Cowan Fellows Survey Human Rights Concerns in Ghana; Exposure of Small-Scale Miners to Mercury Among Problems

Ghana miners

Illegal small-scale mining is an industry that may be affecting the health of hundreds of thousands of people in Ghana. The use of mercury to separate gold from the dirt is one of the major concerns.

March 31, 2014

A group of six University of Virginia School of Law students recently traveled to the Republic of Ghana to do field research on the status of some of the West African country's ongoing human rights issues.

The students, who are Cowan Fellows in the student-run Human Rights Study Project, will present their findings today at noon in Caplin Pavilion. Each year, the project examines laws affecting the protection of basic rights in foreign countries. This year's research was conducted in or near Accra, the capital of Ghana and its largest city, from Jan. 2-17.

Third-year student Scott Phillips did research on the government's response to illegal small-scale mining, an industry that may be affecting the health of hundreds of thousands of the country's poorer residents who work in the mines, including children and pregnant women. The use of mercury to separate gold from the dirt is one of the major concerns, he said.

"Because mercury affects the health of these people and the environments in which these people live, I saw the connection to human rights," Phillips said. "The mercury gets into food supplies and poisons the miners while they're working. And that's incredibly damaging because mercury will go right to your system and stay there for a very long time."

Phillips said he entered and photographed an illegal mining operation in the eastern region without anyone stopping him.

"People were completely comfortable having me around," Phillips said. "They had no problem with me taking pictures of them actually doing the illegal activity. In fact, some of them even posed for pictures. It showed basically how unconcerned they are about the government's response to small-scale mining."

Ghana gold
A piece of gold from an illegal mining operation.

But Phillips said the government is taking steps to respond to the unregulated activity, which can also result in mine collapses and harmful erosion. Small-scale mining started booming around 2005, he said, but foreign owners have been mostly pushed out of the country since then and a task force has been created to address local corruption and other factors that keep the mines active. Phillips said government officials and representatives of NGOs estimated that anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 Ghanaians  — possibly more  — could be engaged in small-scale mining.

"The government doesn't have good numbers because it's an illegal activity," Phillips said.

Second-year law student Juliet Hatchett's research also focused on a health aspect of human rights: the effectiveness of Ghana's current and proposed methods of fighting HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination. She said that while all interviewees were concerned with stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV in Ghana, perceptions about the problem were different depending on with whom she spoke.

"The people living with HIV were certainly quicker to say that there's a problem with stigma and discrimination in Ghana," Hatchett said. "I found that NGOs and government organizations tended to give more of a positive response to the situation, which isn't surprising because they've made a lot of progress and HIV/AIDS prevalence has dropped to an all-time low."

She said the government is focused on reversing the spread of HIV in homosexual and sex-worker populations, the populations in which Hatchett said HIV is proportionally most prevalent.

But she said cultural attitudes about persons living with HIV may be harder to turn than statistics.

"One interviewee told me about having to leave the town where he was a minister because he was outed [as having HIV] to his church by one of his co-workers," Hatchett said.

Juliet Hatchett and child in Ghana
Law student Juliet Hatchett makes a new friend in Ghana.

Amy Herrera, a second-year law student, said a significant number of women in Ghana also suffer from discrimination, as well as abuse. She studied the effects of domestic violence on the education of children with a focus on economic violence. As part of her research, she traveled to the Tamale Metropolitan District, in the northern region, where a chief allowed her to interview local women with the help of a translator.

"The most shocking thing was hearing women say they didn't feel that they were equal to men," Herrera said.

Third-year law student Melissa Reilly-Diakun explored the benefits of microfinance in Ghana and its ability to be used as a tool to fulfill the constitutional and human rights of its citizens. She visited communities in Tema, located on the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic coast of the country, just east of Accra, where she studied how farmers and traders apply their NGO-provided small loans.

"The recipients of the loans are really close to the capital city, but they are still rural and don't have access to any other credit," Reilly-Diakun said.

She said the loans have created greater empowerment, but farmers recently have been in danger of defaulting on their loans because of bad weather.

"This past year the growing season for Ghana was terrible, because during the main rainy season the rains didn't come at all like they were supposed to, and during the secondary season too much rain fell," she said.

But Reilly-Diakun said some farmers are beginning to hedge their ability to re-pay in full by purchasing livestock to supplement their crop supplies, and crop insurance is becoming a legally possible, if not widely available, option in some areas.

Second-year law student Ben Seel and third-year law student Brian Kennedy both did research that involved governance and opportunities for greater democratization in Ghana — Seel in the area of elections, and Kennedy in the use of technology.

Seel's research focused on using international norms and non-binding measures to increase transparency and accountability in political finance.

In Ghana, he said, enforcement issues and loopholes in the regulatory framework have created a problematic lack of transparency with respect to the funds that candidates receive. But he said attempts at publicly funded elections have been resisted by incumbents, regardless of party, in the constitutional democracy.

"How you move the needle to get to a solution is not really that clear," Seel said.

Kennedy researched how mobile technology can be used as an empowerment tool for improving governance.

"The government has opened up a number of initiatives to citizen participation," Kennedy said. "Some people are going to programming schools and some are teaching themselves, but there's a whole range of different problems people are trying to use cell phones to tackle."

One problem, Kennedy said, is a lack of access to health clinics for many among the population who need them. So one organization developed a tool that allows the government to send text messages containing basic guidelines for care and other important health information.

"The government gave expectant mothers information about what they should be doing while they are pregnant, and in three months, they had reduced maternal mortality in the test regions by 5 percent," Kennedy said.

2013-14 HRSP team
This 2013-14 members of the Human Rights Study Project are, from left, Juliet Hatchett, Scott Phillips, Ben Seel, Brian Kennedy, Melissa Reilly-Diakun and Amy Herrera.

This year marks the 12th consecutive time Cowan Fellows have used their winter break to further human rights research. Other recent destinations have included Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Malawi.

For Kennedy, the visit to Ghana was his fourth. He has a family friend who lives there, he said, which helped the group, because their choice of country turned out to be a last-minute decision. The group had originally planned to go to Kenya. Then, in late September, gunmen attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Narobi.

"We were all geared up to go, but we reassessed after that," Seel said.

For more about the trip to Ghana, read Brian Kennedy's travelogue of the experience.

To learn more about this year's Cowan Fellows, visit the Human Rights Study Project members page.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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