In Tuscany they call Prato “Little Wenzhou”, owing to the number of immigrants who have arrived from the city in Zhejiang province. As we pointed out in WiC79, sections of the local community feel overwhelmed by the influx of Wenzhounese.
In WiC170 we moved countries, mentioning how Madrid is now home to thousands of Chinese from the single county of Qingtian, again in Zhejiang.
But this week we switch continents, turning our attention to West Africa, where migrants from another Chinese county, this time from Shanglin in southern Guangxi, have become a dominant force in gold production.
Residents of Shanglin started arriving in Ghana’s goldfields eight years ago, says 21CN Business Herald, prompted by a story that a Shangliner had travelled there with Rmb5 million ($816,000) but returned three years later with twenty times as much.
Because many overstay on tourist visas, it’s difficult to know how many Shanglin natives are in Ghana. But media reports suggest that as many as 50,000 people could be living there, mostly in and around the cities of Kumasi, Obuasi and Dunkwa.
Shanglin has a tradition of sending its people to mine gold, although until recently few ventured outside China. But the influence of the ‘Shanglin Gang’ in Ghana today is remarkable, with rumours that they have invented a type of sand pump that can deliver much higher gold yields from alluvial exploration. And because they don’t want this technique known to others, the migrants are said to choose to work with others from Shanglin. “Those who come out usually then bring out relatives and friends,” a gold miner called Tan Xinhua told 21CN. Tan says that he has more than 30 relatives and friends living nearby.
Some of the other reasons for the spread of the Shanglin Gang sound less mysterious. The Chinese have been ready to target opportunities too small to interest the larger gold mining firms. But they have the financial resources to bring in equipment unavailable to small-scale Ghanaian prospectors. Additionally, the rewards for the migrants if they strike it lucky are much greater than anything they could hope for at home, hence the incentive to make the journey. And such is the Chinese work ethic that some of the locals have assumed that they have been sent to Ghana as convict labourers, chinadialogue.net, an environmental news website, reported this month. Despite a denial from Ghana’s Minister of Education on television, that view is still widespread.
But Shanglin’s contribution to the mining industry has its critics.
“The involvement of the Chinese has changed the dynamic of small-scale mining,” Toni Aubynn, head of the Ghana Chamber of Mines, told Bloomberg last year. “They use bulldozers, pay loaders and really heavy machinery. They have mechanised artisanal mining and as a result the level of environmental devastation is huge.”
In 2011, 30% of Ghana’s 3.6 million ounces of gold production came from small-scale mines, up from less than a quarter the year before, says Aubynn. With Shanglin’s involvement, the sector is expected to boost its contribution in the years ahead.
Officially, mining on small plots (below 25 acres) is restricted to Ghanaian nationals. But many Chinese explore for gold in conjunction with local landowners, paying a fee called a “slotting allowance”. Mostlandlords get a share of daily production or collect a monthly payment in cash, normally a flat rate of about 10,000 cedis (about $5,000).
“As long as we reach an agreement with the chiefs we can also operate small mines,” Tan told 21CN. “The land belongs to the chiefs and they also have the mineral certificates, so we can say that this is the chief’s mine and we are just helping him to exploit it.”
In fact, he’s mistaken. Earlier this month Ghana’s Minister for Lands and Natural Resources again insisted that small-scale mining is reserved for Ghanaians, warning that local operators who engage Chinese nationals will lose their licence.
Will this measure have teeth? Critics say that the authorities have been prepared to turn a blind eye to foreign activity, in part because Accra wants to maintain good relations with Beijing. China is Ghana’s biggest trading partner and one of its leading creditors, thanks in large part to a $3 billion loan facility agreed with the China Development Bank two years ago.
Nonetheless, reports about the Shanglin folk are becoming more common in Ghana’s media, with articles depicting the environmental damage wrought by many of the mining projects but also more sympathetically the violence the migrants experience from bandits.
The spotlight on illegal immigration has also grown more intense since a 16 year-old Chinese boy was killed during a police crackdown last year, leading to protests from Chinese officials. More than 100 Chinese nationals were arrested during the operation and there have been several similar raids since.
The after-effects are making life more difficult for the folk from Shanglin too. “In the past when the immigration officials turned up they would leave with a few cartons of mineral water and a few hundred cedis,” Tan told 21CN. “But now they will lock you up and you have to pay much more in bail to get out, or you’ll be repatriated”.
Why take the risk? Newspaper reports suggest an average prospect might yield 200-300 grammes of gold a day, delivering daily income approaching Rmb100,000 (about $1,600). Net of operating costs that means the annual take can reach Rmb10 million ($1.63 million), which should ensure a relative life of luxury when the migrants finally make their return to Shanglin.
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