The use of satellite imagery to complement traditional data collection methods including national census in Ghana is helping in conserving forests and water bodies by facilitating informed decisions to curb illegal mining.

Illegal mining is a serious problem in Ghana that poses negative effects on the environment, especially encroachment of forest reserves, according to the country’s Vice-president Mahamudu Bawumia.

During a media field trip to illegal mines in Ghana’s Eastern Region last month (21-25 May 2019) , the vice-president said that small-scale mining is a source of income and livelihood for many communities in the country. Thus, with illegal mining practised by small-scale miners, particularly in the remote parts of the country, it is a challenge to curb it.

The field trip was organised by UN’s Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data in collaboration with Ghana Statistical Service to learn about the use of data in sustainable development initiatives.

Using data to regulate mining activities

The Ghanaian government formed an inter-ministerial committee on illegal mining in 2017 to give a regulatory roadmap on mining activities in the country. The country also introduced drones to produce satellite images that have been instrumental in locating illegal mining sites.

“We have set standards that if one doesn’t meet then we don’t issue a permit for mining.” - Felix Addo-Okyere, Environmental Protection Agency, Ghana’s Eastern Region

The data from the images is used against legal mining concession maps in the database of the government to identify illegal sites, according to Brian Killough, who leads the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites Systems Engineering Office at the US-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“There’s a strong excitement in the use of alternative data collection methods, especially in agriculture and deforestation in Ghana,” Killough says.

In the Eastern Region, 13 hectares of devegetation or destroyed vegetation occurred in nine years before satellite imagery prompted rehabilitation in 2016.

The region’s Atewa forest reserve that protects the rivers Densu and Ayensu, which flow into the Atlantic Ocean, was adversely affected by illegal mining activities. “We could detect the extent of devegetation. This kind of information helped in making the decision to begin recovery,” says Killough, noting that ten hectares of the land had been revegetated in the last two years.

“Some of the areas are so remote and only technology can help us access those areas,” adds Michael Ali, the director of mining at Ghana’s Environment Protection Agency.

Ali told SciDev.Net that they are now able to get real-time data and make the necessary interventions after mapping out all the mining areas.

Ali says that there are plans to get machines that can be used in extracting gold in order to minimise air pollution.

Felix Addo-Okyere, director of the Environmental Protection Agency in Ghana’s Eastern Region, says that the negative impacts of illegal mining forced the government to impose a ban on any form of small-scale mining in the country in April 2017.

The inter-ministerial committee on illegal mining directed that all mining companies and individuals register afresh to obtain certifications or permits to work. Addo-Okyere explains that before the ban, there were 600 legal concessions for mining in the Eastern Region and numerous unknown illegal mining sites.

Standards set to enforce conservation

“We have set standards that if one doesn’t meet then we don’t issue a permit for mining,” he tells SciDev.Net, saying that only 110 sites have been cleared for mining after the ban was lifted in February this year.

To get a permit for mining, one is vetted by the Environmental Protection Agency. With small-scale mining exclusively for Ghanaians set not to exceed 22 acres of land coverage, surveyors also have to ascertain that the mining site is not near a water body, a forest reserve or a hill.

“But importantly, one has to show as a clear rehabilitation plan which could be done concurrently with the mining or after the mining,” explains Addo-Okyere, adding that illegal mining had even attracted people from countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali who sneak into the country to extract gold.

Pollution legacy

According to Addo-Okyere, through illegal mining rivers are polluted with silt, thus making treatment of water for human consumption more expensive. Many pits, he explains, limits land for farming.

“We are depriving people of food which is their livelihood,” says Addo-Okyere, adding that introduction of satellite imagery has led to increased arrests and prosecution of illegal miners.

But Jane Gyampo, a resident of Sejimari village in Abuakwa North District of the Eastern Region, says that the government should increase efforts to arrest illegal miners as some are still operating.

Gyampo, whose six acre land was leased to a mining company in 2013 for five years, tells SciDev.Net that the company only paid her a meagre US$ 700 for the five years.

“What annoyed me [even more] is that they left big holes in my farm with stones all over,” Gyampo narrates to SciDev.Net. “I cannot plant my cassava and bananas because the land is in bad shape.”  

She urges the government to help in reclamation efforts as she is ready to resume her farming once this is done to support her six children, especially the three who are students.

The strong political willingness to support development using data is key to the achievements realised, according to Samuel Kobina Annim, an associate professor of economics at Ghana’s University of Cape Coast, who in March this year was appointed as government statistician.

Annim says that previous reliance on census data served as a challenge as it led to un-frequent flow of data.

“Timely data collection using technologies such as earth observation tools will help us to understand aspects of inequalities and marginalisation in our societies and make the necessary interventions,” adds Claire Melamed, chief executive officer of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.

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