Bloomberg Businessweek: The NASA Veteran Cracking Down on Illegal Gold Miners
Satellite-imaging software helps government officials identify unlicensed mining sites.
A small-scale mining operation in Kibi, Ghana.
PHOTOGRAPHER: RUTH MCDOWALL FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK
The illegal gold mine is hidden just past a thick grove of cocoa trees, a little ways off the two-lane road through Sagyimase, Ghana, a rural town a couple hours’ drive north of the West African nation’s capital, Accra. It sits on a torn-up patch of ground the size of a football field, where three dozen workers operate backhoes and a tangle of generators, pumps, and hoses, washing peanut-size nuggets of gold out of the red earth. Gold was Ghana’s biggest export last year, and mines like this are common throughout the country, often a more lucrative alternative to cocoa farming. But this mine—like too many others, government officials say—is operating without a valid permit, without oversight of its severe environmental impact, and without paying taxes meant to underwrite the land’s eventual restoration.
In Ghana’s vast agricultural hinterland, such mines often operate with little fear of regulators. Felix Addo-Okyireh, an official with Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency who oversees the small-scale mining industry in Sagyimase and the rest of the country’s Eastern Region, has two enforcement officers patrolling an area slightly smaller than New Jersey. “It’s difficult to identify the illegal mines unless we happen to bump into them,” he says. Mining is a big reason why Ghana has the world’s fastest-growing rate of deforestation, according to the World Resources Institute, and often leads to the contamination of farmland and water sources with toxic chemicals including mercury and cyanide. So Addo-Okyireh and his colleagues have turned to NASA for help.