journalist from Norway
role of natural resources in the Western Sahara conflict, and the
Some attribute the rich phosphate deposits in Western Sahara as one of
the reasons why
Morocco developed claims to Western Sahara in the first place. “One
Kuwait in the Arab world is enough”, King Hassan II allegedly said,
justifying the 1975 invasion mineral rich Sahara.
Although there might have been several reasons to the occupation itself
than only natural resources, the resources today play a central role in
strengthening Morocco’s presence in the territory. The industries offer
job opportunities to tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands of
Moroccan settlers, and provide important incomes for the Moroccan
government. The international commercial presence in Western Sahara
furthermore offers a sign of political acceptance of the occupation.
The parts of Western Sahara under Moroccan control contain two
important natural resources that are crucial to industries worldwide:
fish and phosphates. In addition to that, there is a growing
agriculture industry, sand and possibly oil.
After going through the industries and the international presence,
while touching upon its socio-economic effects, I will look at the
reasons the companies give for their presence, and the political
implications of the activities.
Western Saharan resources
The phosphate industry
Spain made the first phosphate discoveries south east of El Aaiun in
the late 1940s. Up until the 70s Spain invested largely in developing
infrastructure for the phosphate production. Today, one can still see
the outcome of the investments: the world’s largest conveyor belt, 100
kilometers long, transporting the phosphates from the deposits in Bu
Craa, out to the harbour where the phosphate rock is washed, dried,
stockpiled, and later shipped over to vessels waiting to be filled up.
And it is indeed a flourishing industry nowadays. Anyone visiting El
Aaiun harbour in October-November 2008 could see up to 5 bulk vessels
lining up one after the other, waiting to be loaded with the cargo.
It is not that easy to see, however, how the Moroccan take-over of the
phosphate industry can have been beneficial to the Sahrawis. A report
by the French organisation France Libertés -Fondation Danielle
Mitterrand , showed that the Sahrawis have been systematically
marginalised from the phosphate industry in Bu Craa. In 1968, few years
before Morocco took control over the phosphate mines, most of the 1600
workers in the industry were Sahrawis. Today, only some 200 people of
the 2000 workers are reported to be of that origin, according to the
Sahrawi workers themselves. The rest are Moroccans who have moved into
Every single week, discontented retired Sahrawi phosphate workers
demonstrate in the streets of El Aaiun against what they say are lack
of payments and rights.
With a production of around 30 million tonnes of phosphate rock
annually, Morocco is the biggest exporter of phosphate rock in the
world. Of that volume, about half is exported, and the last years, 3
million tonnes of that volume are of Western Sahara origin. The output
from the Western Sahara mines has gradually increased from 1,5-2
million tonnes during the 90s. The volume has over the years normally
been limited by lack of sufficient infrastructure, such as insufficient
power and freshwater for Morocco’s state phosphate company, OCP.
With this year’s boom in prices and production, I would estimate that
the production for 2008 will reach an all-time record, ending up closer
to 4 million tonnes.
During the last few years, one has now uncovered which companies in the
world are importing the phosphates from Western Sahara. Approximately
16 companies from 12 countries are today engaged in imports of these
phosphates. Most of these firms import under long-term contracts, some
up to 10 years of duration. The phosphates are used mainly for
production of fertilisers for the agriculture industry.
The biggest importers are to be found in USA, New Zealand, Australia,
Mexico and Lithuania. Medium importers are located in Colombia,
Venezuela, Spain, Croatia, while Bulgaria, India and a few more imports
on a more irregular basis.
With the increased production – and most of all due to increase of
phosphate prices – it is easy to establish that OCP’s incomes in
Western Sahara have truly boomed. For several years, the global
phosphate rock prices were more or less stable, at around 50 dollars a
tonne. Then, from 2007 till today, the price of phosphates has
increased over 800%. The last weeks of October-November 2008, have seen
a slight drop of prices again, and one tonne is now supposedly worth
around 414 dollars.
One single cargo of phosphate, for instance the one containing the
70.000 tonnes of phosphate rock carried by a Swiss owned vessel that
arrived Louisiana, USA, only two weeks ago, can thus be of the same
value as the entire multilateral humanitarian aid to the refugee camps
in one whole year, namely around 30 million USD.
Around 100 vessels depart from El Aaiun every year. Perhaps 150-300
shipping companies are involved in the transports annually. These
companies come from practically all European, North American and Asian
The United States is the biggest importer. For more than a decade, the
US has received 99% of its imports from Morocco/Western Sahara. US
importers could have imported a total of roughly 10 million tonnes of
Saharan phosphates over the last 20 years. With today’s phosphate
price, if these 10 million tonnes of phosphates had remained untouched
awaiting a settlement of the conflict, its value would today have been
around 4 billion USD – or 138 times as much as what the international
community gives to the refugee camps in Algeria through multilateral
aid every year.
