AKWIDAE, Ghana (Reuters) - Fisherman Steven Smith-Borlah gazes out to sea from his beachside hut in Akwidae, a coconut leaf-roofed village that squats between a mangrove swamp and the overgrown ruins of a 17th century German fort.
Twice a day, yellow helicopters fly overhead, shuttling between Ghana’s oil boomtown Sekondi-Takoradi and the offshore oil platform which started pumping its first crude in December.
“We haven’t seen any benefit from the oil here,” he says of promises of a new road, electricity and a better school.
“There were many fish before the oil, but now they have vanished,” Smith-Borlah adds as he nurses a bottle of stout.
Local fish stocks had already been decimated over the past two decades by over-fishing and illegal pair trawling.
Some fear the decline is getting worse as the lights used by the oil platform and drilling rig attract fish to within the 500-meter (1,500 feet) no-fishing zones around them. While such assertions are hard to prove, they have gained local currency.
“People are extremely frustrated. Expectations are high. They don’t know much about the oil industry so they blame them for everything,” said Patricia Mensah of the Coastal Resources Center, a project run by the U.S.-based University of Rhode Island to protect and develop coastal communities.
It is still early days for Ghana’s oil and gas industry, where daily production is set to reach 120,000 barrels this year and more than double to 250,000 barrels by 2013.
Few in the West African nation of 24 million expect local grumblings to turn any time soon into the militant action seen in Nigeria’s Delta region, which at its 2006 peak cut more than a quarter of the country’s oil production.
But if promises of employment do not start to come through soon, local disappointment could turn into anger with President John Atta Mills’ government ahead of the December 2012 election.
“To avoid frustration, Ghana needs to listen to the local people, help them become employable as sub-contractors,” says Ebow Haizel-Ferguson of the Ghana Oil & Gas Service Providers Association.
“If we get people involved early we can defuse tension from the beginning,” said Haizel-Ferguson, who said he saw at close hand the disaffectation of local communities in a previous spell spent working in Nigeria’s oil hub Port Harcourt.
The government target is for Ghanaians to fill 90 percent of jobs in what it calls “strategic areas” of the sector by 2020. Haizel-Ferguson’s company, Sigma-Base Technical Services, is one of more than 500 firms training some 2,000 locals to become welders, electricians, and firefighters.
There is already evidence of the local economy taking off. Chinese household products, 3G mobile phones and computers spill across pavements for sale. Air-conditioned mini-buses or “tro-tro” share taxis ply the coastal road to the capital Accra.
Yet some ancillary services on offer are causing problems. At Ocean Bar, a mirror-walled pool hall and casino in Sekondi-Takoradi, young women flirt with older oil riggers.
Two Ghanaian girls, who introduce themselves as Sandy and Angel, complain that sex workers have flocked to their “oil city” from as far as Nigeria and Liberia.
Worse, the competition has stiffened in recent months with an influx of Ivorian girls fleeing the unrest that followed its disputed November presidential election, they say.
“There is sometimes rivalry between sex workers over clients which can lead to civil disturbance,” said district police commander Dela Dzansi. “But crime is not going up yet.”
Oil has brought other problems. Top end land prices have quadrupled to $20 per square meter in five years, according to one property developer. Landlords evict residents to renovate and re-rent their properties to oil workers at higher rates.
Civil society groups say hospitals and schools may struggle to cope with the town’s expanding population while traffic now clogs the streets around the central market throughout the day.
The government and Tullow, which is operating Ghana’s Jubilee oil field, were not immediately available to comment.
Ghana’s peaceful reputation and democratic record might mitigate the potential disquiet caused by oil’s social ills.
Back in Akwidae, Smith-Borlah laughs away rumors last year of a “Cape Three Point Militia” that local media claimed were training in the rubber plantation behind his village.
“We are poorer now. The President has failed us,” he says. “We are going to address this ourselves with our thumbs at the next election.” (Editing by Mark John)