Going out to visit farmers in villages displaced by mines is usually a sobering experience. I’ve done this in Ghana, Mali, Peru, and Honduras. A few farmers get a job at the mine, but they seem to be lucky. Most of the time the farmers tell me tragic stories:
They move to housing projects built by the mine, and struggle to find enough land to farm and provide for their families. One displaced farmer I met was cutting across mine property to get to his new fields when he was shot in the hip by security guards and nearly bled to death.
Others try and hold out for a better compensation deal, and suffer terribly. One man I met in Ghana refused to move, and the mining company built up huge piles of waste rock around his farm, cutting off his water and burying his oil palms, along with his hope of making a decent living. Government and mine company representatives have used a variety of methods to intimidate people to either get out of the way of a mine in Ghana, or stop any vocal complaints about the terms of relocation payments, or water pollution.
“The people here have courage, but they are concerned about intimidation,” says Abdalla Selifu, who works for Oxfam America’s partner WACAM in Ghana. “We read them articles of the constitution, our supreme law. We tell them we are fortunate to live in a democracy, and that they don’t ever have to be afraid of struggling for their rights in the constitution.”
I spent three days working with Abdalla in 2007, his language skills helped me interview Twi-speaking farmers in Brong-Ahafo. It was just a year after he himself had been arrested at a village meeting to discuss community concerns about mining. He was with a colleague from Oxfam’s office in Senegal, who was also arrested. At first we heard that they were detained for fraudulently holding a meeting under the name of Newmont Mining, a major US gold producer operating in Ghana. The charges were later changed to “failing to notify the police of a special event.” The judge ordered Abdalla and four others held for two weeks, and said he did this to teach them a lesson about discouraging foreign investment in the country.
Last week I finally got some good news about this affair: After defense lawyers petitioned to get a new judge, last week it was thrown out of court. The prosecution failed to make a case, perhaps because it had none. Abdalla tells farmers in Ghana that “the government is there to protect their rights, it is bound to do this.” He might be correct after all.
The news about the case came at about the same time that the Economic Community of West Africa States passed a new directive requiring member nations to allow for community consent in any new mining projects. After West African countries change their laws to comply with this new directive, meetings to discuss mining projects will no longer be grounds for bogus arrests and intimidation—they will be required by law, and within the rights of communities.