Morocco’s annual incomes from Bu Craa could for 2008 amount to around
1,7 billion dollars. That equals around 10000 dollars per Sahrawi
refugee per year. Multilateral aid to the refugee camps for 2007 equals
1,7 percent of the estimated income from Bu Craa for 2008, given that
price is 414 dollars and production is 4 million tonnes.
It is hard to come with a good explanation to the increased phosphate
prices. One factor can be attributed to the increased volume of biofuel
production, which has triggered a high demand for fertilisers. This is
rather ironic, because biofuel is normally considered a renewable
replacement of hydrocarbons, something which it is clearly not. Its
expansion is rather dependent on another non-renewable resource, namely
The diminishing phosphate rock deposits globally means that other
leading phosphate producing states, such as the US and China, are
reluctant to export their own phosphate rock.
It is estimated that the deposits in Bu Craa will be depleted by
2040-2050. That time period corresponds with what researchers estimate
to be the global peak for phosphorous production. With increased food
and biofuel production, changed diets for a large part of the world
population, and an intensified scramble over the global phosphate
reserves, it is very likely that we will observe a continued price
increase for phosphate rock the coming decades, and thus unprecedented
income for OCP’s operations inside Western Sahara.
“With US and China tightening its grip around their own mined
phosphates, and as the phosphate prices will continue to grow, the
mines in Morocco and occupied Western Sahara will become increasingly
important for world phosphate importers and for the global agriculture
industry. Western Sahara’s phosphate reserves will become a real gold
mine for Morocco in the future”, says one of the few researchers on
global phosphate industry, Dana Cordell, at the Global Phosphorus
Research Initiative .
Only a small minority of the Sahrawis, mostly from the Dakhla
region in the south, have traditionally been engaged in fishing
activities. With very few exceptions, the industry today remains under
Moroccan, not Sahrawi, control.
The fisheries industry has a crucial effect on the demography in the
region, and thus probably also on the possibilities on finding a
solution to the conflict. With incentives such as reduced taxes and
subsidies, housing programmes and social projects, the Moroccan
government has succeeded to attract tens of thousands of unemployed
people from cities such as Agadir and Casablanca to settle in Western
Sahara. And these people to a large extent find their jobs related to
the growing fisheries industry.
With the fish stocks diminishing after overfishing offshore Morocco
proper, particularly offshore the Mediterranean coast, Western Saharan
fisheries have become increasingly important for Morocco. The main
species are types of cephalopods and sardines. Some estimates suggest
up to 70-90 percent of the Moroccan catches are being landed in the
harbour of Western Sahara. This has been facilitated by big investments
in the ports of Dakhla, El Aaiun and Boujdour.
I would estimate a few hundred foreign companies have been identified
in these industries by now, both fishing companies, manufacturers,
exporters and importers/distributors. This has been built up around a
flourishing industry of processing, canning and freezing plants that
have popped up along the coast. The last decade has also seen
developing an industry of fishmeal and fish oil exports, used for
production of animal foods and health products in Europe. The fish and
fish products are exported mainly to the Middle East, Europe and East
The fisheries itself offshore Western Sahara is taking place on three
a) EU or foreign states (such as Russia, Japan) having agreements with
Morocco. These bilateral or multilateral agreements with Morocco do
never mention Western Sahara itself, but they are de facto applied for
the waters adjacent to that territory.
b) private commercial fishing under Moroccan flag.
c) small-scale fishermen, living in settlements along the Western
I will now quickly go through these three levels.
The best-known foreign fisheries agreement is the EU-Morocco Fisheries
Partnership. Although the Russian agreement might be just as important
on the fisheries sector, I will only look into the EU agreement here.
There have been long traditions for foreign fishing in Western Sahara
waters. For centuries, fishermen from the Canary Islands and from the
Spanish mainland have been chasing the resources off the Western
Saharan coast. Just as Spain did with maintaining rights in the
phosphate industry when leaving Western Sahara, so they did with the
fisheries. When Spain signed the Madrid Accords with Morocco and
Mauritania, they made sure that they maintained rights to licences
offshore the territory. These rights have been more or less kept ever
since, interrupted only in shorter periods. This has been very
detrimental for the Sahrawis. When Spain became member of the EU, Spain
brought this tradition into the EU cooperation. Still, today, Spain has
controlled the process of the negotiation with Morocco, as well as most
of the licences. 100 of the 114 licences under the current 144.4
million euro EU-Moroccan Fisheries Partnership Agreement fell to Spain.
