of unwanted pregnancies and abortions have increased since Newmont set up shop in Brong-Ahafo. The company donated hospital beds, wheelchairs, and at least one television, she says. But schoolgirls and young women come in with swollen bellies, claiming that the fathers are Newmont workers.
"We're not surprised," she says in the maternity ward, newly delivered babies swaddled in crisp white sheets in the next room. "Men come, they scope out the teenagers, and then they get [them] pregnant."
Locals claim that at the Alabama—a yellow hotel near the mine with a terra-cotta roof and a bar bustling on weekends—Newmont workers meet up with young girls and women from the community to party and have sex. One shy 13-year-old girl, interviewed with her mother's permission, speaks of a prostitution ring in which Newmont workers pay to have sex with school-aged girls, usually without wearing condoms. Now five months pregnant, she fidgets awkwardly, her belly bulging under her shirt. "I'm not happy at all to have a baby," she says. "It's scary."
The girl claims that a middle-aged Ghanaian man nicknamed King, who was not from the community and said he worked for Newmont, pursued her. After meeting up with him for the purpose of having sex for money, she became frightened and changed her mind. He allegedly pushed her on the bed and forced himself on her; she was still in her school uniform. She says he paid her 20 cedis, or roughly $4.50. The girl, a lover of English and science who wants to be a schoolteacher when she grows up, used the money to buy books and a schoolbag.
Her mother says she did not report the incident to the police. She couldn't find the accused man and worried about possible ramifications of reporting the rape. The girl went to a hospital seeking treatment but was turned away because her family could not pay the fees, her mother says. She has not yet seen a medical professional.
"This is a very serious allegation," says Derek Boateng, senior manager for sustainability and external relations at the Ahafo mine. "Newmont has very high ethical compliance standards. We do not condone such practices."
IN AUGUST, HUNDREDS OF community members gathered near Newmont's Ahafo headquarters to protest the toll the mine has taken on their lives. Armed security forces, including police in combat gear, guarded the building as protesters blocked the roads. "We are thirsty," one wooden sign carried by a young man read. "We need jobs," read another. Down the road, a company billboard showed Newmont workers smiling on the job.
"We're experiencing hardship," said Oman Dusei, a 31-year-old unemployed trained welder from K1. "Workers are impregnating our young girls while others are having sex with our wives because we don't have money. I wrote several letters [to Newmont], but I didn't get any response."
For ZeinabuDawda, Konadu'sneighbor in Dormaa-Kantinka, protests have become a part of life. She said that a Newmont worker or subcontractor assaulted her when the company sent men to block her road with wood and she protested. She showed a mark on her arm where she was allegedly hit. "I will persevere," she said. "I don't fear anything."
Today, Konadu's house sits empty and dilapidated on her small plot of land next to a mountain of rocks. Despite unfinished legal proceedings regarding the house, on the wood paneling there's a word spray-painted by Newmont workers in thick red lettering.
"Done," it reads, with a red checkmark.
This article appeared in the January/February 2018 edition with the headline "Fool's Gold."
Eugenia Tenkorange, a Ghanaian journalist in Accra, contributed reporting.
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Gender, Equity, and Environment program (sierraclub.org/gender). Reporting was made possible by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.