KYEBI, GHANA - Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo smiles and waves from fading billboards in his hometown of Kyebi, in the Akyem Abuakwa area of the country’s Eastern Region.
Nearby is another sign for the Atewa Range Forest Reserve, whose steep slopes and cloud-topped peaks rise from the fields of cassava and trees of ripening bananas and cocoa pods below.
“Save Atewa Forest Now!” it reads in a message to the president and his government in the capital Accra, 90 km (60 miles) away.
The upland evergreen forest, with its waterfalls and cliffs, deep caves and valleys, has been described as one of the richest places for biodiversity on the planet.
Its thick vegetation is home to endangered primates and pangolins, rare frogs, birds and butterflies.
But the ground also contains large deposits of bauxite, which gives the earth its distinctive red hue and is the essential component in aluminum production.
In a scenario familiar across Africa, China has promised Ghana billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects in exchange for access to mine the rock.
Environmentalists fear for the forest. Locals, though, are swayed by the prospects of jobs and money.
Akufo-Addo’s government is pushing a policy of “trade not aid” and rural development. All eyes are now on the president to see if that comes at the expense of the environment he has vowed to protect.
Forest rangers and volunteers carrying machetes to hack through the undergrowth currently police the forest against poachers and illegal loggers.
The surrounding landscape bears scars of gold-mining activities that Akufo-Addo halted by introducing measures against illegal operations.
Campaigners, however, say mining bauxite is an even greater risk, as swaths of trees would have to be cut down and soil removed in the forest’s upper reaches.
Daryl Bosu, deputy national director of the environmental group A Rocha Ghana, said that could cause “big, big trouble.
“The way bauxite mining is done is not like gold, where you can take out the sand, put it somewhere and fill it back,” he told AFP.
“You are actually taking away the whole soil and with it you have to clear the forest to be able to get to that.”
Deforestation raises the risk of landslides and pollution in the sources of three rivers providing water for communities downstream, including the 5 million people in Greater Accra.
With fewer trees, rainfall would be affected, with a knock-on effect on agricultural yields.
Signs by the road warn about endangered primates in the forest, which is also home to the world’s only kaleidoscope of Atewa dotted border butterflies and a rare colony of Togo Slippery Frogs.
“If the forest goes, all these animals lose their habitat,” said Emmanuel Akom, project manager for A Rocha in Kyebi.
Mining bauxite reserves has been talked about for at least a decade and the evidence is in Asikam village, one of the 50 or so communities found around the forest.
In 2008, Prince Amankwa said he helped U.S. aluminum giant Alcoa and the state-owned Volta Aluminium Company Ltd. (Valco) drill for samples in the hills.
Ten years on, those samples lie in dusty plastic bags in a shed in Asikam. Locals say the project was likely abandoned because it would have been too controversial.
Amankwa said government mining officials and a Chinese team had recently been in the area.
He says he is in favor of the mining project, as is the village chief, Bafour Kyere Koranteng, although he conceded that if the wider community thought otherwise, he would support that position.
“My opinion is that it (mining) is a very good thing because the youths are not getting jobs,” he added.
It’s not hard to see why there would be support. There may be tarmac roads and mobile phone masts in Kyebi, but there are also mud-brick homes and many adverts for quick cash loans.
Most people are subsistence or small-scale farmers. Mining could be more lucrative.
Ghana’s parliament is moving ahead with the legal framework to allow bauxite mining to take place in the Atewa forest. But as it does so, there is increasing opposition at home and abroad.
Concern has been voiced about the impact of the China deal on Ghana’s debt profile. International petitions have been launched to urge the government to think again.
There are also fears that the traditional council, headed by the Okyenhene, or king, of Akyem Abuakwa, has backtracked on its initial position opposing mining.
Earlier this year, hundreds of people trekked from Kyebi to hand in a petition at the president’s official residence, Jubilee House, in Accra, to urge him to think again.
“He’s very much aware of the issue,” said local assembly member Emmanuel Tabi, who is from Akufo-Addo’s ruling New Patriotic Party. “He has uncles, cousins, a sister here in Kyebi.”
Tabi remains unconvinced about the potential employment and economic benefits of mining. Instead he wants the forest designated a national park to give it greater protection.
Developing tourism would be better and more sustainable, he argued, but acknowledged Akufo-Addo’s supporters locally were looking to him to bring in jobs and money.
That could make preventing the diggers from moving in more difficult, he said.
“We’re not actually against bauxite mining, but we are against the destruction of this forest,” he added.