The EU-Moroccan Fisheries Partnership Agreement itself identifies that
it is applicable to “the waters falling within the sovereignty or
jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Morocco”. The four years Agreement
entered into force on March 1st, 2006.
When it was asked to have Western Saharan waters specifically excluded
from the Agreement, the EU Commission replied it was not necessary.
“The Commission proposal is in conformity with the legal opinion of the
United Nations issued in January 2002”, it stated , clearly
misinterpreting the UN advice, and the Sahrawi people’s wishes.
The EU chief negotiator of the Agreement, César Deben, stated in
fact that that the EU Commission considers Western Sahara waters to be
Moroccan, according to the Madrid Accords from 1975, an agreement that
the same UN opinion in practice considers invalid. Even more
contradictory, most of the fisheries are taking place offshore the
southern parts Western Sahara – in the territory that the Madrid
Accords ceded to Mauritania, not to Morocco.
After 7 different written questions to the EU Commission, it finally
succeeded Members of the European Parliament to get an official
statement from the Commission in April 2008, that in fact fisheries
have been going on inside Western Sahara under the current agreement .
The second category of fisheries is based on commercial licences to
private companies under Moroccan flag, normally to owners of trawlers.
Generally, for a private company to enter fishing grounds outside of
the governmental or EU fisheries partnerships, they must obtain
Moroccan flag. Foreign firms mostly get that through joint-ventures
with Moroccan enterprises. Companies from countries such as Norway,
Denmark, New Zealand and probably also Namibia/South Africa seem to
have been using this strategy to get access.
The last category of fisheries, is the one constituted by the
small-scale Moroccan fishermen. They are either living in the towns of
El Aaiun, Boujdour or Dakhla, but also in separate, smaller fishing
communities along the coast.
The small-scale fisheries often end up competing with the other two
levels of fisheries over fishing rights. It is interesting to notice
that even the community of small-scale Moroccan fishermen are not
necessarily satisfied with the Moroccan government’s issuing of
licences to foreign governments or private firms. There have been
incidents of demonstrations carried out by the Moroccan fisheries
communities against their own government, demanding increased quotas.
There are also often reports of poor Moroccan control over the fishing,
both the national and international commercial fleet, and there are
occasionally reports of foreign companies exceeding their quota, or
using wrong fishing nets.
The possibilities of petroleum
To the contrary of their neighbour country to the east, Morocco
produces no hydrocarbons. Completely dependent on imports, and with
increasing oil prices, the Moroccan government has been eager to make
their own findings, both onshore and offshore its own territory.
From 2001, they continued earlier efforts from the mid-80s, and
extended the petroleum searches also into Western Sahara, by granting
petroleum reconnaissance licences to the French firm TotalFinaElf
(later Total) and to the American energy company Kerr-McGee. The awards
sparked immediate protests from Polisario Front, leading up to the much
mentioned legal opinion from the UN secretariat in 2002 .
Although the UN opinion stated that "if further exploration and
exploitation activities were to proceed in disregard of the interests
and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation
of the principles of international law", that is exactly what is going
on today on the oil sector.
Total and Kerr-McGee withdrew from the territory few years after the UN
opinion, claiming that there were low prospects of finding oil on their
allotted blocks. But another company has picked up where Kerr-McGee
Immediately after Kerr-McGee’s departure in 2006, their Texas based
partner Kosmos Energy signed a contract for continuation of the
activities together with the Moroccan state oil company ONHYM. There
are indications that there could indeed be located petroleum offshore
the so-called Boujdour block in Western Sahara. Production is currently
going on offshore North Mauritania, in what are supposedly the same
geological layers. According to Kosmos Energy’s own reports, they plan
to drill in the Boujdour block in 2009.
The other current petroleum project in Western Sahara, consists of a
joint venture headed by the small Irish oil company Island Oil and Gas.
They have a reconnaissance contract for a block onshore Western Sahara,
overlapping the city of Smara, and actually covering both territories
under Moroccan and Polisario control. It is not clear whether they have
actually carried out exploration on the ground yet. The zone is highly
militarised, and a place with frequent demonstrations by the Sahrawi
There are no sign that these oil companies have consulted the Sahrawi
people prior to signing their contracts with the Moroccan government.
More industries developing
In addition to the fish and phosphates, and possibly oil, a few
more key businesses have emerged over the years.
Western Sahara has for decades been an important exporter of sand. A
majority of the sand purchasers have now been identified, being mostly
on the Canary Island and Madeira. The importers use the sand for
construction industry purposes, and for maintenance of the constructed
Furthermore, since the Spanish times, various metals and minerals have
been explored in the territory, such as zirconium and iron.
