Environmental health and safety in Ghana

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Dr Stanford Nartey
Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration, Accra

Research on environmental performance issues have been predominantly focused on the United States – a state of affairs has been criticised.[1] In response, research was extended into Canada.[2] Even so, limited research exists about the developing world. This article examines environmental health and safety issues in Ghana.

Environmental health and safety issues cover a wide area, including:

• environmental conservation and restoration;

• greenhouse gas emission control;

• environmental management systems;

• product innovation;

• technological development;

• lifecycle analysis;

• waste management; and

• recycling.[3]

This paper uses personal observation, news reports and participant interviews in the country’s capital of Accra, and two major mining towns, to explore the environmental, health and safety challenges in Ghana and propose solutions to address these. Accra has been chosen because it is the country’s capital and the filthiest town in the country. It is said to generate over 200,000 tonnes of waste daily. However, there is no recycling culture and daily collection and disposal is around 20 per cent of what is generated (Ghana Television, 2019).

In Ghana, there are numerous environmental, health and safety challenges. They include:

• open defecation;

• the burning of used lorry tires to extract copper wires for sale;

• inappropriate disposal of plastic bottles and bags;

• the dismantling and burning of used electronic gadgets to extract valuable metals for sale;

• inappropriate human liquid waste disposal; and

• improper land reclamation in the mining industry.

For example, the disposal of liquid waste into the sea has become a common phenomenon at Korlegono, a suburb of Accra. The stench that emanates from the practice has become unbearable to both residents and commuters along the beach road linking communities like Chorkor, Korle-Bu and Mamprobi to Accra. The stench is so strong that the location has been ironically named ‘Lavender Hill’.

Politicians are aware of this practice but have given limited attention to it until recently, when a company built a recycling unit there to transform the liquid waste into gas. Even so, this problem existed for well over a decade before the facility was built and the practice continues.

Multinational and illegal mining also posts serious environmental and health challenges in Ghana due to the chemical pollution of water bodies and land reclamation.

Environmental health and e-waste

The dismantling and/or burning of e-waste such as used television sets, old computers and fridges has become common in Accra and major cities in Ghana. Unemployed persons, primarily young men, collect these gadgets, burn them and extract the copper wires and valuable metals from the waste for sale. The environmental and health implications to these people and the community are obvious. For instance, these young men do not wear any protective clothing. Consequently, they and the general public are exposed to carbon monoxide from the burning process. In October 2019, Al Jazeera confirmed this practice in a documentary that focused on the dumping of used electrical gadgets into the country, as well as the health and environmental implications.

Most cars on Ghana’s roads are old and produce lots of carbon monoxide, to the detriment of public health. Unlike in the West, where such cars do not pass vehicle examination tests and are taken off the road, Ghana does not enforce such laws to protect the public. Consequently, there are many cardiovascular and lung diseases abound. Informal research conducted among health practitioners at the nation’s biggest teaching hospital, the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, confirmed that lung and cardiovascular diseases are among the highest killer diseases in the country.

The plastic menace

Another environmental, health and safety concern is the issue of plastic waste disposal. Environmentalists across the globe have campaigned against the use of plastic bottles and bags. In the developed world, recycling has been adopted as a measure to reduce the negative impact. Some of these measures include supermarkets charging for plastic bags. This compels shoppers to keep their plastic bags for reuse. Others pay people to return plastic bottles. In the developing world, the fight against the plastic menace has become more difficult than ever. In 2019 alone, Indonesia threatened to ship back to Canada container-loads of plastic and industrial waste. Fishermen, both local and international, are constantly complaining that their nets haul more plastics when they go to sea, preventing them from making larger catches.

In Ghana, recycling is a major problem as the populace has not embraced the concept. In addition, indiscriminate disposal of waste in drains has resulted in blocked drains, flooding, increased malaria, cholera and other preventable diseases.

Environmental, health and safety challenges in the Ghanaian mining industry

Corporations have come under incessant pressure to perform environmentally due to the increasing global environmental problems and the perception that business is a major contributor to these problems.[4] In response to these pressures, some companies have embraced environmental standards and have made conscious efforts to minimise the impact their activities have on the environment. Others, however, have made little or no attempt to take substantive actions to address their environmental problems.[5]

Mining in Ghana dates back over a hundred years. Although it has led to significant economic development, its environmental safety and health implications leave much to be desired. The main environmental challenges in the formal and informal mining industry in Ghana are threefold. The formal mining operations involve registered companies that have gone through the due processes to obtain their mining licences and permits to operate. These are mostly multinational mining companies. The second group is made up of small-scale mining companies that mostly lack heavy-duty equipment, adequate mining skills and the financial resources to operate.[6] Alongside these two groups, there is a third force, popularly known as galamsey (illegal miners). The galamsey and the small-scale miners create the biggest environment and health problems in the mining industry.

