Just two weeks ago I had the tremendous privilege of witnessing what can happen when a small, poor, and, in the eyes of the modern world, underdeveloped community confronts a large, multinational mining company. The small, remote and rural community of Tanchara, Ghana rejected an Australian gold mining operation and kicked that company off their lands. I learned about this and more while working on an eye-opening film project in Ghana, a small West African country, with the New Media Advocacy Project. This story takes place in Tanchara, which is near the border with Burkina Faso in the Upper Western region of Ghana. It is the story of a remote community that successfully repelled a huge, multinational gold mining company from exploiting their land and resources. Tanchara’s story is inspirational because it is a model for communities around the world to stand up to extractive companies who wish to profit from the exploitation and potential destruction of their land and ways of life.
Tanchara was guided through this process by a local NGO, CIKOD (Centre For Indigenous Knowledge & Organizational Development), which has created tools to help communities in Africa and around the world to mobilize when confronted with extractive industries who want to come onto their lands. CIKOD teaches these communities to use their cultural and environmental assets more effectively, which in turn allows them to manage and direct their own affairs without perpetually relying on external agencies or organizations. In a nutshell: CIKOD tries to get rural communities to treat their untouched land as an extremely valuable resource. The extraction industry is focused on what’s underneath the ground. But for communities such as Tanchara, their way of life is totally dependent on keeping their land from being destroyed, which means keeping the gold in the ground.
I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in this subject to go read more on CIKOD’s website. Much of what I have learned about the mobilization of small, rural communities in Ghana is thanks to them. This post is based on my experiences in the field and what I have learned from their staff and literature. I have paraphrased from some of their research, so if you want to learn the specifics of their policies and strategies, I urge you to head on over to their website. You can click here to see a summary of what CIKOD has accomplished.
I have noticed that in my work on extractive industries, and when you look at the long, destructive legacy of colonialism, a pattern becomes apparent. The colonizer comes in, undermines the cultural traditions and structures that exist and replaces them with poorly adapted systems that allow for maximum exploitation of resources. This is almost always devastating to the local people, their internal structures, culture, spiritual beliefs and ways of life. Extractive industries are often only a form of corporate neo-colonialism, rarely working in concert with the people whose land they gain riches from. The landscape in Tanchara contains fruit and nut trees (including shea), small farms and sacred groves that are preserved by the community because of their cultural and spiritual significance as well as their abundance of medicinal plants. The entire region is ecologically fragile, with low rainfall and low soil fertility. Communities are heavily dependent on the land remaining intact for their livelihoods.
Despite Ghana’s relatively modern and functional political system, the majority of the population, especially in rural areas, still look to traditional institutions to make important decisions. There is a disconnect between the government and rural communities because the reality is that most communities put their faith in these traditional institutions much more than they do in the formal government. Hometown associations and clan networks are the political institutions of rural communities, not the modern political system. Because of the disconnect between these two institutions, the government will often sign off on development deals without consulting these local communities.
For example: The Tanchara community in Lawra, located in the Upper Western Region of Ghana along the border with Burkina Faso, consists of approximately 4,000 people who are governed by intricate traditional governance structures. These structures consist of the Divisional Chief, the Pognaa (also known as the ‘Queen Mother’), and the Tingandem (spiritual leaders). We interviewed representatives from each group and I was struck by the unity of their voices.
For more than a decade the Ghanaian government has been allocating licenses to foreign mining companies to prospect for gold in the Upper Western Region of the country. In 2004 the Azumah Resources Limited mining company were granted these rights in Tanchara. The government never consulted or asked for consent from anyone in Tanchara before they signed off on the deal. Thus far, this story is typical of how a lot of ‘development’ happens in countries like Ghana. What is not typical is how this community managed to stand up to both the government and Azumah. The community has now wholly rejected gold. The mining company had come in and started to dig exploratory holes which looked like small scars on the landscape: a foreboding symbol of what could have happened. The operations began to poison their streams and remove foliage from the surface, which affected both forests and crops. Stories of people falling into the holes and drowning spread through the community. People worried about their livestock and children falling in as well.
Soon after the deal in 2004, gold prospectors started showing up in the region and many illegal miners came to Tanchara to dig small open pit mines. Their activities provided a taste of the kind of destruction that would come to pass if Azumah were allowed to go forward with their plans to extract as much gold as possible. Tanchara was successful in banishing gold mining from its land in a large part because of CIKOD. The NGO provided them with ways to quantify the resources they already had and measure them against the value of what mining would bring. CIKOD also helped them to mobilize. They pushed for Tanchara to draft a community contract and community by-laws that effectively prevented any further mining. They brought the community together and helped them to develop the tools to stand up to Azumah.
Each time we entered this community I was struck by its natural beauty and bounty. The people have nature working perfectly for them. Farmers use a healthy variety of crops, they seem to have enough clean water from local wells and they understand how the trees on their lands can work in concert with the crops they grow to provide maximum output, conserve water and provide food. When I asked why a particular tree was bare and looking dead, even though it was the rainy season and everything else was lush and verdant, they explained that that species blooms during the dry season and provides shade for certain crops as well as producing oils from its leaves that help their bodies during the drier, colder weather. All of this was put in jeopardy when the government granted Azumah the right to mine for gold. It is truly miraculous what this community has achieved. They have banished the extraction industry from their land for good, even in the face of their own government.
I have seen the opposite happen in Iraq, Nigeria, India and many other places in the world. Poor communities in developing countries face the constant threat of exploitation, particularly of their resources. This exploitation almost never leads to development or wealth for these communities and usually necessitates the destruction of their land and an uneven creation of wealth that only benefits the few and the elite. I have immense respect for how these Ghanaians have taken their own fate into their hands and formulated a workable solution to what seems an incessant problem for developing communities, particularly in Africa.
The work of the New Media Advocacy Project is to highlight these initiatives through video storytelling, with the purpose of showing the results as an instructive tool to other communities around the world facing these multinational behemoths. The hope is that this will better prepare communities to either enter into a more balanced and healthy relationship of development, or to reject these companies outright, as Tanchara has done.