A French company has recently entered into some kind of agreement for
retreiving uranium from the phosphate mines in Western Sahara.
In the southern parts of Western Sahara, in the Dakhla area, a big
fruit and vegetable industry has developed since around 2004, based on
usage of underground fresh water reservoirs. Several thousand new
Moroccan settlers are employed in this industry – one Moroccan source
mentions 5000 people. The exports are mainly to the close European
Linked to all these businesses, a number of foreign companies work on
infrastructure projects in Western Sahara, such as energy projects,
port/harbour works, desalination programmes, water drilling, and lately
also on tourism.
Sometimes you find that companies had good intentions when they decide
to invest and settle in Western Sahara. Some companies have even been
supported by foreign aid money, especially certain projects related to
building of infrastructure or other projects with a social purpose.
the companies’ point of view
Although many of them are in close contact with their own governments
or multinational institutions, they do not necessarily, regrettably,
encounter any form of criticism or political advice when starting upon
such adventures in occupied Western Sahara.
Take a fisheries company, for example. They would normally seek some
kind of advice (e.g. regarding financial support, regulations,
registration) from their own authorities when they decide to go abroad.
They would then normally make contact with their own fisheries ministry
– and not with their ministries of foreign affairs, where the knowledge
of Western Sahara issue would normally be located.
For the EU countries involved in the EU-Moroccan Fisheries Partnership
Agreement, the fisheries ministries would then consult their companies
on licences, catches and reporting. At times, it could actually be the
ministry itself that promoted the companies to look for the
opportunities in Western Sahara.
The companies are completely surrounded with other interests without
knowledge of the conflict. They meet Moroccan trade partners in Fairs
in Europe or in Morocco, and deal loans with banks unfamiliar with the
issue. Their boards or shareholders might have never heard of the
And the information they get on the fish stocks, could be coming for
instance from UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which
explores the occupied waters in cooperation with Moroccan research
institutions, and with Moroccans on board its research vessels.
And once their operations in Western Sahara start, they hand in their
catches to factories that are even certified by the European Union.
When they label their products for export to the EU, the name of the
certified production unit is then inserted in the certificates of
origin, which accompany the product on its journey abroad. And the
importer in Europe is obliged to report on which country it comes from,
namely “Morocco”. There are dozens, or hundreds, of EU certified
companies within Western Sahara. This is very unlike how the EU treats
producers located on Israeli-occupied land.
Taken into account that companies could avoid ever having discussed the
Western Sahara issue with national governments, financial institutions,
owners, industry organisations, it is perhaps not strange that some
companies themselves are surprised when they suddenly come in the
spotlight of campaigns from Sahrawis or from the Western Sahara
solidarity movement. Some companies actually state that they have never
heard of the conflict when they are approached the first time. The only
source of information they ever got on the conflict, was obtained form
the Moroccan trading partners in Western Sahara, or Moroccan
authorities or media.
natural resources as politics
“We have been here for years, and this is the first time we hear of
this issue”, one company stated in 2002. “I have been explained that
the Sahrawis don’t want to take part in our project”, the CEO of
another company stated in 2005.
The companies themselves often underline that they do not themselves
engage in politics, only business. But that does not seem to prevent
the very same companies from coming with strong political statements,
in support of the Moroccan position. In that way, they become tools of
the Moroccan strategy for colonising Western Sahara.
“There is no conflict. And the UN has by the way given Western Sahara
to Morocco a long time ago”, said TotalFinaElf’s ethics director in
2001, after getting one of the oil reconnaissance licences offshore the
“The acreage is disputed with (sic) Western Sahara, but Kosmos believes
it has made the right bet as to which party will prevail”, the US oil
company Kosmos Energy wrote in a recent report.
The strongest private defenders of the legality of the industry, and of
the Moroccan position, are naturally those who are most dependent on
the natural resources in Western Sahara, or those who have invested
most money in the territory. The phosphate importers have been among
For a long time, a number of the phosphate importers have claimed that
their imports are in line with international law, and positive to the
development of the region. This contrasts other reports by Sahrawis
themselves. Only recently, has it been revealed that the phosphate
companies that defend their involvement are relying on a legal analysis
made by a Washington based law firm called Covington & Burling,
which is supposedly proving that the phosphate industry on the ground
in Western Sahara is both good for development, and in line with
international law. The problem is that neither the importers, nor the
US law firm wishes to disclose the legal analysis. It thus remains
unknown for the public, even for the Sahrawis themselves, how the
industry has come to the conclusion that the people of Western Sahara
is benefiting from the industry.
