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The lady and the bulldozer

“My grandchildren came and told me they had heard machines and that I should come and see what they had done to my farm. They had cut all the cocoa trees, this entire place was cocoa trees and they had cut all of them! The bulldozer was over there and I was lying here in front of it!” Ama Ntowaa gestured with her arms as we stood in a small clearing. Only an hour before, the rains had swept and lashed through the forest, turning the narrow pathways and tracks into flowing streams. Despite this Ama dropped to the ground to demonstrate exactly where she had faced the logging company’s bulldozer. “So I lay here and I told them if they wanted the timber they should come and run me over with the bulldozer!”

Ama Ntowaa outside her farm, Western Province, Ghana.

Ama, a widow in her sixties who supports six children, seemed on every occasion to be full of cheeky endeavours and mischievousness. Despite this cheerful countenance Ama is a very courageous woman. Humping our heavy film gear we followed her from the small village of Bekoto through the dripping forest towards her cocoa farm with several of her children and grandchildren in tow.

The farm is situated at the top of a long steep incline, the pathway wet with the rains and nearly vertical, requires you to scramble and cling at the surrounding foliage in order to pull yourself up. At the top is a collection of small mud walled buildings surrounding an open space where Ama’s cocoa and colanut harvest lies drying on bamboo tables. A few goats and chickens scrabble about in the dirt.

Ama’s problems started when one of the local chief’s, seeing an opportunity for personal enrichment, granted land access to a logging company. The chief had not consulted any of the farming communities where the extractions would take place. Spread out amongst Ama’s six-acre farm were several sizeable teak and mahogany trees. Without any notification the company moved in, cutting an access path through the farm, cut down the trees which by right belonged to Ama, before dragging them back to the nearest road, thereby causing even more damage.

“They cut all of my cocoa,” Ama said. “I decided I’m not going to accept this, so I went to their site and I told them not to come onto my farm and destroy my crops. The compensation the logging company told the chief to give me I never received (20 million old Ghana cedis – $50US). I asked him for cocoa seedlings to plant where the crops had been destroyed. I didn’t receive any. They haven’t given me my money and they haven’t given me any seedlings.”

Shortly afterwards Ama, along with other farmers who had been affected by illegal logging, participated in a community workshop held by New Generation Consent and Care International. The villagers were taught about their rights to the land and their resources.

“During one of our community advocacy activities, we got information from Ama that illegal timber operations had taken place on her farm,” said Andrew Morrison from New Generation Consent. “so we came to see what had actually happened. We saw they had constructed a route through her farm to get access to the trees they had felled. Many communities still don’t understand that they have rights to the resources on their land and because many people don’t understand their rights the chiefs exploit them, they can authorise illegal timber operators to come and do whatever they want and then go. So we informed the Forestry Service Department. People didn’t realise that they could do something to stop loggers. Now they are empowered enough to resist people cheating and exploiting them.”

Ama’s problems returned a year later when the logging company reappeared and cut the few remaining trees on her farm. The following day they sent a bulldozer to collect the timber. This time however Ama was waiting for them.

“I lay on the floor in front of the bulldozer. When I stood up the bulldozer was still there. He wasn’t going anywhere. I stood there and he backed up. And when I began to leave, he came back towards my farm. And I faced them again, this continued for a week. Every time my grandchildren heard the sound of the bulldozer they would run and call me and I would come and face them. I carried my machete, if anyone came near me, I would use it on them.”

She smiled, made a sweeping cut through the air with her hand and laughed. Faced with such courage the loggers pulled back and have not returned to Ama’s farm. “The timber trees need to be protected so that the children who are coming, the future, can benefit from the timber, I’ll do my part to protect these trees.”

Behind the scenes – shooting in Wassa Akropong, Western Province, Ghana

Wassa Akropong is a pleasant little town hidden in the lush green of Western Province Ghana. Its main street seemed, at all hours including long into the night, to be filled with the cheery hustle and bustle of a busy market. All manner of produce was available from the makeshift stalls, kiosks and counters. Live poultry competed with great stacks of smoked fish; bags of peppers and black-eyed peas nestled amongst roped bundles of sweet potato and cassava leaves; there were mobile phone top-up cards and greasy bottles of clearly diluted kerosene; plastic household commodities alongside traditional brightly coloured kente cloth. A case of everything and anything, the old and the new, the international to the national, in this back of beyond place.

