Ghana’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ – how about a self-regulatory approach to artisanal mining?

February 6, 2018
Artisanal mining, popularly known as ‘galamsey’ in Ghanaian parlance, is one of the most complex economic sectors in Ghana. It is largely informal and unstructured, and the practice dates back centuries. The method of mining has remained rudimentary with minimal or no level of mechanization, at least until the recent foreign infiltration in the sector. Artisanal mining has been considered a poverty-driven activity, and is generally practiced in the poorest and remote rural areas of the country. After smallholder agriculture, artisanal mining is the second highest employer in resource-rich rural communities. In many cases, proceeds from artisanal mining activities supplement agricultural income and other micro, small and medium size businesses. It is estimated that over one million Ghanaians are engaged in artisanal mining activities, with the sector contributing nearly a third of Ghana’s national gold output.

Despite the potential of artisanal mining in improving rural livelihoods, a question surrounds the extent to which it has affected livelihoods and the resultant externalities. A recent study by the African Center for Economic Transformation indicates that artisanal mining activities have destroyed farmlands and that this has extensively affected food security in and around mining communities, due to low yields and conversion of farmlands into mine sites. Artisanal mining activities have also contributed significantly to the contamination of soil and water bodies through the release of mercury and other heavy metals, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, deforestation and diverted waterways. These have several implications for the ecosystem as well as the environment on which humans, plants and animals living in and around mining towns depend. Currently, artisanal mining activities have been identified as the major source of water pollution in mining communities, with areas like Ghana’s Western Region experiencing acute water shortages as a result.

Such externalities – the consequences of an economic activity experienced by unrelated third parties – seem a classic case of what Garrett Hardin (1968) termed the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Hardin depicted a group of herdsmen who inevitably destroy a common shared resource due to each herdsman’s self-interest in maximizing his gains, while the cost is shared by society. Thus in the artisanal mining sector, the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is observed when artisanal miners make individual extraction decisions without considering the impact and long-term costs of those extraction decisions to themselves and others. Artisanal miners are perceived as selfish, norm-free and intent on maximizing their short-run benefits while imperiling the public good. The cost of artisanal mining activities, seen in terms of its negative impacts, are shared by all – communities and the nation alike. In addition, such tragedies are more likely to occur if the resource can be overused and accessed unrestrainedly, as is the case in Ghana.

Is the tragedy inevitable?

Tragedies of the commons are real, but not inevitable. In Hardin’s example, he proposed government intervention or privatization to avert the ‘tragedy’ but failed to recognize the potential for resource users to design and implement their own rules. Researchers like Elinor Ostrom have indicated that both government ownership and privatization of common resources are themselves subject to failure, with the latter associated with more degradation and inefficiency. Sole government regulation without involving resource users may also be subject to failure, especially in the area of artisanal mining, because government officials themselves may have vested interests in the resource and will continue exploitation, thus encouraging others in the act. Ghana has proposed reclassifying its small-scale mining activities into artisanal, small-scale, and medium scale mining as a means of formalizing these activities, and recently resorted to banning artisanal mining activities for some time to curb the irregularities in the sector. This has however proved ineffective.

Research in self-organization or self-regulation of communities of common resource users in solving the problem of the commons is emergent and deserves some attention in Ghana’s artisanal mining sector. Empirical findings from several countries such as Kyrgyzstan, South Africa, Switzerland, Japan, California, Spain, Canada, Turkey, the Philippine Islands and Nepal indicate that resource users have successfully cooperated and managed common pool resources through local self-governance arrangements without government intervention.

Local self-governance/self-organization begins by facilitating meetings at the local level with resource users and local government and providing information and solutions that bring about consensus on how to tackle the problem of the commons. Consulting and involving artisanal miners in this way discounts the notion that central governments must address all decisions. This affords local communities and resource users the ability to access detailed information about the state of the resources, and therefore responds and adjusts more quickly to situations.

In many cases, the tragedy of the commons persists because it is too costly to place boundaries around the resource, and also too costly to secure agreements to limit individual actions and protect the resource. Where information is clear about these high transaction costs, then enforced community rules created by artisanal miners themselves can reduce the problem. Specifically, overexploitation in Ghana’s artisanal mining sector can be effectively reduced through properly enforced informal rules and norms that constrain individual actions and behaviors with effective sanctions imposed on nonconformists. Groups of individuals and miners in communities and districts with a long history of interaction can accept and distribute the costs and benefits of their actions, mobilize each other to understand the impact of their activities on mineral resources, the environment and on general livelihoods, and agree on how to conserve the resource. Additionally, rules and norms should be adaptable and tailored to local circumstances and conditions. Over time, when every resource user in the community complies and obeys, compliance and conformity become acceptable norms as individuals acclimatize their actions to the behavior of the community.

Ghana needs to learn from successful efforts in tackling the tragedy of the commons especially in artisanal mining. Creating an environment that supports local participation in planning, implementation and strengthening self-organizing capabilities of artisanal miners in the system will ensure responsible exploitation of Ghana’s mineral resources.

Maame Esi Eshun is a Research Analyst at ACET. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACET. 

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