Large-scale mining: the environment and health challenges

Although the mining laws of Ghana require that mining companies conduct environmental impact assessments before commencing operations and reclaim all lands after mining activities, evidence suggests that these lands are either partially reclaimed or not reclaimed at all.

The inability to fully reclaim these mine lands poses serious problems as most of the mining areas in Ghana have seen farming communities displaced for mining activities.[7] Secondly, the abandoned pits post serious health risks to community members. They serve as mosquito breeding grounds and contribute to the spread of malaria, the biggest killer in mining communities (Ghana Statistical Service 2018). Moreover, community members occasionally fall into these pits and drown.

Illegal mining

The biggest environment, health and safety challenges experienced in Ghana today is a result of galamsey. Illegal mining is a type of mining whereby individuals without formal mining skills and resources engage in mining activities without following the due registration process. In other words, they do not have a mining permit or licence. The practice has become so common that many young people perish in the process as a result of pits collapsing and burying them alive.[8] Areas where this illegal trade dominates include the Ashanti, Brong Ahafo, Central, Eastern and Western Regions, and recently the three Northern Regions.

Over the past few years, many Chinese nationals have either directly engaged in illegal mining activities or rented equipment to the miners. In 2018, Ghana Television produced a documentary on the involvement of Chinese nationals in the illegal trade.

Challenges of illegal mining

Apart from pits collapsing and burying miners alive, illegal mining practices have polluted most of the water bodies in the country to the extent that the Ghana Water Company in 2017 expressed concern about how expensive water treatment costs had become due to pollution from illegal mining activities.

Indeed, the pollution of rivers is so overwhelming that some of the major rivers, such as the River Birim in the Eastern Region (the source of drinking water for Oda and surrounding towns) and the River Offin in the Central Region, have reached near extinction. The Ankobra and the River Pra (the main sources of water to the Western and Central Regions) also have their fair share of pollution. The situation has become so bad that the country may soon begin importing water from neighbouring countries.

Aside from the pollution and deaths, significant revenue has been lost from the practice of illegal miners because they are not registered and do not pay taxes. In 2017, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo-Addo mentioned at the annual Meet the Press forum that over $2bn worth of gold leaves the country unaccounted for. This is as a result of illegal mining because they sell their produce to private businessmen who smuggle it out of the country.

Finally, there have been a number of conflicts between illegal miners and large-scale miners. Most illegal mining takes place on lands demarcated to large-scale mining firms. Large-scale miners have constantly complained to the state about how the illegal miners’ operations have reduced the economic viability of their concessions. Their activities also destroy forests and farmlands because no effort is made to reclaim the land.

Why environmental laws are less strictly adhered to in Ghana

Although clear laws exist for post-activity mine land reclamation by mining companies, this is not always adhered to. According to sources from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mining companies must pay a deposit into a fund as insurance against non-reclamation costs. This money is refunded to the company after mine closure and land reclamation. However, sources suggest that asking mining firms fully to reclaim all mined lands after mining practices makes projects economically unviable for the firms.

Secondly, due to resource constraints, the department is unable to go through all mine sites to ensure lands are fully reclaimed and restored before releasing deposited funds to the companies, leaving the sites in a dangerous state. Previous research suggests that in most mining industries in developing countries, multinational mining companies adopt but do not implement environmental mining policies.[9] Meanwhile, the natural environment is one of the most important sources of opportunities for businesses because it is connected to business and society in complex ways. This connection needs to be understood by decision makers.[10]

Environmental impact assessments (EIAs), a requirement in Ghana’s mining laws that must be completed before mining activities take place, were mostly conducted by corporate and government agencies that were hungry for mine revenue. The government, for instance, needed mining royalties to finance its annual budgets, while the multinational mining companies could not wait to start pouring gold to recoup their mine investment. Consequently, social and environmental concerns were sacrificed for profit.

This is clearly at odds with Slack’s (2012) suggestion that corporations need to abandon their profitable business models if they infringe on host communities’ rights.[11] Questions remain as to how many firms will be committed to this ethical requirement, especially in the developing world, while portraying an image of full compliance.

