The Upper Guinean Forest Ecosystem stretches across six West African countries: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo. It’s a place of exceptional biodiversity, with thousands of plant and animal species, many of them endemic.
In Ghana, beneath the forest, lies an estimated 350 million tons of bauxite. Bauxite is used in the industrial production of aluminum. Three years ago, Ghana struck a controversial deal with China for an infrastructure loan, and Ghana will pay back the loan with the proceeds from its sale of bauxite. The threat this new mining push poses to the local ecosystem and communities dependent on the forest has only grown more severe.
Bauxite extraction is highly damaging to the environment, despite assurances to the contrary by the Ghanaian government. Reaching the metal requires strip-mining the topsoil, which in turn requires the removal of forest cover. Deforestation increased by 60 percent from 2017 to 2018 in preparation for Ghana’s first bauxite mine. Two regions in particular face severe threats: the Atewa, a mountainous portion of the forest and source of three rivers providing drinking water to 5 million people, and the Tano-Offin Forest Reserve, which covers an area of about 100,000 acres (41,000 hectares). Both are designated by Ghana as Globally Significant Biodiversity Areas, which should in theory limit commercial activity.
Ghana’s government has not been transparent about its intentions. Interviews by Foreign Policy of locals living in Tano-Offin revealed that residents were excluded from discussions about the area’s future, but were nonetheless warned that they may have to relocate. About 34 percent of Ghana’s workforce are in agriculture, and they have been struggling due to unusually high temperatures. Removing the canopy of the Upper Guinea Forest will only exacerbate this symptom of climate change, as the trees store and release water and regulate air temperature.
President Nana Akufo-Addo was elected in 2017 with the promise of creating a “Ghana Beyond Aid”. To a degree, he has been successful, effectively renegotiating an end to a four-year International Monetary Fund bailout. Yet the IMF and other Western observers worry that Ghana’s rapid development of its bauxite sector could create new debt risks as China underwrites the initial costs of construction.
The village of Awaso, in the Ashanti region, is the site of a bauxite mine operated by Chinese firm Bosai Minerals Group. Raw material is exported from Awaso directly to Bosai Minerals’ refinery in Chongqing, China.
Ghana’s debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to reach 63 percent, up from 59 percent in 2018. The US$2 billion loan between Ghana and China is part of a larger US$19 billion deal, which includes provisions for new vehicles for Ghana’s police service, a grant for instituting economic cooperation projects, and a US$36 million debt write-off. Aside from the potential for debt dependency, similar Chinese bauxite deals in neighboring countries like Guinea destroyed ancestral farmlands, damaged water sources, and coated homes and trees in toxic dust.
With elections coming up in November or December, it is unlikely that the Akufo-Addo administration will pull back on the bauxite deals any time soon. Regardless, locals of the affected regions intend to fight back. Leaders of Kyekyewere, the largest of about six farming communities in Tano-Offin, intend to push for a “social contract” to be agreed to by Ghana’s parliament. They intend to resist any attempts at development if the government body overseeing the project, Ghana Integrated Aluminium Development Corporation, refuses to listen to them. In January 2020, a coalition of local NGOs and individuals filed a notice of civil action against the Ghanaian government over its mining plans.