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Ghana plans to mine Atewa Forest despite its ecological importance

The Atewa Forest in Ghana is considered by many to be a key biodiversity hotspot. Global Wildlife Conservation reports that the forest is habitat for at least 50 mammal species, 1,000 plant species and over 570 butterflies, representing 77% of Ghana’s total butterfly species. The organization also reports that the Atewa is home to the headwaters of 3 major rivers, supplying water to 5 million people in Ghana. 

The forest itself is dominated by a ridge covering 258 square kilometers of land, ranging from 230 to 845 meters above sea level in elevation. The gradient of elevation increases the biodiversity of the place by fostering different habitats at different elevations and supporting a rare upland ecosystem.    

GhanaWeb reports that earlier this month, groups of civil organizations and other citizens engaged in peaceful protests in Accra, the capital of Ghana. The demonstrations were to protest the government’s plan to mine bauxite inside Atewa Forest. Signs protesters carried had slogans like, “Water Pollution Will Cost Ghana More” and “Save Water, Secure the Future”. The bauxite mine plan includes investment money from the Chinese government, which protesters are planning to also petition if need be. 

Atewa was made a designated forest reserve in 1926 but through a convoluted series of designations, protection has been increased but not yet reached the level of National Park activists are calling for. In 1994, Atewa became a ‘Special Biological Protection Area’, in 1995, a ‘Hill Sanctuary’. In 1999, Atewa was declared one of Ghana’s 30 Globally Significant Biodiversity Areas and it’s also been recognized as an important bird area. 

Despite these designations, Atewa is still plagued with unmanaged logging and hunting, small scale gold mining and the haunting threat of large scale mining development.            

In a recent press release, Global Wildlife Conservation reported on developments that suggest the government of Ghana is preparing to allow bauxite mining within the Atewa forest despite outcry from environmentalists and concerned local citizens. Trees are already being cleared to create mining roads into the forest. President Nana Akufo-Addo for his part claims that new technology involved in the planned bauxite mine will not harm the environment. Business Insider reports that skeptical environmentalists have asked him to prove that claim, so far he has yet to persuade skeptics. 

A Rocha Ghana is leading the fight to protect the Atewa forest with a tagline unusual for an environmental group, “Caring for God’s Creation”. The organization has released a special report on the biodiversity of Atewa, which also includes a history and geography of the region.

Atewa forest is part of the Upper Guinea forest ecoregion, an area of humid west African forests high in endemic species. The USGS reports that due to habitat loss, the Upper Guinea eco-region contains all of west Africa’s lowland forests. Originally the Upper Guinea eco-region consisted of 680,000 square kilometers.

By 1920, there was only 216,000 square kilometers of dense healthy forest left in the ecoregion. By 1975, 84% of the original forest was destroyed. In recent years, destruction of the Upper Guinea eco-region forests has significantly slowed but it hasn’t stopped. Within a unique eco-region, Atewa itself is special, being one of only two upland evergreen forests in Ghana.

During a 2006 survey by Conservation International, 8 new species of katydid were found. Katydids are ubiquitous in the tropics, similar to grasshoppers or crickets but with incredibly long antennae and sometimes adapted to look like a leaf. 6 species of non-human primates were found, 10 large mammals of conservation concern, 314 species of plant. This is just a sample of the rich biodiversity of Atewa as part of a larger eco-region and on a larger scale the world. Atewa is home to 20% of Ghana’s threatened species. 

The beauty of the Atewa Forest has gained famous supporters in Ghana as well. In 2017, musicians famous in Ghana releases the song ‘Atewa ‘till Eternity” in response to a visit to the forest. The work was promoted by Green Beat Performers, a collaboration between musicians and conservationists. The project also received collaboration from IUCN and of course, A Rocha. IUCN reports that even the process of creating the music video in Atewa helped garner support to conserve the special forest. 

Unfortunately, the mining interests have strong influence in Ghana as well.

West Africa supplies approximately 11.5% of all the world’s bauxite, according to a 2019 Research and Markets report. 30% of profits from bauxite mining in nearby Guinea is collected by the government for distribution among the people, according to Mining in Africa. Africa as a continent is set to expand its bauxite operations as well with a new aluminum manufacturing plant in South Africa with the capacity to manufacture 1.2 billion drink cans open in 2016. Often these developments are pointed to as signs of positive progress in Africa, a continent plagued with general widespread poverty. 

In a report from 2007, International Rivers questions whether bauxite mining and the aluminum produced from it is really helping much of Africa. Aluminum is the world’s second most used metal and the industry is made of very powerful companies. Often bauxite mining and aluminum production often gain great support from governments in Africa (and elsewhere) because of their political clout and perceived economic benefits. This support comes at a cost of large amounts of resources. Aluminum production uses more electricity than any other industry and is often the largest user of electricity in a country. That is a stark contrast to everyday Africans in 2007, when less than one out of every four residents of sub-Saharan Africa had access to electricity. 

Between 1961 and 1965, the president of Ghana supported construction of a hydroelectric dam to support industry including aluminum production. In 2007, the dam supplied two-thirds of the electric power in Ghana, despite the fact that less than half of the population had access to electricity. The difference between industry and the quality of life for the average person can be quite striking in many parts of Africa. One thing is certain, when forests like Atewa are pillaged, the spoils only go to the rich while the poor suffer from the pollution.                    

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer

Image Credit: Jeremy Lindsell/Global Wildlife Conservation                     

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