BAWDIE, Ghana – A few years after Yaw Ngoha had come to this Ghanaian town as a teenager to look for gold, he had earned enough money to marry his sweetheart and build a house with a porch to which he would later add an apartment television and satellite dish.
When a city elder invited a doctor to talk to miners about the dangers of killing wildcats, "no-one stopped," said the 36-year-old sitting on a wooden bench on his lanai in a lush banana grove.  "We Needed Money."
Since Ngoha began mining in the early 2000s, more and more people like him have helped Ghana become the largest gold producer in Africa. All over the continent and beyond, millions have turned to the trade. Few are deterred by the risks.
Ngoha's friends and family members got sick and died, but he told himself that this had nothing to do with the amount of dust they inhaled, or with the toxins ̵
One morning in 2016, Ngoha began coughing up blood. It felt like his respiratory tract was collapsing. His doctor treated him for tuberculosis.
The medication did not help, but he kept working.
"I said the symptoms were the result of a certain misconduct," he told a reporter during a visit in April. "Maybe someone went to a medicine man, or someone went to steal from someone, and we've all been cursed."
Ngoha lived in the city of Bawdie (pronounced Bor-dee-ay) in the western region of Ghana. The area is a major producer of cocoa, rubber and palm oil grown by small farmers. Ghanaian cocoa is used by chocolate manufacturers worldwide.
And the rocks here are littered with so much gold that they glitter.
Early colonists called this region the Gold Coast. The Ashanti in southern Ghana have long made a fortune in mining, which the Ghanaians refer to as "Galamsay" (collect and sell). Since 2008, gold prices have risen, equipment from China is cheap and easy to procure, and informal mining has skyrocketed.
A report by researchers from the International Institute for Environment and Development in 2016 estimates that one million people in Ghana are making a profit Living in what some call craft-based mining and another 4.5 million depend on it , According to World Bank estimates, nearly 10 million such miners live in sub-Saharan Africa: at least 60 million more depend on the sector.
While miners strive for gold, they poison rivers, farmland – and themselves.
Miners inhale fumes from explosives used to dissolve stones and dust from crushers containing heavy metals like lead , This weakens the lungs.
They use mercury and nitric acid, which also cause respiratory problems to extract precious ore from sediments.
Then they throw the chemicals into the ground or into rivers.
Mercury is a particularly dangerous poison.
After prolonged exposure to steam, cases of pulmonary fibrosis, restrictive lung disease, and chronic respiratory failure have been reported in the United States. Researchers in Ghana have also published dozens of papers documenting the mercury-related toxicity of the inhabitants' blood and urine, as well as mercury contamination of soil, food, water and fish. In 2016, Ghanaian researchers, in a study funded by the University of Michigan, found that the average mercury content in water was at least 10 times higher than in international safety or in a range up to 86 times higher.
Large multinational mining companies also cause pollution, but informal mines can be worse. A United Nations report released this year states that artisanal and small-scale gold mining accounts for up to 80% of mercury emissions in sub-Saharan Africa.
It's hard to measure what kind of damage it will cause. A study published by the Lancet in 2018 estimates that more than 10 million people in Africa are exposed to mercury through artisanal mining, which shortens their healthy life expectancy by nearly two years. Environmentalists stopping or cleaning up informal mining Almost always have the same drawback: For people with few other options, it is too much money to earn gold.
Lots of gold from the informal mines of Africa go to the United Arab Emirates, much of it is smuggled. Since 2003, the UAE has reported that they have imported approximately $ 10.6 billion in Ghanaian gold. No industrial miners send gold to the UAE, Reuters told (see related story).
Yaw Ngoha was 19 years old and had a undergraduate diploma when he followed his older brother Peter from Ghana to the poorest regions after Bawdie. He arrived in 2002, moved into Peter's cabin with a few other men, and soon worked machines to crush ore into powder that was ready to be panned.
"The machines produced so much dust," he said. "I was covered in dust all day, breathing in dust clouds."
The miners run water through the powder to separate heavier metals for collection, and then mix in mercury, which combines with the gold to form an alloy. Use tweezers to remove small balls of aluminum foil and place them in a fire.
The fire burns the mercury and sends its vapor into the air.
Mercury poisoned any tissue that touched it.
In addition to lung damage, there may be memory loss, irritability or depression, kidney failure, tremor or numbness, as well as discolored, dandruff or scaly skin. Extreme mercury poisoning can lead to paralysis, coma or madness.
Even people who are not exposed to direct exposure take them up over the water or for seafood from the coast. In a developing fetus, mobility and learning difficulties can occur. In the 1950s, thousands of people in the Japanese city of Minamata were victims of mercury in the wastewater of a chemical plant.
