At the foothills of the Atewa Forest. Ahtziri Gonzalez, CIFOR

Yes, Ghana should mine bauxite, but not in critical ecosystems like Atewa Forest

A lawsuit against the West African government elucidates the need to balance development and biodiversity

Soon, the Ghanaian government will face charges for its decision to mine bauxite – a sedimentary rock that is the world’s main ore of aluminum – in Atewa, a 230-square-kilometer upland forest ecosystem not far from the capital city Accra. A Rocha Ghana, a non-governmental organization, filed a mandatory notice of suit on 13 January. After more than 30 days of non-response from the government, A Rocha’s lawyers are now filing for court proceedings.

Contrary to easily drawn conclusions, the lawsuit does not address the question of whether or not to mine minerals in Ghana; rather, the contention is over where to mine. In this sense, the case exemplifies a common global struggle: how can nations develop while being environmentally responsible?

“We realize that it is not tenable or reasonable in any way to tell the government of Ghana that you cannot mine bauxite,” says Daryl Bosu, deputy national director of A Rocha Ghana. “Yes, Ghana needs development. We have a very big infrastructure deficit… But we then come from the position that yes, we can do all of that, but we need to do it bearing in mind the opportunity costs and the tradeoffs.”

As a fully protected national forest reserve, Atewa has an ecosystem that boasts incredible biodiversity, with more than 650 different types of plants and a number of endangered species, including one of the last remaining populations of the Togo slippery frog. Some 50,000 people live near the forest and depend on it for their vital resources and incomes.

The Atewa Forest provides water for more than 5 million Ghanaians. Ahtziri Gonzalez, CIFOR
The Atewa Forest provides water for more than 5 million Ghanaians. Ahtziri Gonzalez, CIFOR

Atewa is most immediately important, though, for being the source of three major rivers – the Birim, Densu and Ayensu, along with several other streams – that together provide water for more than 5 million people, including the population of Accra. While the Ghana Integrated Aluminum Development Corporation (GIADEC), a state-owned enterprise that would lead the development of the bauxite mine, has said it would follow practices to safeguard the water and its sanitation, local experts have refuted these assertations, saying it is impossible to reach the bauxite without touching the forest first and the watershed it secures, risking contamination and the depletion of the long-term watershed services.

Local communities in Awaso, a region in western Ghana, have suffered increasingly from respiratory illness and lack of access to drinking water since the development of bauxite mining there.

The government’s desire to mine is borne from the country’s need for infrastructure, which has in part come in a USD 2 billion deal with state-owned Chinese developer Sinohydro to build much-needed roads, bridges, housing, hospitals, schools and electrification in rural areas. The deal, signed in July 2018, is structured through an escrow account, in which the Ghanaian government has agreed to deposit profits revenue from aluminum and its rawer form alumina until the debt is paid. This turned the government’s eyes to bauxite sources, namely in Atewa, which could potentially yield 150 million tons of the rock.

Some 240 kilometers due west of Atewa is the Nyinahin forest in the Tano-Offin Forest Reserve, which sits upon the country’s largest bauxite reserve – estimated by the Minerals Commission Ghana to number some 900 million tons – both of higher quality than that of Atewa and able to alone pay off the USD 2 billion. Tano-Offin is partially categorized as a production forest reserve, with logging and mining operations already in place. While local leaders in Tano-Offin resist further mining development, Bosu and others view Nyinahin as a more commercially viable, a fact also acknowledged by government.  

Preluding this case, Atewa was on track to become a national park, which would have precluded any development intervention. “When we did all of these analyses – the baseline studies, the documentation, the economic evaluation of the biodiversity and water commissioning and ecosystem services – it became clear that if we’re really going to be able to secure it, and the long-term benefits for the future, the best bet for us as a country is to look at making Atewa a national park,” says Bosu, who helped lead these analyses in collaboration with the relevant government ministries.

But 2016 saw the election of current president Nana Akufo-Addo, whose New Patriotic Party “ignored all the work that had been done… all the consensus that had been built… and said that they were going to pursue an aluminum integrated development agenda, targeting all the bauxite reserves in the country for mining,” says Bosu.

Despite coming from the Atewa area, President Akufo-Addo has little emotional investment in the forest and is more concerned with delivering on the promises of new infrastructure made in his political campaigns, says Bosu.

Bosu believes this novel case will be difficult but could explore the gray legal jurisprudence on citizen action to secure the environment, which is captured in Ghana’s constitution. In line with this, he’s putting his hopes in the power of the public, which has rallied around the case through a myriad of mobilizations, including demonstration marches led by local communities of the Atewa landscape and music videos produced by Ghanaian record label Lynx Entertainment, which have in turn garnered headlines from international media and rallied support from a plethora of global organizations including the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund.

“Somehow, when it comes to bauxite, the government has ignored all environmental assessments, and we just don’t know why the government can just go ahead with such display of impunity,” says Bosu.

Article tags

A Rocha GhanaAtewa ForestbiodiversityChinadevelopmentecosystem servicesendangered speciesforestsGhanainfrastructureMiningTropical Forestswaterwatershed

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