Opinions Fri, 2 Aug 2013

Ban mining in the whole of the Atewa range upland evergreen rainforest

By Kofi Thompson

When those running a loss-making state enterprise, such as the Volta Aluminium Company Limited (VALCO), ignore the environmental consequences of the corporate decisions they make, those who question their sense of judgement, for that reason, should not be accused of being unfair critics.

VALCO was conceived at a time when the importance of preserving the earth's biodiversity, and the benefits of the ecosystem services provided by forests, were not as well understood as they currently are.

If Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah had known what the world's scientific community now knows about global climate change, preserving biodiversity and the importance of forests, at the time the idea for VALCO was conceived, he would definitely have asked its promoters to look elsewhere, not to the Atewa Range, for bauxite supplies, in their long-term planning - and made sure that the Atewa Range upland evergreen rainforest, including the Atewa Forest Reserve, was preserved for the benefit of future generations of the Ghanaian people (and the rest of humankind).

President Nkrumah would have probably turned the Atewa Range into a national park, and promoted tourism there, to provide the area with a sustainable local economy - and ensured that all mining, logging and hunting was banned completely from the area.

It is an outrage that in 21st century Ghana, on their own, the unelected and over-paid management of a state-owned entity that is a financial basket-case, can take far-reaching decisions, which could cause irreparable harm to the natural environment - and negatively impact the quality of life of millions of Ghanaians for decades to come.

At a time when global climate change is negatively impacting our nation, the strange decision by the management of VALCO, to borrow money to build a coal-fired power plant dependent on imported coal from South Africa, is hard to fathom.

Are they not aware of the fact that no matter how advanced and sophisticated the filters deployed to remove pollutants from the smoke coming out of the chimneys of coal-fired power plants might be, by their very nature, such power plants will always be major polluters wherever in the world they are sited?

The question is: are VALCO's managers not aware of the harm that coal-fired power plants in newly industrialised nations such as China, are causing to the quality of air in cities like Beijing, one wonders?

If they insist on building their own power plant, why do VALCO's management not opt to use a relatively cleaner fuel, such as natural gas from Ghana's offshore oilfields, to power their proposed thermal power plant - instead of importing coal from South Africa for that purpose?

The truth of the matter, is that whatever VALCO manufactures in its Tema factory, price-wise, those products can never be competitive globally.

Products from ALCOA's aluminium plant in Iceland, for example, will always be cheaper than VALCO's products - because of the availability of cheap hydro-power for its Icelandic aluminium plant.

At a time of global climate change, those who want Ghana to have an integrated aluminium industry, for strategic reasons, ought to rather think in terms of an integrated sub-regional aluminium industry for West Africa.

In that business model, Guinea could partner Ghana, and supply bauxite for refining and smelting, by a VALCO that has its own gas-fired power plant.

Had current scientific knowledge about climate change been available to him in the 1960's, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah would never have countenanced the destruction of the Atewa Range upland evergreen rain forest, to mine its low-grade bauxite deposits.

That is why no one should use President Nkrumah's original vision of an integrated aluminium industry for Ghana, as an excuse to use as a cloak for the destruction of the Atewa Range upland evergreen rainforest, by mining bauxite in it.

Any Ghanaian who is sincere, farsighted and thinks deeply enough, cannot, but come to the conclusion that today, for basic survival and quality-of-life reasons, any plans for an integrated aluminium industry in Ghana, cannot possibly include bauxite mining (or mining of any sort for that matter) in the Atewa Range.

VALCO's management must be more environmentally and socially responsible in this instance.

At a time of global warming, destroying the source of the headwaters of three important river systems - the Densu, Birim and Ayensu - on which a large part of southern urban Ghana, including Accra, the national capital, depends for its drinking-water supply to mine bauxite, is untenable and unthinkable.

It is a crime against humanity, in an age of global climate change, to propose the destruction of one of only two upland evergreen rainforests in our nation, which has been designated a Globally Significant Biodiversity Area (GSBA), and is the source of the headwaters of three major river systems that supply water for domestic and industrial use, in scores of towns and cities across southern Ghana - just to mine deposits of low-grade bauxite, which will be exhausted in 50 years: and all for a mere US$17.5 billions over the period (the amount Ghana would apparently earn from mining the area's bauxite deposits itself - according to media reports attributed to VALCO's deputy CEO).

It is inconceivable that anyone concerned about the survival of future generations, would contemplate the destruction of an upland evergreen rainforest, designated a Globally Significant Biodiversity Area, which has evolved over millions of years, and could be the basis of a thriving and sustainable eco-tourism industry, and the source of both known and yet-to-be-discovered medicinal plants, yielding trillions of dollars in revenues till the very end of time.

At all costs, VALCO's management must be prevented from embarking on a course of action, which will end up condemning future generations of Ghanaians to eking out a miserable living in an apocalyptic landscape - akin to a hell-on-earth existence in a barren and moonscape-like natural environment - were the Atewa Range to be destroyed by bauxite mining.

For the sake of future generations, in addition to a complete ban on hunting and logging in the area, no mining of any sort must be allowed in the whole of the Atewa Range upland evergreen rainforest. A word to the wise...

Columnist: Kofi Thompson