Faces of a global struggle for resources

Ons teamlid Vincent Oberdorf is op het moment in Ghana om onderzoek te doen voor zijn Master International Development Studies aan Universiteit Utrecht. Voor ons schreef hij een blog over verschillende kanten van de wereldwijde strijd om grondstoffen in Ghana. 

In Ghana, the rising international pressure on commodities, natural resources and the means to acquire these, is visible in multiple ways. Researching new, digital platforms for land property administration and land development, I faced some of the phases of the global struggle for resources here in Ghana.

As the ultimate basis of almost all resources, land is under increasing pressure in Ghana. In some parts of the capital Accra land prices are higher than in Manhattan, and an estimated 60-80% of all cases in Ghana’s courts are some form of land disputes. Meanwhile, some of Ghana’s commodities and natural resources are in high demand internationally. At the same time, land documentation and administration systems are poorly developed, which makes indigenous landowners vulnerable. Multiple Ghanaian and foreign enterprises are now developing and providing property documentation and management services to landowners. For my research, Dutch start-up Landmapp let me join them for a week, to have a look into the work they do and to analyze the impact they have on the lives of their users.

As Ghana is the second largest cocoa producer in the world, cocoa farmers have an important interest in these land property documentation services. Especially the country’s Western region is known for its cocoa production. When entering Wasa Akropong, one of the regional centers for this industry, we are immediately confronted with the reality of disputed land. As if taken a wrong turn, all off a sudden we are surrounded by Chinese signs, restaurants, stores, casino’s even. That besides London and Rotterdam, Wasa Akropong’s inhabits a real Chinatown, is the result of its other rich natural endowment: gold. The endiginous inhabitants of the region have been involved in small scale gold mining, a practice called ‘galamsey’, for decades. However, for the last 15 years, foreign miners have tried to get involved in the mining business, of which the great majority is Chinese. With the cooperation of all levels of government, Chinese miners have been buying themselves a way into Ghana to set up illegal, small scale mining within Western region. Entering Wasa Akropong, there is no way around the strong Chinese presence in the area.

The Chinese involvement is harmful for Ghana in multiple ways. To enter the country and the business, the Chinese engage in corruption with Ghanaian authorities on every level. Bringing in expensive, heavy equipment, the Chinese outcompete the traditional Ghanaian miners, which often lose their only source of income, or are forced to work under Chinese operations for questionable wages. Meanwhile, the intensive operations of the Chinese pollute the drinking water in the area, and disintegrate the landscape, burning down rainforest and cocoa farms to enable the mining. This way, ‘galamsey’ puts increasing pressure on cocoa farmers in the region, as mining operations dispute and claim the borders of their farms.

At the same time, the struggle in Ghana is a consequence of multiple international trends. The increasing global scarcity of natural resources combined with our incessant demand for cheap Chinese manufacturing, guides China to look for new natural resources pools. Moreover, although they have been falling over the last four years, gold prices tripled in the first decade of this century. Reason the more for China to get involved in reckless mining practices in one of the greatest gold reserves in the world. As with many other African countries, China has strong economic leverage in Ghana through the investment the Chinese have been doing in the Ghanaian economy. China already expressed its worries about bilateral ties to the Ghanaian government, as a reaction to a cartoon and the arrest and deportation of multiple Chinese miners last week.


Landmapp, a Dutch for-profit, provides land owners with mapping and documentation of their property, recognized by traditional and governmental institutions. Under the increasing pressure on their land, the documentation that Landmapp provides can bring great relief, enabling them to enforce their land rights. The farmers are even willing to pay up to half a month’s wage for the documentation, which is ought to be a government responsibility. If we visit the cocoa farm of Mr. Mensa and his family deep in the forest near Biokrom village, the rising pressure on land could not have been manifested more exemplary. Although English is not commonly spoken among the farmers in the region, suddenly a young man addresses me in perfect English. Its Mensah’s youngest son Isaac, who just graduated senior high school. This month he will complete his application to nursing school. While his oldest son will take over the farming business, Mr. Mensa and his wife finance the education of the other 4 children out of the profits of their farm. As I am speaking to Isaac about why he wants to become a nurse, the conversation is disturbed by a loud, industrial noise. If I ask what the noise is, Isaac shows me something unexpected. As we move through the dense forest just behind the family’s house, suddenly a gaping crater emerges, housing the biggest mining operation I have seen so far. The deforested plain of sand dunes and pools of dirty washing water and crawling CAT-diggers creates a depressing contrast with the vivid green forest surrounding it.  I look at Isaac. ‘Galamsey’, is the only word he wants to spend on the scene, nodding at the mining ground. Later that day, I ask Landmapp’s fieldmanager Richard about the plant. He tells me that the father has endured increasing pressure by the Chinese to sell part of his land, and that he already sold a quarter acre of exhausted land for 2000cedis (US$500) as a bargain, an amount that he could earn within a year if he would farm the land.


Every Ghanaian you encounter will confirm: Ghana is an incredibly rich country. The ways in which this wealth is explored, divided and protected, however, will decide the future of the country and the lives of future generations. Landmapp’s property documentation is a decent step in the right direction for cocoa farmers and, potentially, other property owners in Ghana that want to claim their rights. The effort has however to be sustained and supported by other developments in (inter)national public and private policy. The West has a responsibility and the ability to relief some of the pressure on resource depending countries like Ghana, by investing more in resource circularity and urban mining, while committing to a fair exchange of Africa’s resources. This will contribute to a sustainable future for Europe, Ghana and the next generations of the Mensa family.


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