Mr Warrick Stewart, an ecologist, who doubles as a mining and biodiversity expert has told an Accra High Court that there would be a major significant direct negative impact of surface bauxite mining and processing on biodiversity and livelihood if the Atewa Forest is mined.
The expert witness, who is based in South Africa, was testifying via Zoom on the impact of mining on the Atewa forest reserve.
He noted that, bauxite mining is typically associated with acid sulfate soil which is highly acidic and when it comes into contact with water during the mining process, the outcome is always a substantial reduction in the pH of the water, where water becomes acidic.
The defence lawyer, Leona Johnson-Abassah, disagreed with the expert witness, saying he was making a general statement and not based on scientific proof, but he denied it explaining that, it is an example of one of the typical impacts of bauxite mining where acid sulfate soils affect water bodies.
A Rocha Ghana and 10 other plaintiffs are challenging the government’s move to mine bauxite in the Atewa Range Forest contending that the government is undertaking mining activities in the Forest without mineral rights.
The Plaintiffs are urging the court to compel the government to restore or pay the cost of damages that had been caused as a result of recognisance, prospecting, and clearing of roads in the Forest.
Restoration Period Exaggerated
Under cross-examination, Stewart said, scientific literature reflects that restoration can take up to at least 100 to 300 years after bauxite mining.
But Leona Johnson-Abassah suggested to him that he was exaggerating the restoration period.
He answered “No my Lord, this is not a gross exaggeration. The time frame of 100-300 years for restoration to potentially be successful is clearly reflected in a vast number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. A time frame of 10 to 30 years to demonstrate successful restoration as referred to by the defence is not practically possible. This time frame is only sufficient to demonstrate current progress towards successful restoration but is not sufficient to demonstrate final success.”
She suggested to him that scientific effort has come to enhance restoration effort when it comes to bauxite mining and mentioned places where such restoration has been successful like Alcoa in Jarrah forest in Western Australia and another one in the Amazon forest of Brazil.
The expert witness denied her assertion clarifying that “Scientific development in restoration efforts are ongoing, however by the very nature of tropical forests which have unique ecological drivers, successful restoration of a tropical forest as diverse in their species composition, a minimum of 100 to 300 years would typically be required, however, due to the unique species present in the Atewa forest, restoration may still not prove successful.”
“Are you suggesting to the Court that when it comes to mining rehabilitation elsewhere it is possible and when it comes to the same in Ghana, particularly in the Atewa forest it’s impossible?” the defence lawyer asked.
The answer given by the expert witness was “No,” but he explained that mining rehabilitation has been successful elsewhere in the world but in the case of Atewa forest specifically in its upland evergreen forest, it is almost certain that restoration would not be possible should industrial-scale mining be undertaken due to its unique characteristics and associated restoration constraints.
He clarified that mining restoration is the return of habitat, species, and ecological process to the condition prior to disturbance, adding that, rehabilitation does focus on the return of ecosystem services but does not seek to restore species diversity and assemblages as they were prior to the disturbance.
He said two species of trees in the Atewa forest like the African mahogany can live up to 350 years of age.
Restoration Constraints in The Atewa Forest
The High Court Judge, Justice John Nyante Nyadu asked the expert witness what the restoration constraints were in the Atewa forest.
Stewart answered that, the Atewa forest reserve is home to a number of species that are present nowhere else in the world and are specifically adapted to the climatic and ecosystem conditions present at Atewa, and disturbing these species through industrial-scale mining would pose a major challenge to their long term existence. He added that, industrial-scale mining also results in the clearing of vast areas of natural habitat such as the forest at Atewa.
When pressed by the judge to be specific, he mentioned species of butterflies that are present in the Atewa range forest reserve and cannot be found anywhere else in the world like Mylothris Atewa and he promised to get the other list compiled for the court.
Biodiversity Hotspot and Key Biodiversity Area
At the last sitting, defence lawyer Leona Johnson-Abassah pointed to the expert witness that no international investor, given the current modern trend and technological development, will attempt to mine without having regard to international best practices and standards. He answered in the affirmative.
“Are you aware of Vedanta Zinc International Mining Company? The company is mining zinc in an area recognised by the World Wide Fund for Nature in a biodiversity hotspot in South Africa,” she noted.
Stewart answered that he was not aware but knows of the status of biodiversity hotspots in South Africa and globally.
She, therefore, accused him of being evasive and not helpful to the court but he disagreed explaining that “I am simply seeking to provide sufficient detail to ensure that information is contextually accurate.”
Stewart told the court that, biodiversity hotspots are not directly comparable to Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA), and the KBA are the greatest priority areas within such biodiversity hotspots.
Not enthused with his answers, the defence lawyer told the expert witness that, throughout his testimony and witness statement, he had deliberately watered down the importance of other biodiversity and KBA around the world just to portray Atewa as without peers and for that matter untouchable.
“No, my Lord. I vehemently refute the assertion made by the defence. My explanation has been provided specifically to ensure that the information conveyed is fully accurate and not misrepresented,” he answered.