Mining and greenwashing

Ambec and Lanoie (2008) suggest that environmental performance has the potential to improve efficiency and productivity, lower compliance costs and reduce waste.[12] Berrone and Gomez-Mejia (2009, 103) posit ‘Because environmental issues are now a major social concern, companies in polluting industries face tight governmental regulations, increased media attention, and strong environmental activism’.[13] A case in the recent past is the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. This spillage had a serious financial impact on BP because investors reacted to the resulting fines, clean-up costs and penalties. The company’s share price plummeted, leading to the resignation of the then-CEO.

Greenwashing is another reason why mining companies do not strictly adhere to environmental laws. According to Ramus and Montiel (2005), greenwashing is a recent concept that has resulted from the increased prevalence of environmental concerns.[14] It is a term used to describe firms that try to project a clean environmental image to stakeholders while practising the opposite. Organisations use greenwashing to market themselves so they will ‘be seen as being green’.[15] Even those with poor environmental performance are attempting to portray themselves as being such because of the upsurge of green movements.

Two main motives appear to be accelerating greenwashing practices. These are to attain stakeholder legitimacy (institutional theory, Campbell 2007[16]) and to appear to conform to green norms by engaging in green talk (symbolic actions) (signalling theory, Connelly et al 2011[17]). By signalling theory, the firm projects to external stakeholders that it values and respects green issues,[18] but when it comes to implementation, organisational leaders may engage in symbolic rather than substantive actions on environmental issues. This is because symbolic action is easier and less expensive than actual practice.

A study conducted by Walker and Wan (2012) entitled The harm of symbolic actions and green-washing: Corporate actions and communications on environmental performance and their financial implications found that substantive actions around environmental issues (what they termed ‘greenwalk’) neither harms nor benefits firms financially, but symbolic actions (green talk) affects firms’ financial performance negatively.[19] This is yet to bite in the developing world, especially when big firms are involved. Walker and Wan also noted that concentrating efforts on green talk and walk has no effect on firms’ financial performance. This accounts partially for the reason most mining companies engage in greenwashing.

Efforts to resolve the challenges in the mining industry

As mentioned earlier, the state has mandated the EPA and the Minerals Commission, the regulator and administrator of the mining industry, to ensure that mining is carried out in a sustainable way.

However, logistics and resource constraints have reduced their efforts to symbolic rather than substantive action. Several political leaders have tried to put an end to illegal mining but to no avail due to the politicisation of the issue. Most presidents feared that the miners, who number over 600,000, will not vote for them if their activities are halted.

However, in 2017, President Akuffo-Addo placed a temporary ban on the trade. This led to the arrest and deportation of one of the Chinese kingpins (a woman named Aisha who had enormous influence over politicians, security chiefs and community leaders). Her arrest and deportation sparked debate across the country: documentary evidence exposed how she used sex and money to influence the law enforcement agencies and political leaders to get away with the illegal trade. Some of these videos were leaked on various social media platforms.

The opposition party and most Ghanaians felt she should have been put before the courts. However, her arrest came at a time when the government was in negotiation with the Chinese government for a loan and feared trying Aisha in court would affect the country’s chance of securing the loan. After her deportation, Ghanaians who had worked for her revealed how she ordered her workers to kill people who threatened her business.

President Akuffo-Addo’s ban on galamsey saw the deployment of the military, the police and a special taskforce formed to patrol these suspected illegal mining areas. In the process, a young military officer in his early thirties (Major Mahama) was lynched by illegal miners in one of the galamsey communities in 2017. The incident was filmed and shared on various social media platforms by the perpetrators. Some arrests were made, but the case is still in court two years after the incident. The ban was lifted in 2018 after the government indicated that modalities have been put in place to sanitise the industry. Some commentators were of the view that the government lifted the ban because of fear it may lose the 2020 elections if it did not. Again, this clearly illustrates how political influence has made it difficult to fight illegality.

Chiefs and political leaders’ involvement in the trade has also made the fight to stop galamsey very difficult. It is widely accepted that chiefs give out their land to illegal miners either for an outright fee or for royalties. Some political party leaders have also been accused of acquiring concessions and employing people to engage in the business. Thus, chiefs and political figures are directly involved in promoting galamsey.