However, the poison is slow and therefore difficult to diagnose. And informal miners rarely take precautions. In Ghana, Ngoha and other miners said they would rip open mercury bags with their teeth, sometimes suck them out and spit in bowls. They had it in hand and did not wash before eating. They inhaled the fumes.
In a good week Ngoha could earn up to $ 300. A less productive week could bring $ 60. Rarely, if a mine did not give in, he could not take anything home. But mining exceeded the five dollars he could expect per week from a cocoa or rubber plantation.
A few days after Ngoha's arrival at Bawdie, he met Mary, a trader who sold refreshments, snacks, and other goods to the miners. They got married the following year. He had no problem paying the $ 800 bride price demanded by her father's clan or feeding the guests at their lavish wedding.
He bought land and built a two-room house with kitchen and separate living space – rare in this part of Ghana. His gold money paid for a used Toyota Corolla and school fees for all four of her children.
Galamsay permeates all walks of life. Bawdie's city chief, Nana Kwaw Fobri II, rents in the mining industry. He declined to comment.
However, the effects of trade have long been a problem: at the end of 2005, another city council chief, also a gold trader, called about 120 people to a meeting. One surgeon, who he knew led a clinic in Bawdie, was alarmed by the mercury used by the miners. The boss, Nana Boateng, wanted miners like Ngoha to know about it.
At the meeting, Dr. Frederick Sarpong, a tall, bald-headed man with deep eyes, explains how mining dust and mercury vapor make people more susceptible to lung disease, including TB. Half of the adult population of rural Ghana has the TB bacteria in their throat, although most are resistant.
As the miners listened, Sarpong noticed that they were falling silent: "If a doctor speaks, even if they have reservations, they will not come out and say so."
Miners became ill, often with symptoms that were similar , Broad-shouldered men, whose muscles were laced by digging and hauling stones, withered into bony, hollow-walled famines.
Next came a chopping cough that produced puddles of red slime. They became weak; many could not continue their work. He diagnosed some with TB.
Around 2008, miners began to die. In a single month, Sarpong had 30 deaths near Bawdie, all with the same symptoms. Bawdie's population is 5,000.
A government study from 2013 estimated the nationwide tuberculosis mortality rate at 7.5 per 1,000 cases. The numbers in Bawdie, which did not respond to the treatment, meant that there had to be more than TB, Sarpong concluded.
"You might think it's tuberculosis, but that's mercury poisoning."
"You're going to the hospital … coughing up blood," he said. "You'd think it's tuberculosis, but it's actually mercury poisoning."
One night in 2009, Ngoha's then 40-year-old brother began to cough uncontrollably. Blood spurted from his nose. The family took him to the hospital. Hours later Ngoha received a call. Peter had died.
In the following years, eight of his closest friends died similar deaths, he said. Boateng, the chief who convened the meeting with the surgeon, said he saw the same story with at least 50 miners.
Although the doctors had warned that their mining practices endangered them only for this type of health problem, the miners did not blame their trade. "We thought we committed a sin against the gods," Boateng said.
He and half a dozen other miners visited the sacred oracles in the shrines of the Ashanti deities. In each case, he said, the fetish priest "could not find anything we did wrong."
His own brother, 30-year-old Kwaku, died in a mine further north. Kwaku choked on his own blood.
Sometimes death came faster. Boateng remembered a man who had made so much money at an explosion site that people called him "Mr. Big stuff. "One day, friends said, Mr. Big Stuff tipped over after inhaling a cloud of smoke.
For years, Ghana's government did little to stem the illegal mining industry, but as concerns grew, President Nana Akufo-Addo was trying to crack down on informal mining and ban him between January 2017 and the end of 2018. also by miners with license.
"Illegal mining has a devastating impact on our environment," said Environment Minister Kwabena Frimpong. Boateng told Reuters in the city of Accra:
He said 80% of the waterways in Ghana had been polluted by miners who were raising sediments and dumping waste. The World Bank gives a similar number. It is said that many of the waterways in Ghana were effectively blocked, leading to floods upstream, destroying farmland or cocoa fields. Last year, the state-owned Ghana Water Company temporarily shut down four wastewater treatment plants, citing mining pollution.
Dr. Sarpong went for a walk near Bawdie and stopped at a river that had become sand-colored by people who disposed of the waste and moved up moving river sediment to collect gold.
"This is water that people drink," he said.
The temporary ban on mining should give the government time to register all miners and improve regulation. Until it was lifted, however, fewer than 1,500 of Ghana's around one million miners had been checked. The government refused to comment on the reason.
A short drive south of Bawdie, a town surrounded by illegal mines called Nsuaem-Top, shows how difficult it is to enforce the rules. Even when the mining ban came into force last year, the place was full of illegal activities.
Stephen Ble owns a bar and restaurant where reggae music is pumped and hungry miners are fed. He said that in just over a decade, he had gone from an impoverished dropout to a gold trader – sometimes 50 grams each – and an investor in mines. He owns a Kia sedan car, a gold watch and a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.
