Golden Opportunity

Ghana’s economy is based on two conflicting sectors: farming and resource extraction. Whereas roughly 80 percent of the country’s population is engaged mainly in subsistence farming, the power that drives Ghana’s foreign economy and investments is the mining sector. Located in West Africa, Ghana was originally known as the Gold Coast because of the intensive gold mining that took place there for over 300 years. Although the country currently enjoys one of the most stable governments in the region, it has nevertheless run into many of the same problems that plague its neighbours: deforestation, political corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency and crushing debt. The majority of its foreign investments come from gold companies scattered throughout the country, often in remote, rural areas, on land that would otherwise be used by the locals for subsistence farming or cash crops.

When a wealthy multinational mining company looks to share land with local farmers, thoughtful negotiations are required to maximize benefits to the residents and the company. Realistic and sensitive planning is critical in order to avoid the calamities that are so often associated with resource extraction in Third World countries: environmental degradation, social disruption and economic chaos. These negotiations must be inclusive and exhaustive: they must cover everything from crop compensation to building type, size of houses, placement of new buildings, and who will live in proximity to whom. Planners and architects have to consider the institutions that will be replaced (schools), the new ones to be constructed (markets, skill-training centres), and the relocation of churches (of every denomination), mosques, and animist places of worship. Despite the uncertainty and risk involved, developing communities often welcome large-scale mining because of the jobs, money and opportunity that it brings.

It is becoming standard practice for mining companies to make a concerted and highly visible effort to accommodate the local population through skills training and investment in local schools and roads, as well as jobs related to the mine itself. Also of prime importance is advocacy for entrepreneurship of the female population, whose economy is extremely important and equally effected by mining development. Communities in which illiteracy in the local dialect and in English can exceed over 50 percent, where one man often provides for families of 10 or more, jobs are crucial. It was under these circumstances that Newmont Gold Corporation, the largest gold company in the world, hired the Toronto-based firm planningAlliance to design and carry out all resettlement activity–in a sense, to become the planning and architecture department–for its mine in the western part of Ghana, in the Ahafo region, near the border of Cte d’Ivoire.

planningAlliance was hired to design and oversee the completion of urban planning, housing and infrastructure, along with community development (in partnership with an NGO) for about 1,400 families through two new settlements and some infill housing in the existing towns. In both cases, the new settlements are situated close to existing ones; it is hoped that the old and new will eventually merge and share infrastructure and amenities. This work is being carried out within an industrial, capitalist framework. Though the result will be a planned community, in proportion to its context, it is never like the more delicate insertions that NGOs make when building in the developing world. There are a few recently built Habitat for Humanity houses at the edge of an effected town that slipped right into the existing fabric. This is a luxury not afforded to the planners of mining resettlement housing. Understanding that the volume and methods of construction will be on an almost industrial scale while consciously working towards the most humane type of housing is critical.

All the replacement homes are of a size and quality specified by Ghana’s national building code. Where a family has a house smaller than stipulated by the building code, as is frequent, it will receive one of minimum size. In most instances, the new construction will be more durable than what is being replaced. It is also imperative that every aspect of the new town–housing, institutions and infrastructure–reflect the concerns of the residents. In order to adhere to these criteria, while working within the client’s budget and schedule, we took on the role of chief mediator between the community and Newmont.

Consultations with the Ahafo region’s staff and elected officials, and the communities’ chiefs and appointed leaders, were continuous. Residents chose educated and literate representatives who were adept and fierce at negotiations. At every meeting, one or more of planningAlliance’s architects and engineers, both foreign and Ghanaian, would participate. For each iteration of the design, local government and community representatives were presented with a draft for their consideration. It should be noted that the process of building resettlement towns in the developing world is always about engaging the highest qualified local professionals, who have an intimate knowledge of the situation, and then working together, close to the site (working remotely and relying on the Internet is not an option as it simply doesn’t work for this kind of task) to get the houses and infrastructure built.

The designs, at all scales, are governed by the principle of building what is locally appropriate and sustainable. Existing homes that are to be replaced are mainly found on farms farther away from the towns. Wattle and daub–a bamboo structure with mud and straw as a filler–is the typical construction of most. While some were well built and had been standing for years, others offered little more than shelter from the rain and sun. Most of the existing towns’ dwellings had no proper road access and, in many cases, a three-metre laneway on all sides was used for entry, exit, and as a place to drain human and household waste. Building to a standard that is locally appropriate meant moving away from this type of construction and the random placement of dwellings towards something in line with residents’ desire to live in a planned community with access to infrastructure.

Economic capacity, local technology, and the resources of the population were paramount in determining whether they could live comfortably in these dwellings and maintain them over a long time. All houses are set on a 60 * 100 standard Ghanaian lot facing a compacted earth road. No plumbing is designed; rather, a ventilated pit latrine is built at the back of each property. More economical than plumbing, this can be maintained by the occupants of the home and is far more hygienic than the communal latrines currently in use. Existing houses have no electricity; should it be provided in the replacement houses, there would be very few who could afford to pay for its continual use. However, street lighting is planned, as is the potential for hooking up to local power should the town, or individuals, achieve the economic stability to support it.

The relationship of the house sizes to their plots allows the inhabitants to make additions onto their homes, once they acquire the resources, and to raise livestock or engage in small-scale production (sorting palm nuts, drying corn, certain crafts). Through all the discussions our office had with the townsfolk, their priorities were infrastructure: access to a proper street, room to expand, a clear delineation between properties, and the smallest possible distance to collect piped, potable water. The two new settlements, with their matrix of variably sized homes, are situated close to existing towns where new and old can slowly combine to share public spaces and facilities.

It must be understood that within the current social and economic climate of Ghana, gold mining is most often welcomed at a regional and national level. While mines bring tumultuous social and physical change to an area well
beyond that which they actually inhabit, much of this change can be productive, offering better employment, better housing, and the development of skills and trades, as it has done for parts of Canada throughout the last century. The people of the Ahafo region were never against the mine, only against the possibility that they would not share in the improvements and wealth that it would potentially bring. Our role within this context of anticipation and change is to engage the local population in the most inclusive process of design and to build proper and humane housing in well-planned towns that will be maintainable, long-lasting, and highly appropriate to their rural West African context.

David Steiner is an intern architect currently working for Carruthers Shaw Architects in Toronto. While in Ghana, David was working for planningAlliance. All photos are by the author.