Ghana is about the size of Oregon state and exports the sixth-most gold of any nation. But to mine the wealth beneath their feet legally, Ghanaians are told they need elite connections, up-front cash, and a stable internet connection, most of which are structurally unavailable.
The political system in Ghana is designed for international mining companies, according to Akuba Yalley, assistant professor and doctoral candidate in western Ghana, who studies engineering at the University of Mines and Technology. “The fact that the government is encouraging more or less foreign companies to come—the benefits in my opinion, to the country are quite limited,” she said.
Foreign multinational mining corporations contribute the majority of Ghana’s gold production each year, yet they employ only 12,000 Ghanaians, according to the Ghana Chamber of Mines. Moreover, the financial benefits do not trickle down to mining communities fairly in comparison to the opportunity costs, says Yalley.
Studies revealed how structural adjustment programs drafted under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank helped facilitate this framework for the profit of mining corporations.
The total export revenue of unrefined gold from multinational mining corporations in Ghana was over $5 billion in 2021. Only $25.7 million of the revenue was invested back into “host” communities. The Chamber stated that the allocation of royalties has indeed been less than the 20% of the royalty promised for the direct benefit and development of these mining communities.
Since 1990, gold production in Ghana has increased almost sevenfold, but the operating climate has benefited the international mining industry as much as it has suppressed the Indigenous.
For the average Ghanaian to obtain licensing and concessions for mining is an arduous and expensive process, according to Yalley. “At the end of the day, the district offices can register... but Ghanaians still need to travel to Accra to acquire a license,” she said. Without proper roads, time, money or resources, many Ghanaians mine where they are with whoever offers them equipment, often without a license—sometimes under their own house.
This combination of factors—systemic barriers for obtaining licensing and power structures controlled by a few affluent Ghanaians and multinational corporations—means millions of Ghanaians mine gold without licenses and regulations in the condemned practice known as galamsey.
Sources estimate this informal sector supports 4 million people living in rural villages of Ghana—12% of the country’s population. While there are attempts to formalize the small-scale mining sector, 85% of practitioners operate informally. Some policies have attempted to crack down and criminalize the practice while breathless international media coverage contributes to stigmatizing the practice; but as a survival mechanism, it is hard to contain without addressing the underlying structures that push people to participate.
The economic impacts of galamsey are not sequestered to the mining sector in Ghana. There are an estimated 40.5 million artisanal small-scale gold miners in 80 countries worldwide—comprising over 82% of the total gold mining workforce. An estimated 150 million people depend on this type of work worldwide.