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Rights group: Ghana's gold mines rife with abuse

By Artis Henderson
Associated Press / October 29, 2010

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DAKAR, Senegal—Foreign mining companies in gold-rich Ghana regularly seize people's land, pollute the environment and violently suppress those who oppose them, according to a new report Thursday by a human rights team at the University of Texas School of Law.

Large mining companies in Ghana's west often take land from farmers without fair compensation, the report says. Ghanaian law requires compensation for loss of land and loss of crops. Many community members have not been reimbursed for either, according to Thursday's report from the law school's Human Rights Clinic.

Thomas Akabzaa, a professor of earth science at the University of Ghana who has studied Ghana's gold mining industry for the last 16 years, said the problem with land compensation often can be traced to local leaders.

"The land is traditionally held by the chiefs in trust for the people," Akabzaa said. "When the mining company takes the land, the compensation is paid to the chiefs."

This money, he said, often does not make its way to the landowners.

Akabzaa says problems also arise when the government undervalues a crop.

"Particularly if they're cash crops like cocoa, which has a life span of 20 years," Akabzaa said. "Landowners are given the value of one year's crop only."

The report also accuses gold-mining operations of polluting territory surrounding the mines. Ghana's Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice produced a report in 2008 that confirmed mineral levels in local water sources were above World Health Organization limits. Community members reported incidents of contaminated drinking water and large-scale fish deaths.

Local landowners told investigators that attempts to protest the effects of gold mining have been met with violence by private and government security forces. Anthony Baidoo, a farmer in Teberebie, was shot after a confrontation at a roadblock with military and company officers working for AngloGold Ashanti, a South African mining firm.

A spokesman for AngloGold Ashanti said the gunshot was accidental and the company assumes no liability. Nevertheless, AngloGold Ashanti has paid Baidoo's medical bills, financed his son's high school education, and is working out a compensation package.

A representative for Goldfields Ghana Limited, another South African mining operation cited in the report, said the company was unable to comment before studying the report.

Known as the Gold Coast under British colonial rule, Ghana is one of Africa's largest gold exporters. Global gold prices have recently reached record highs of more than $1,300 an ounce.

Philip Nichols, associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said the current appetite for gold is a reflection of uncertain global markets.

"There's no place to put your money right now," Nichols said. "People are looking to gold as a refuge."

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Associated Press Writer Francis Kokutse contributed to this report from Accra, Ghana.