Gold miners in Ghana
Gold miners in Ghana Reuters

The Chinese have left their footprints all over the African continent, with decidedly mixed results and mixed reactions from the African people themselves.

In the West African state of Ghana, at least 10,000 Chinese immigrants have poured into the country in recent years, attracted by the potential for gold mining. This massive influx, however, as well as the Chinese predilection for sometimes engaging in illegal, and environmentally destructive activities, has enraged many native Ghanaians.

Indeed, tensions are growing between the Chinese immigrant community and the local peoples – there have been reports of physical attacks by both sides against each other.

One such Chinese migrant who journeyed more than 6,000 miles to seek his fortune in Ghana is 40-year-old Huang Ren Zhong.

"The work is difficult. [But] I came here to make money," he told the Guardian newspaper of Britain.

"In China, I was average or poor. To have the opportunity to travel abroad [and] make more money is fantastic."

He added, "We have … guns to defend ourselves from the locals.”

Huang labors for an illegal small-scale gold mine, which, technically, shouldn't even exist because of a lack of government permits. Moreover, foreigners are actually banned from working even in legal small-scale mining operations, to provide a living for the destitute rural poor.

Nonetheless, illegal mining proliferates across Ghana, the second-largest gold producer in Africa, behind South Africa, and the 10th biggest producer in the world.

In 2012, Ghana produced 4.2 million ounces of gold, at an average value of $1,668 per ounce – not all of it mined legally.

The Guardian reported that nearly 23 percent of Ghana’s gold production comes from small-scale mining, and that the overwhelming majority, 95 percent, of small-scale enterprises in the country are illegal. The Chinese, who have invested heavily in Ghana’s gold mining industry, are major players in both legal and illegal endeavors.

The Ghanaian government has tried to clamp down on illegal mines by periodically conducting raids – last month, 120 Chinese were arrested in one such operation.

"The scale [of illegal gold mining] is so vast, it is difficult to actually quantify," Brigadier General Daniel Mishio, chairman of Ghana's national security commission for lands and natural resources, who leads raids on illegal mines, told the Guardian.

"Apart from the security threat that is posed by the weapons that [illegal miners] wield, we even also have issues of human security. In certain areas, people don't even get clean drinking water, and in some areas you can see that most of the forest cover has been destroyed. This poses a very big danger to our future."

Ghana can't afford to go on without the Chinese, its largest trading partner, as well as the source of a recent $3 billion loan. As such, the Accra government is suspected of turning a blind eye to some of questionable activities of the Chinese settled in the country.

Wilbert Brentum, program manager of Solidaridad West Africa, which advocates for improved mine safety, said that in Ghana and other parts of Africa, small-scale mining contributes tremendously to the local economy.

"But we have a situation in Ghana now where there is more illegal small-scale mining than there is legal,” he told the Guardian.

“This has magnified the environmental degradation and polluted so many of our water bodies. Because it has attracted more people into the small-scale mining sector, without protective equipment, fatalities are also on the increase."

Indeed, more than 250 rivers in Ghana's mining communities have been reportedly poisoned by heavy metals and cyanide, raising worries about the quality of drinking water.

“The Chinese destroyed our land and our river, they are sitting there with pickups and guns, plenty of guns,” Maxwell Owusu, acting chief of a village in the central Ashanti region, told Bloomberg.

“They operate big machines and it makes it very difficult to reclaim the land for farming when they are done.”

Toni Aubynn, chief executive of the Ghana Chamber of Mines in Accra, added that the involvement of the Chinese has changed the dynamic of small-scale mining.

“They use bulldozers, pay loaders and really heavy machinery. They have in fact mechanized artisanal mining and as a result the level of environmental devastation is huge,” he said.

Mining is also extremely dangerous work.

“Numerous miners die every year as an effect of unsafe mining shafts and flooding,” Hans Perk, managing director of Solidaridad West Africa, said.

Gold mining, whether legal or illegal, is a crucial component of Ghana's economy.

According to Ghana’s Mining Portal, the mining industry represents about 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, while mineral exports account for 42 percent of the total merchandise exports.

Given the importance of mining to the nation’s well-being, it's not surprising that corruption also plays a heavy hand in connection with the illegal mines.

In fact, the Guardian noted guns that the Chinese keep to protect themselves from Ghanaian residents are often purchased from policemen. Illegal mine operators have also allegedly bribed police to work freely and undisturbed by the authorities.

"It is standard practice for small-scale miners who work illegally with foreigners to pay off the police," a Ghanaian mine owner told the Guardian.

"We have a budget for the police and for the immigration authorities, and every month we pay them to leave us alone."

A senior police officer added, "Mining has corrupted the people. Certain policemen take advantage and profit from these activities. Some prominent men in Ghana, too, are benefiting [as well as] some traditional rulers."

Meanwhile, as thousands of Chinese labor in Ghana’s mines, the resentment against them is intensifying, and the sporadic bouts of violence sometimes turn deadly.

In October, a 16-year-old Chinese boy named Chen Long was killed during a two-day operation by Ghanaian police and immigration officials at an illegal mine in the town of Manso. More than 100 Chinese gold miners were also detained, most of whom were either released or deported.

Long’s death seemed to mark a turning point, as it not only elicited a rare protest from the Chinese embassy in Accra, but also seemed to sour many Chinese from moving to Ghana, according to a report in China Daily.

Still, thousands of Chinese remain in Ghana, trapped between a dream of riches and the growing resentment of locals.