File photo: The joint task force (JTF) overseeing the nationwide ban on small scale and illegal mining in Ghana, Operation Vanguard

More than 4,300 hectares of cocoa farms in the Nkawie Cocoa District of the Ashanti Region are at risk of destruction through illegal gold mining activities.

Ebenezer Agyen, the Ashanti Regional Manager of Ghana Cocoa Board’s extension division, has identified the farms under threat to consist of productive and newly rehabilitated cocoa plantations across five communities namely, Apuoyem, Ouagadougou, Kontomire, Brosanko and Brahabebome.

The area currently produces an average of 9,500 metric tonnes of cocoa beans annually, valued at over GHS316 million at the prevailing farmgate price.

Following the outbreak of the Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Disease (CSSVD), the communities have been benefiting from the Government of Ghana’s $230 million AfDB-loan-funded cocoa rehabilitation programme aimed at revamping production at a time when global cocoa supply is nosediving.

The government’s cocoa rehabilitation investment has been paying millions of dollars in compensation, the cutting of diseased trees, the planting of cocoa and plantain seedlings, and labour fees for bimonthly farm weedings all over two years.

So far, Cocobod, through its service providers, has successfully rehabilitated some 190 cocoa farms covering an area of 170 hectares, with some nearing fruiting.

These new cocoa farms add up to a national total of 62,000 hectares of rehabilitated cocoa plantations that Cocobod is banking on to ease the persistent decline in national output in the coming seasons.

But apart from the rehabilitation farms, Cocobod continues to invest millions more yearly in farm productivity enhancement activities like fertiliser and agrochemical application, mass spraying, and pruning of productive cocoa farms across the country.

This massive investment in cocoa production is strategically planned as an assured stream of foreign exchange revenue into the Ghanaian economy over the 20-year lifespan of these cocoa farms.

However, it appears that unless something drastic happens, Cocobod’s expectations may just not materialise as the country is bound to lose billions of dollars in annual revenue.

This is because MIGOP Mining Limited, a foreign-owned company, has laid claim to a gold mining concession in the Nkawie area of the Atwima Nwabiagya South Municipality in the Ashanti Region, allegedly granted by the Minerals Commission.

According to Cocobod, the said concession covers its productive cocoa farms, as well as those that cost the government millions of dollars to rehabilitate recently in the communities of Apuoyem, Ouagadougou, Kontomire, Brosanko, and Brahabebome.

Following intelligence gathering and distress calls by cocoa farmers, the head of Cocobod’s Anti-Illegal Mining Unit, Prof. Michael Kwateng, has led a team of officials and security personnel to assess the situation firsthand.

Scores of cocoa farmers and residents clad in red bands led the Cocobod team to inspect some active illegal mining pits and also cocoa farms in which MIGOP Limited is developing for gold mining.

Prof. Michael Kwateng called the activities of the company illegal and presented dire consequences for the country’s cocoa sector.

“To them, they have been given license to do prospecting and they’ve destroyed a lot of our cocoa farms,” he said, adding, “Looking at what is happening, the evidence is there. They’ve destroyed some of the cocoa farms.”

Prof. Kwateng explained that neither the Minerals Commission nor the MIGOP engaged them before commencing mining activity in the cocoa farms.

He expressed his disappointment in the Minerals Commission for promoting the illegality and threatened to take legal action against both organisations.

“Meanwhile when you go to the Minerals Commission, the Mining Act 703, sections 18(1)(2), it tells you that mining companies are supposed to contact bodies that regulate these farms. So they are violating that aspect of their own law. So, mining companies are taking advantage of this and are destroying our farms everywhere,” he lamented.

The Community Relations Officer for MIGOP Mining Limited, Richard Gyasi, who led an armed team of security personnel to confront the Cocobod delegation, defended their activities.

“We are only doing exploration, so we are not destroying any crops. Even though at least one or two crops have been affected, we are using the government rate to pay them,” he said.

He maintained that the company acquired the rights to the concession from the Minerals Commission six years ago and retained the right to clear the land, upon compensation, to develop its mine.

“For now, we are in the exploration stage, we will now move to the development stage before we start the mining. So, we are not destroying crops as it has been portrayed,” Gyasi stated.

Meanwhile, cocoa farmers from the five affected cocoa communities say they live in constant fear as they face intimidation and harassment at the hands of MIGOP’s armed security.

“They have mounted barriers on the trails to our farms. They restrict us from accessing our farms. Some farmers suffered assault when they insisted on their right to movement,” narrated Yaw Broni, a cocoa farmer.

Akwasi Gyan, who is also a cocoa farmer, questioned the rationale behind one government agency (Cocobod) rehabilitating cocoa farms, while another (Minerals Commission) gave them out for destruction.

Ama Bio, a widowed cocoa farmer and mother of four, appealed for an urgent intervention by the high office of the President of Ghana and other stakeholders to safeguard their livelihoods.

“They are offering us GHS10,000 per acre for us to hand over our cocoa farms to them. When you decline, they threaten to forcibly take over our farms for mining,” Bio lamented.

The destruction of cocoa farms for sand-winning and illegal gold mining (galamsey) activities has been increasing in recent times across Ghana’s major cocoa-producing regions.

In 2022, Ghana Cocoa Board revealed for the first time that over 19,000 hectares of cocoa farms had been destroyed as a result of illegal gold mining activities.

Industry watchers fear that figure may have possibly doubled or tripled, judging by the uncontrolled onslaught launched by illegal gold miners on cocoa farms.

Ghana is projected to record its worst performance in cocoa production in the last 10 years, after missing its production target for three consecutive years.

From a record 1.047 million metric tonnes in the 2020/21 crop season, the world’s number two cocoa producer nation is struggling to achieve 500,000 MT for 2023/24.

The industry regulator, Cocobod, has also attributed the output decline to climate change, disease, and cross-border smuggling.