Indeed, a study of two of the mining sites in the Brong Ahafo and Western regions confirmed that opinion leaders, chiefs and local government officials supported galamsey because it provided employment and boosted local economies. One opinion leader noted that the illegal miners employed thousands more than the multinational mining company. This, plus the nuisance multinational mining companies created, such as causing cracks to form in buildings from blasting, dam spillage and insignificant development in the area, made illegal mining preferable.[20] For these reasons, the fight against environmental, health and safety challenges has remained ineffective in Ghana.

When it comes to negotiating mining agreements in developing countries, the power imbalance between the multinationals and governments is obvious. Most developing countries, due to their level of poverty and lack of mining expertise to extract their own resources, fall on Western multinationals but are disadvantaged in their negotiations with these powerful companies. This is evidenced in Klein (2007) and Reich’s (2007) findings that corporate power enables business to heavily influence most governments.[21] To illustrate this further, Hilson (2012) compared a couple of multinational mining and oil companies’ wealth with the gross domestic product (GDP) of their host countries as follows:

• Shell in 2010 was valued at $378bn in revenue as compared to Nigeria’s $193bn in GDP;

• BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, had revenue estimates of $247bn, against Papua New Guinea’s GDP of less than $11bn;

• Newmont Gold, with operations in Ghana had a market value of $26bn as against Ghana’s annual GDP of around $37bn; and

• Rio Tinto, the second-largest mining company in the world, had a market value of $144bn in 2011 as against Madagascar’s less than $9bn GDP.[22]

This clearly placed the companies in an advantageous position when negotiating. Furthermore, it is argued that multinational mining companies compare tax regimes in various developing countries and choose those countries with competitive tax environments to do business.[23] This has placed serious limitations on developing countries that want to be attractive destinations for direct foreign investment. This has resulted in developing country governments offering lucrative taxes, royalties, tax exemptions and loose mining agreements that favour mining companies.[24]

Making Accra the cleanest city in Africa

In an attempt to make Ghana clean, the President created a ministry (the Sanitation and Water Resources Ministry) in 2017 to tackle sanitation issues. He promised to make Accra the cleanest city in Africa within two years as part of his campaign.

In 2018, the President sent a delegation to Rwanda to study their strategy. Apparently, Rwanda has become one of the cleanest countries in Africa. In a bid to fight the menace, former President John Mahama introduced the ‘Clean Your Environment’ campaign, where once every month, people were made to close their shops and join in cleaning their environments and choked gutters. This exercise has continued to date but apathy and lack of logistics have crippled the efforts.

Both the National Democratic Congress government and the New Patriotic Party government (the two leading parties in the country) have also awarded contracts to private waste collection companies, including the Jospong Group of Companies, to help with rubbish collection. All these attempts are yet to have any impact as the quantum of waste generated outweighs the amount collected by the companies. The companies also complain of delayed or missed payments for work done.

Alongside these government interventions, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on 7 November 2019 unveiled a chimney that is said to combust waste at a temperature of about 1,000 degrees Celsius to turn waste into limited ashes. This ash is presumed to be a raw material for manufacturing fertiliser that can be used in agriculture. In addition, a retired scientist has also developed a decomposing device that turns waste into organic manure for farming to help reduce the waste problem. Although these are great initiatives, they both have challenges. For instance, both are pilot projects that lack financial resources for commercial expansion. The research director for the CSIR clearly mentioned on Ghana Television News when launching the facility that the main raw material used in the burning process is wood. This will clearly affect forestation. The scientist who developed the decomposition facility also indicated that his process takes up to three months to decompose the raw material used (food waste and general biodegradable materials). The challenge is that Ghanaians do not separate these materials from plastics and other waste; this has the potential to add more difficulty and extra costs. The projects are also very small-scale when compared with the amount of waste generated daily in Accra.

Suggestions to overcome the challenges

Political leaders need to reorient their minds and find the will to solve the problems. Doing this involves devolving environmental, health and safety issues from politics and making calculated efforts to promote environmental health.

The state must adequately resource agencies such as the EPA, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources and the Minerals Commission, in order that they can carry out the work of fighting environmental challenges effectively. This will help overcome the resource constraint issues mentioned by the EPA to supervise land reclamation effectively. Indeed, on 3 November 2019, the director of the sanitation and water resources confirmed that efforts to make Accra the cleanest city in Africa is facing serious setbacks due to resource constraints.

Private individuals and scientists must be supported with loans and tax exemptions to help them expand their facilities. Beyond national boundaries, the United Nations and bodies like the European Commission must put in place a financial reward system whereby countries that are able to preserve their environment and natural resources receive financial rewards to improve their economies. A clear example is the case of the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, where the government’s policy to develop the economy has clashed with the need to protect the Rainforest. What happens in one country has a cascading effect on others. The impact of the discharge of liquid waste into the ocean in Ghana, the plastic waste disposal and the deforestation as a result of illegal mining in forests can have an impact as far away as Europe and North America.