Governments start taking position
In other words, in addition to the offering of employment
opportunities and income for Morocco, the resource plundering has an
important political dimension.
The companies are, in their turn, sometimes supported by their home
governments. The political support is showed either through direct
political statements favouring the companies involved, or through lack
of visible will to stop them.
Many of the governments that have been confronted with their companies’
involvement state that due to the absence of UN Security Council
sanctions 1) the industry must be legal and 2) there is nothing they
can to do to prevent their companies from being involved.
Other arguments are also used. The New Zealand case could serve as an
example. Former New Zealand Minister of Trade, Phil Goff, stated this:
“I am advised that there are no legal grounds for banning the trade
from Morocco. Indeed, to do so would be subject to a legal challenge
from Morocco under international trade law” . Later New Zealand would
precise that such a ban can be in violation of GATT regulations. This
interpretation shows also lack of ability to differ the territory of
Western Sahara from the neighbouring territory of Morocco: Western
Sahara is not part of GATT, only Morocco is.
He also stated that they did not know whether the Sahrawis benefited or
Two years later, in 2008, the government admitted that such benefits
are not applied to support for the exercise of the right to
self-determination. They also state that the respect for
self-determination over the natural resources is a matter for Morocco
to consider, not for the companies that take part in it.
“I was told by Morocco that the local community is benefiting through
the provision of money, jobs, infrastructure and services. Clearly,
however, such benefits are not applied to support for the exercise of
the right to self-determination, including independence: Morocco
continues to claim sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Whatever the
rights and wrongs of Morocco’s approach, the responsibility is
Morocco’s. New Zealand companies breach no laws in importing phosphate
extracted from Western Sahara, or marketing fish caught off its coast.”
In this way, the government of New Zealand basically rejects that they
or their companies or the government itself have responsibilities in
matters of international law in the case of Western Sahara.
Another grave example is how the EU Commission on one side claims to
support the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination, while on the other
enters into agreements with Morocco for natural resources plundering of
Western Sahara, stating it is politically irrelevant.
“The Commission wants to avoid that a Fisheries Agreement, which is an
act of economic cooperation, be manipulated in a political context. The
Moroccan government has had a very explicit attitude on this”, the EU
chief negotiator on the fisheries agreement said to Europapress 28 July
Interestingly, even the Moroccan government seem to disagree with the
EU. Trade agreements covering Western Sahara has indeed important
“In a recent interview with ALM, Mohamed Laenser, Minister of
Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries, indicated that the
financial aspect was not necessarily the most important with this [EU
Fisheries Partnership] agreement. The political aspect is not less
important, Mr. Laenser added“.
Some governments, however, do recognise that despite the absence of UN
Security Council resolutions, it might still be in violation of
international law, and that the industries must stop.
“The Swedish government’s position when it comes to understanding
international law in this matter is clear. The area we today call
Western Sahara […] is occupied by Morocco. […] Morocco has no right to
exploit the natural resources in Western Sahara for its own benefit.”
As to this day, a handful of states have come with unambiguous
statements to their own companies, urging them to stay away from
Western Sahara. Norway and Sweden have gone farthest. The Norwegian
government has issued on their homepages a statement to Norwegian
companies, urging Norwegian companies to stay away from the territory ,
and says that the trade might be in violation of the Convention of the
Law of the Sea. Also Ireland and Denmark have come with interesting
statements in this regard.
Upon its divestment from the US oil company Kerr-McGee, the Norwegian
government stated that Kerr-McGee’s oil exploration in Western Sahara
was “a particularly serious violation of fundamental ethical norms e.g.
because it may strengthen Morocco’s sovereignty claims and thus
contribute to undermining the UN peace process”.
Countries like USA or Switzerland have specified that their trade
cooperation with Morocco only apply to Morocco as it is internationally
recognised, not including Western Sahara. In such statements, the
Sahrawis today find important political support.
Several private companies have taken notice of this development. A
dozen companies in fisheries, phosphates, oil and shipping industry
have withdrawn from Western Sahara after pressure from Sahrawis, the
civil society and national governments.
There is a clear tendency that governments and private companies look
to the practice of other governments and competing firms, in
establishing policy and practice in the issue of participation of
natural resources plundering in Western Sahara.
Natural resources related statements from governments defending the
Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination over their own natural
resources, have therefore important domino effect on other states, and
has an important preventive function vis-à-vis companies that
consider establishing on the land before the conflict is solved.
In this context it can be noted that some governments with a strong
position in defence of the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination and
independence, have still not issued public statements or advice to
their own companies as to how they should relate to the natural
resources exploitation in Western Sahara.
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