Confessions of a Dangerous Mine

Illegal gold mining in Ghana shafts locals' health and the environment


| June 2003


At I Trust My Legs, an illegal mining camp along a gray stream in the West African nation of Ghana, trespassers have bored vertical shafts deep into the ground. On a recent morning, Maxwell Adzoka strapped a lamp to his head, pressed his bare back and shoeless feet against the slick clay walls of one of these shafts, and climbed down, his yellow bulb disappearing into the darkness. When he reemerged, he was bearing thick stones rippled with gold, enough to buy meat, palm wine, and clothes for his eight children. It was a lucky day for Adzoka, and not only because of his find: He could just as easily have died from a collapsed tunnel, mercury poisoning, or a rifle shot.

Across Africa, in countries with rich mineral reserves and barren economies, thousands of the unemployed dig for fortunes on land controlled by large mining companies. Operating illegally and unregulated, these miners use primitive extraction techniques not seen in the United States since the California gold rush a century ago. With dynamite, pickaxes, mercury, and the strength of their arms, they earn a living at great threat to their health and environment.