‘Jungle Gold’: A case study in the exploitation of Africa

The antiquated narrative of Africa as a lawless jungle has been reprised in a new reality show airing on the Discovery Channel.

Jungle Gold chronicles an ill-advised mission of three Utahans desperate to pay off over a million dollars of debt.

To achieve this, they decided to hunt for gold in Ghana — a West African country so rich in the yellow metal that the British colonialists called it the Gold Coast. Equipped with an excavator and high definition cameras, George Wright, Scott Lomu and Travis Fotheringham locate a rural area that they suspect has 1.5million dollars worth of gold embedded underneath the earth’s surface.

With imperialistic zeal George bellows: “Lets get in there, lets tear it all down.” Then their Caterpillar excavator begins to plunge through soil that once nourished lush timber trees.

In broad strokes, the manual form of surface mining that George, Scott and Travis are performing involves destroying acres of verdant forest and farmlands so artisan miners can dig into the ground with shovels and excavators to create a pit deep enough to access the mineral deposits. The miners pump water from a nearby river to soften the pit for further digging. As the pit floods, excess water is pumped out and the targeted soil is washed with poisonous chemicals to separate the gold from the sand.

It is a laborious process with serious ethical gaps as it devastates the environment and introduces toxins into the food chain. It often yields fatal results when the pit caves in and buries the miners alive. For these hazardous reasons, surface mining is illegal, except in restricted areas where the government provides explorative licenses exclusively to Ghanaians.

Clearly this raises ethical questions of how the men acquired the rights to mine, but the show is scripted to portray the cast as brave family men who are risking their lives to feed their families and save their homes from foreclosure. In one of several cringe worthy moments, Scott supervises a Ghanaian laborer as he uses his bare hands to wash the soil with mercury. He recognizes that what he is doing is wrong, but he urges the laborer on.

In another episode, a local farmer who tries to defend his cocoa farm from being destroyed was wrestled to the ground by hired security and choked by George. These are some of the questionable antics that have provoked the ire of social media and propelled the show to one of the most popular programs on the network. No mention is made of the fact that the activities of the three men are contributing to the rapid destruction of an entire region. Farmers have lost their livelihoods and once pristine rivers have been so contaminated with mud and mercury that water is no longer drinkable.

Unfortunately, the activities of the Utahans is not an isolated incident. South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Papua New Guinea are few of the African countries grappling with how to deal with the devastating effects of surfacing mining. Whilst NGOs and concerned citizens try to curb the problem, the soaring price of gold has made illegal mining is so lucrative that the Chinese have migrated to Ghana en masse to loot the land off its gold.

According to Discovery, this is the second trip for the three Utahans. Their first expedition resulted in $300,000 worth of gold, so they have returned to compete with the Chinese to gain access to more land and more gold. Obviously, none of this can go on without the support of some of the locals. Indeed, reports from Ghana confirm that local authorities and chiefs have been bribed so they turn a blind eye to the plight of the community.

Sadly, African issues rarely get attention unless they become an irreversible catastrophe. Then we organize bake sales and rallies to fight an issue that could have been solved well in advance.

The genocide in Rwanda and the mining of blood diamonds in Sierra Leone and Liberia are stark examples of what can happen when the global community responds slowly to a crisis. At this moment, illegal surface mining threatens to destabilize a beacon of Africa. By promoting this reality show, Discovery has discarded its mandate to be socially responsible and lost an opportunity to educate people the social cost of “Jungle” gold.

Amma Bonsu is an avid blogger who highlights social trends and people transforming Africa. Follow her @ammazingseries.com