It is hoped that embracing these suggestions will help reduce the environmental health and safety concerns in Ghana and beyond.

[1] Salzmann, O, Ionescu-somers, A, & Steger, U, ‘The business case for corporate sustainability: Literature review and research options’ (2005) 23(1) European Management Journal 27–35.

[2] Walker, K, and Wan, F, ‘The Harm of Symbolic Actions and Green-Washing: Corporate Actions and Communications on Environmental Performance and Their Financial Implications’ (2012) Journal of Business Ethics, 109, 227–242.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Korten, D C, When corporations rule the world (Kumarian Press Inc/Berrett-Koehler 1995).

[5] Westphal, J D and Zajac, E J, ‘Decoupling policy from practice: The case of stock repurchase programs’ (2001) Administrative Science Quarterly Douglas and Judge is from the best paper proceedings, 00014273.

[6] Hilson, G, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility in the extractive industries: Experiences from developing countries’ (2012) Resources Policy, 37, 131–137; Hilson, G and Garforth, C, ‘“Agricultural poverty” and the expansion of artisanal mining in Sub-Saharan Africa: Experiences from Southwest Mali and Southeast Ghana’ (2012) Population Resources Policy Review 31, 435–464.

[7] Hilson, G, ‘Championing the rhetoric? “Corporate social responsibility” in Ghana’s mining sector’ (2012) Greener Management International 53, 43–56.

[8] See n 6 above, Hilson and Garforth.

[9] Utting, P, ‘Corporate responsibility and the movement of business’ 2005 15 (3-4) Development in Practice 375–388.

[10] Mariri, T and Chipunza, C, ‘Corporate Governance, Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability: Comparing Corporate Priorities within the South African Mining Industry’ (2011) 35(2) Journal of Human Ecology 95–111.

[11] Slack, P, ‘Mission impossible? Adopting a CSR-based business model for extractive industries in developing countries’ (2012) 37 Resources Policy, 179–84.

[12] Ambec, S, and Lanoie, P, ‘Does it pay to be green? A systematic overview’ (2008) 22(4) The Academy of Management Perspectives 45–62; see also Bansal, P, and Clelland, I, ‘Talking trash: Legitimacy, impression management, and unsystematic risk in the context of the natural environment’ (2004) 47(1) Academy of Management Journal 93–103.

[13] Berrone, P, & Gomez-Mejia, L R, ‘Environmental performance and executive compensation: An integrated agency institutional perspective’ (2009) 52(1) Academy of Management Journal 103–126.

[14] Ramus, C A and Montiel, I, ‘When are corporate environmental policies a form of green-washing?’ (2005) 44(4) Business and Society 377–414.

[15] Laufer, W S, ‘Social accountability and corporate greenwashing’ (2003) 43(3) Journal of Business Ethics253–261.

[16] Campbell, J L, ‘Why would corporations behave in socially responsible ways? An institutional theory of corporate social responsibility’ (2007) 32(3) Academy of Management Review 946-967.

[17] Connelly, B L, Certo, S T, Ireland, R D and Reutzel, C, ‘Signalling theory: A review and assessment’ (2011) 37(1) Journal of Management 39–67.

[18] See n 13 above.

[19] See n 2 above.

[20] (Nartey 2015).The role of dialogue in achieving peaceful coexistence between host communities and multinational gold mining companies in Ghana.A thesis submitted for the Degree ofDoctor of Philosophy (Management) in the University of Hull, United Kingdom.

[21] Klein, N, The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism (Alfred A. Knopf Canada 2007); see also Reich, B, Supercapitalism: The transformation of business, democracy and everyday life (Alfred A. Knopf 2007).

[22] See n 6 above, Hilson.

[23] Scherer, A G and Smid, M, ‘The downward spiral and the US model business principles: why MNEs should take responsibility for improvement of worldwide social and environmental conditions’ (2000) 40(4) Management International Review 351–371.

[24] Garriga, E and Mele, D ‘Corporate social responsibility theories: Mapping the territory’ (2004) Journal of Business Ethics 53, 51-71; see also Crane, A and Matten, D, Business ethics: Managing corporate citizenship and sustainability in the age of globalization. (3edn, Oxford University Press 2010).


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