A few fly-blown chop-shops, a couple of battered old taxis, an old wooden church and that was about it. The roads snaking away from the town happily rescinded within a few meters to pot-holed tracks of deep red earth leading past the run-down houses and huts of cocoa farming communities.

The road to Wassa Akropong, Western Province, Ghana.

We stayed, strangely enough, in the petrol station. And being the only petrol station around, the forecourt much like the rest of the town was crowded at all hours of the day, which along with the thick fumes of petrol didn’t altogether aid our sleeping. However, long days of filming lent us all the weariness we could manage and usually after a plate of vegetable stew with fufu sleep triumphed above the mechanical clamour and revving of engines from below.

Many Ghanaians see Western Province as a bit of a back-water and travelling along the roads around Wassa Akropong it’s understandable why this is the case. It wasn’t until the 1950’s, driven by increasing prices for cocoa, that prospective farmers from the Ashanti region began to move into the relatively empty forests surrounding the town. Since then little has changed. Like other regions in Ghana, although heavily exploited already, Western Province remains rich in minerals and timber.

The scars of old and new extractions are to be seen everywhere. A group of Chinese firms are firmly encamped along the Adamanso, one of the main rivers near the town, mining for gold and manganese; a component that contributes towards the production of aluminium. The river has become so badly polluted as a result of these activities that drinking water along with freshwater fish are no longer gathered by the locals.

When we filmed the sequence involving Ama and her farm we left Harrison Kojo our fabulous driver and friend just outside the village of Bekoto with the jeep. Harrison being a city dweller was not keen on joining us, he seemed concerned about our safety, mentioning that the forest is an evil place and should not be reckoned with too lightly. I promised him we would return within a couple of hours.

Enquiries as to how far the farm was from the road came back as a mere twenty-minute walk. In a land where wristwatches are rarely seen we should have been immediately suspicious of this answer. Despite this and because we were all in a good mood we hauled the filming gear we needed over our shoulders and along with Ama, her family and Andrew Morrison from New Generation Consent we trooped off into the thick forest. It was already half way into the afternoon, so realistically we had probably two maybe three hours of decent light to shoot by.

It took us over an hour to reach the farm. After completing all the sequences and interviews we needed we headed back into the forest, aware of the fact that darkness would be upon us very shortly. Andrew did his level best leading us along the path we had come by. However very shortly we had become utterly lost. Strangely there are many small farm holdings in the forest and soon enough we came across a farmer and his family sitting in front of their evening meal. They were astonished to find a film crew walking up their cassava plot. After some introductions and informing them of our plight two of the young men readily agreed to lead us back to the roadway.

It was nearing darkness by the time we climbed from the forest onto the road. We were dripping with sweat. Harrison by this stage terrified that we had become in some way consumed by the evil spirits of the forest had organised some of the local men of Bekoto village into a search party. However the search party hadn’t quite managed to leave. The reason being was that they were busy smoking and drinking bottles of beer. We ended up finding our own search party.

Our final night in Wassa Akropong was a mixed affair. We found to our consternation that the petrol station had suddenly run dry. The tank in our jeep also coincidentally showed similar levels of stock fatigue. The day ahead of us involved a great deal of driving, we were scheduled to return to the coast to film in and around the port of Takoradi. After some lengthy deliberations between Harrison and the mechanics it seemed uncertain whether a tanker would reach the petrol station in the coming days. Leaving us effectively stranded.

To shrug this off and take stock of the situation we trooped to the nearby restaurant and sat down to another heavy dinner. As we walked together down the roadway in the encroaching darkness, candles offering flickering traces of light from hut windows, the air thick with scent and flying insects, I noticed a group of locals walking towards us. From amongst the group came suddenly a petrified howl. The group immediately burst into laughter and from amongst them a small toddler emerged his eyes shining wide in astonishment and terror. He was looking directly at Paul and myself.

“He’s never seen a white man before.” said one of the group, barely able to contain himself. “He thinks you are ghosts, spirits from the forest.”

The crew. From left to right: Tim Lewis, Andrew Morrison, Paul Redman, Harrison Kojo.

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