Dual Sovereignties in the Golden Twilight: Law, Land and Environmental Politics in Ghana

EPA Grant Number: FP917324
Title: Dual Sovereignties in the Golden Twilight: Law, Land and Environmental Politics in Ghana
Investigators: Coyle, Lauren N
Institution: University of Chicago
EPA Project Officer: Zambrana, Jose
Project Period: September 1, 2011 through June 30, 2015
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2011) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Emerging Environmental Approaches and Challenges: Social Sciences


How does the colonial legacy of two parallel legal systems-one “customary,” the other under the jurisdiction of the state-frame postcolonial nationhood in Ghana? How, in particular, does it frame the often violent conflicts over property regimes that govern the ownership and extraction of resources in its neoliberal economy? How has this legacy assumed new meaning and heightened significance for environmental politics in the wake of structural adjustment reforms in Ghana? This study hypothesizes that the recent flourishing of “rule of law” governance programs has rendered this legal legacy a critical register of tensions and aspirations in postcolonial citizenship, sovereign government and kin-based belonging, and in counterintuitive ways that resonate across contemporary Africa that remain largely underexamined in most of the relevant literature.


Gold mining, Ghana’s most lucrative extractive industry, is perhaps the most significant site of contests over land and environmental justice fought under the dual legal legacy of colonialism, as indigenous peoples, traditional authorities, corporations and the state seek to benefit from its yield. Those contests, therefore, will be the focus of the project. Ethnographic research will be conducted through interviews, focus groups and observation of various ritual, political and legal proceedings in “customary” and “state” domains. Research will be centered in villages in Tarkwa (Western Region), Kenyasi (Brong-Ahafo Region) and Obuasi (Asante Region), the three areas most affected by surface-mining and all home to groups that fall within the canopy ethnic group of the Akan. In addition, interviews will be conducted and proceedings observed in civil society groups concerned with mining, land and labor (especially those housed in a consortium of prominent NGOs, the National Coalition on Mining [NCOM]), along with relevant state and customary governmental bodies-principally, commissions and courts. Lastly, archival research will be conducted in the United Kingdom (colonial and mining company archives) and Ghana (colonial, national and customary kingdom archives).

Expected Results:

Through this ethnographic and archival research, the development of mining and related disputes over labor, resources, environment and land will be traced. This ethnographic research will allow for nuanced analysis of how “environmental justice” functions as a key domain for political contests under Ghana’s neoliberal “rule of law” programs, which privilege the legal domains of contracts, constitutions and courts over, for example, state legislation and administrative functioning. This historical research will allow for analysis of the development of the presentday dual legal system under the British project of “native administration,” including colonial systematization and even invention of customary law, as it spread throughout the coastal Gold Coast Colony and Asante Kingdom territory to the North. In addition, archival work will allow a fuller understanding of transformations in extraction and the dual legal system throughout the early years of independence and the ensuing decades under modernizing, developmentalist regimes, and then into the structural adjustment reforms of the 1980s.

Potential to Further Environmental / Human Health Protection

Overall, this research will illuminate ways in which various phases of modernist governance formations-colonial, state-developmental and neoliberal-have articulated with, on the one hand, global phases of international law and raw resource extraction and, on the other, “customary,” kin-based systems of politics, labor and land tenure in colonial and postcolonial settings. This will enhance analysis of the perils and prospects of environmental justice and public health initiatives in current neoliberal development programs, particularly as they operate in resourcerich postcolonial settings where both customary and state authorities serve as key components of the constitutional order.

Supplemental Keywords:

environmental politics, mining and labor, kinship, customary v. state law, land conflicts, postcolonial sovereignty, neoliberal governance, Ghana

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2012
  • 2013
  • 2014
  • Final