YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Citing threats not only to the country’s economy but also its environment and public health, Catholic religious in Ghana have dedicated 2024 to a fight against illegal mining in the West African nation, especially a new boom in the country’s historical reputation as Africa’s “Gold Coast.”

Officials recently announced that Ghana has regained its position as Africa’s top gold producer, surpassing its traditional rival in South Africa, and is now the seventh leading producer in the entire world.

According to the Ghana Chamber of Mines (GCM), the country increased its gold output by 32 percent in 2022, up from 2.8 million ounces in 2021 to 3.7 million ounces in 2022. Gold accounted for more than 93 percent of the country’s mineral revenue in 2019, while other minerals such as manganese, bauxite and diamond had much smaller shares.

However, this gold boom has a dark side: What locals call galamsey, a slang word derived from the Ghanaian words “gather” and “sell,” and used to refer to illegal and often abusive mining methods. About one million Ghanaians are believed to engage in the practice, supporting about 4.5 million people in the country, and the GCM estimates that in 2016, $2.3 billion worth of gold was smuggled out of the country by illicit miners, depriving the state of much-needed revenue.

But the cost of galamsey is not only financial, as observers say it also poses serious threats to the environment and human health.

The Conference of Major Superiors of Religious of Ghana, a body of Catholic religious leaders, has voiced these concerns and is rallying for support to stop the illegal gold mining.

In their New Year message on Jan. 2, they announced they have dedicated 2024 to the protection of the environment, as a preparation for the Jubilee Year of 2025, which they called a “special year of restoration.”

“We, consecrated men and women of the Catholic Church in Ghana, have taken the Year 2024 as a year of action to restore our damaged environment, polluted water bodies and destroyed forests,” they said.

“We cannot all sit idle and fold our arms as we watch helplessly as unscrupulous persons destroy God’s creative gift to us which is our shared home. We are guardians of the earth, and we have a duty to keep it safe and to use its resources responsibly and fairly. We can no longer sit and weep as our common future is literally taken away from us,” the religious said.

The involvement of foreign nationals, especially the Chinese, has been blamed for worsening the practice of illegal mining. Foreign companies have been accused of bringing heavy mining equipment and excavators into Ghana, turning once peaceful communities into noisy mining hubs. They’ve also been accused of taking over artisanal mining sites, meant for locals, and of  exploiting local workers for meagre wages, while shipping the bulk of the wealth to China.

The Ghanaian government estimates that it lost about $2.3 billion to illegal mining activities in 2016.

Critics say the environmental and social impacts of galamsey are evident. Ghana’s efforts to combat climate change are severely undermined by the rapid loss of vegetation cover. In 2018, Ghana lost 60 percent of its primary forest cover, the highest percentage in the world, due to illegal mining, which contributes to deforestation and land degradation.

Communities affected by galamsey also face grave risks if the land is not reclaimed after mining. The illegal miners do not follow any environmental or safety standards. There have been cases of local residents and schoolchildren falling into unguarded mine pits and dying.

Observers say the lure of gold has also disrupted the education system, as many students have dropped out of school to join the galamsey business, jeopardizing Ghana’s chances of achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals on education.

The Ghana National Association of Teachers has expressed alarm over the high rate of student absenteeism and called on the government to address the looming crisis.

“As partners in education delivery and shapers of the nation, we are extremely worried about the threat of galamsey on the lives of our children. That is why we have launched a campaign against illegal mining and every teacher must have the courage to speak against it,” said William Abaidoo, an official of the association, during an event in 2017.

Many girls have also dropped out of school, not to join the miners, but to work as prostitutes in the mining villages. This has led to a surge in teenage pregnancies, especially among young girls in mining communities.

According to the Ghana Health Service, more than half a million pregnancies among adolescent girls aged 15-19 years and over 13,000 pregnancies among young teenagers aged 10-14 years were recorded between 2016 and 2020.

The gold rush has also devastated the cocoa sector, which is a major source of income and employment for Ghana. The Ghana Cocoa Board has expressed concern over the destruction of cocoa farms by illegal miners, who use heavy equipment and chemicals to extract gold. The board said that more than 19,000 hectares of cocoa farms had been destroyed or affected by galamsey activities, jeopardizing a sector that contributes an estimated $2.5 billion in foreign exchange to Ghana annually, and which creates 800,000 jobs.

Illegal mining has also created a public health emergency, observers say, as water sources are polluted with mercury, cyanide and other toxic substances.

A 2020 Ghana Rapid Health Situation Assessment Report revealed a high prevalence of waterborne diseases such as typhoid and skin diseases in mining communities. In the Shama District, where galamsey is rampant, diarrheal cases increased from 5,000 to 10,000 in three years. There have also been reports of babies born with defects and deformities in the mining communities, attributed to the exposure to heavy metals.

The Conference of Major Superiors of Religious of Ghana said that the Jubilee Year 2025, with the theme “Pilgrims of Hope,” will be “a moment of restoration and reconciliation; of starting anew with God. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of the modern world, and to witness to the Gospel values of peace, justice, and solidarity.”

They added, “We are invited to be pilgrims, not tourists, in our journey of faith; to be bearers of hope, not despair, in the face of the difficulties and crises of our time. We are called to show God’s love and mercy, not just in words, but also in actions.”