"Look," he said, thrusting a sparkling mercury puddle into his palm. "None of us was ever hurt by the use of mercury.
He threw it to the ground, a few feet away from where his wife was cooking and playing her toddler.
In 2010, Boateng, Sarpong treated him for TB, until then they had both seen dozens of dying.
"There came a point where people died that did not even mine," Boateng said. who worked in the area where the mercury is being dumped. "
Boateng was fortunate, recovering, abandoning mining and working on cocoa and gum, but now trying to warn young men about mining he says they laugh at him, some threaten him.
In 2011, Boateng took on a job as head of the Sarpong morgue, and now he records every body that comes in.
"The miners saw real money "He said," You will not stop whatever you have They did not care. They had a saying: & # 39; With every job comes death. & # 39; "
Late last year, Samuel Essien-Baidoo, a researcher at the University of Ghana on the Cape Coast, examined the effects of mercury on miners in the west region. "Your kidneys were sometimes badly damaged," he said. One row had rashes and most suffered from itchy eyes, hair loss and persistent headaches. Mercury is a problem, he concluded: Two-thirds of the dialysis patients at the Cape Coast Teaching Hospital came from the gold mining region.
Ghana's total health budget for the next three years is $ 850 million, so hospitals can not offer anything Free dialysis. Those who can not pay, "just die," said Essien-Baidoo. Heavy metal removal treatments are unattainable for Ghanaian wildcat miners.
Quite officially, mercury in Ghana, as in many other countries, is a controlled substance. Ghana's 1989 Mercury Act allows miners to keep "reasonable amounts" for mining, but they can only buy it from licensed dealers. Ghana has also pledged to join a global pact named after the Minamata disaster to halt the use of mercury in mining. Safer mining methods It has been proposed to burn off the mercury under glass to trap the vapors and convert them back to liquid. However, the glass is fragile and difficult to handle. Another method requires a furnace and an energy source, which was not the case.
In Ghana, as elsewhere, mercury is smuggled in.
The sale of unlicensed mercury in Ghana is a criminal offense that officially culminates a prison sentence of up to two years 50 Cedis (US $ 10) for a thumb-sized ball and sold nitric acid in 35-kg containers. 36-year-old owner George Ansa said he did not own a license. He had received the mercury from traders in Ghana's ports and smuggled it inland with old Fanta bottles.
In a 2018 assessment, the government of Ghana said official imports averaged just 11 tons a year. At the same time, it was estimated that at least 45 tons of mercury were used in Galamsay annually.
Some studies have shown that much of the mercury used by miners like Ngoha comes from China, but it could come from many places. A former mercantile trader in Africa told Reuters he had imported it from Slovenia.
A Ghana Minerals Commission spokesman refused to comment on the enforcement of mercury controls. Environment Minister Frimpong-Boateng told Reuters in 2018 that Ghana had trained around 4,000 miners to increase mine safety, and intends to use drones to monitor mining. In Africa, there are a number of initiatives aimed at attracting ethical and environmentally friendly gold, but these are currently unsustainable and low-performing.
Solomon Kusi Ampofo, a natural resource expert who led Ghana's National Mercury Survey, said most miners would continue to use mercury until other practical methods become available.
According to United Nations estimates, informal miners spilled about 1,220 tonnes of mercury into soil and water in 2015 – 252 tonnes in Africa and more in South America.
The winners take nothing away.
Back in Bawdie In April, 16 months had not cured TB drugs Ngoha.
He stopped mining. Mary struggled to feed the family and take care of him. On his Corolla parked in front of the house stood a "For Sale" sign.
His cough cleared his throat, his thighs were as thin as his calves, and his thumb and forefinger could practically enclose his ankles.
Sitting with When he arrived at the house, Boateng took a picture of a recent arrival at the morgue. The body lay on the ground, blood crusting on the man's shirt, nose, and surrounding earth. A miner.
Ngoha pulled out an old photo. In it, he and Peter sat next to a rock-breaking machine in a gold-working hut, and three friends stood around. They all looked young and strong and healthy.
"They're all dead now," Ngoha said. "Everybody except me."
In early May, Bawdie buried another miner whose lungs had died down.
His name was Yaw Ngoha.
Additional coverage by Ryan McNeill in London, Francis Kokoroko in Bawdie and Christian Akorlie in Accra
New Gold Rush
By Tim Cocks and David Lewis
Data: Ryan McNeill
Graphics: Aditi Bhandari
19659095] Photo Editing: Simon Newman
Video: Tim Cocks, Matt Larotonda, Kojo Daniels, Francis Kokoroko
Design: Pete Hausler
Edited by Alexandra Zavis and Sara Ledwith