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Occupied and Exploited: Taking Western Sahara's Resources

International action is needed if Sahrawis are to benefit from their own minerals, oil and fishing resources.
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Look across the Western Sahara. Photograph by Michele Benericetti.

Yesterday, a freighter called the Ultra Bellambi docked in Vancouver, on Canada’s west coast, carrying a $10 million shipment of phosphate. It will have carried the load all the way from the Western Sahara’s Bou Craa mines, where it was extracted by the Moroccan company OCP, before being purchased by the Canadian firm Agrium. Agrium completed a major deal for the phosphate earlier this month, and such exports are set to continue until at least 2020.

“We believe this agreement signifies the start of a significant partnership between Agrium and OCP, offering clear benefits to both parties,” president and CEO of Agrium, Mike Watson, said in a statement on the transaction.

Morocco is also set to benefit, with phosphate mining representing around a quarter of the value of the nation’s exports.

However, not everyone is happy with the deal. The Polisario Front, a Sahrawi liberation movement campaigning for independence for Western Sahara, claims the agreement is illegal and that Agrium is helping to prop up Morocco’s control of the region.

“The Sahrawi people emphatically do not consent to the development and export of their natural resources from the occupied part of their territory,” said representatives. “We do not have the benefit of those resources, the revenues from which go to sustain the occupation.”

The occupied desert

The marginalisation of Western Sahara stretches back several decades. It was once a Spanish colony called Spanish Sahara and became the site of one of the United Nation's failed decolonisation plans. Long after its neighbours Morocco and Mauritania gained independence in 1956 and 1960 respectively, the territory remained under colonial administration.

It was only by the 1970s that Spain was finally realising its days of controlling a large slice of the Sahara were numbered. Spain recognised the value of Western Sahara's phosphate resources and the lucrative fishing potential of its long Atlantic coastline, but pressure was building for independence.

In November 1975, Spain convened a meeting of Moroccan, Mauritanian, and Spanish officials in Madrid, which concluded in the Madrid Accords. The agreement saw Western Sahara divided between Morocco and Mauritania, with the former receiving the majority of the land and resources. In exchange, Spain retained some economic interests and the rights to fish the territory's waters.

Spain formally exited Western Sahara in 1976, and internal resistance forced Mauritania out by 1979, but Morocco had no intention of submitting to the Sahrawi independence movement. A 16-year guerrilla war ensued between the Polisario Front, which declared an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and the Moroccan armed forces backed by France and the United States.

By the time a ceasefire was reached in 1991, one million landmines had been laid and Morocco had constructed a 2,700 km separation wall dividing Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, where the majority of the resources are, from Polisario territory. The Sahrawi were divided too; most fled to refugee camps near Tindouf in Algeria, but some remained in occupied territory.

A UN peacekeeping mission was charged with monitoring the ceasefire and organising a self-determination referendum to be held in 1992. Due to constant Moroccan diplomatic pressure and time-consuming (and mostly invalid) challenges to the voter registration process, that referendum has never happened. Moroccan control of the territory, in violation of numerous Security Council resolutions, persists. Repression remains severe. And resource exploitation continues.

(Not) enforcing international law

The Western Sahara is recognised by the UN as a 'non-self-governing territory', and the Polisario Front has gained formal recognition for the SADR from 82 states around the world. According to international legal institutions, the Sahrawi are entitled to self-determination, and “sovereignty over natural wealth and resources [is] a basic constituent of the right to self-determination.”

Yet Moroccan exploration, production, and export of resources from Western Sahara have taken place for decades, as have international oil exploration, phosphate production, and fishing, in violation of this principle.

Hundreds of millions in Western Saharan resources are traded each year with few successful attempts to curb the practice, and Agrium’s deal is simply the latest in a long line of agreements made without the Sahrawi’s consent. Agrium has defended the deal, saying that it had sought appropriate legal guidance and that the company is committed to improving quality of life in all communities that it does business. But criticism has continued.

“Such activities would be illegal if failing to take into account the wishes and the interests of the Saharawi as the original people of the territory,” said Western Sahara Research Watch (WSRW), a group which lobbies against transactions between companies and governments that make use of Western Saharan resources. The organisation estimates almost $300 million in phosphate has been exported from Western Sahara in 44 shiploads so far this year.

WSRW also campaigns against Moroccan, European, and Russian exploitation of Western Sahara's lucrative fishing industry. UN reports suggest the combined value of Moroccan and Western Saharan fishing rights comes to hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

WSRW claims Morocco’s occupation is subsidised to support the industry at the expense of the Sahrawi, and that agreements such as the EU–Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement and similar arrangements with Russia are illegal. The EU partnership has granted licenses to European companies (a majority Spanish) for Western Saharan waters, providing a modern expression of the fishing rights Spanish planners incorporated into the Madrid Accords. The accord was not renewed in December 2011 partly due to a dispute over Western Saharan waters, and a new protocol was put forwards in summer 2013 which the EU claims is in accordance with international law, but WSRW insists it still fails to exclude the waters of the Western Sahara.

Ending resource exploitation

Some efforts at ending the trade of Western Saharan resources without Sahrawi have been successful. On 30 September, for example, four of Sweden's state pension funds decided to sell their stakes in Incitec Pivot and Potash Corp due to the companies’ continued import of Western Saharan phosphate.

"Both companies [are] purchasers of phosphate from a Moroccan supplier that mines its product in Western Sahara, a disputed territory that is on the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories that should be decolonised,” said the fund.

The move followed a similar decision by Norwegian state pension funds in 2010.

However, for the most part, there remain real difficulties in persuading companies not to engage in the trade of conflict resources. Despite questions of the legality of doing so, many companies continue to buy phosphates, conduct oil exploration, and engage in the fishing trade. According to Independent Diplomat, a non-profit advisory group which works with Polisario, this is likely go on so long as international law is not enforced and policy is expressed vaguely at national level.

"Responsible governments need to provide legal clarity by providing guidelines to all private companies that any exploration or exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources must respect international law,” a representative told Think Africa Press. “In failing to provide this clarity, governments will indirectly be allowing companies to violate the sovereign rights of Western Sahara's people to control their own resources."

Indeed, Agrium seems to be well aware of Western Sahara’s non-self governing status. In its company reports, it classifies Western Sahara separately from Morocco – and not only nationally but also by region, listing Western Sahara as part of sub-Saharan Africa and Morocco as part of North Africa. Yet there does not seem to be the pressure or awareness to stop Agrium trading in exploited resources.

When it comes to the Western Sahara’s minerals, oil, and fishing resources, ethical concerns clearly compete with the need for profit. And without enforcement of international law, through the policies of the European Union and major advanced economies, evidence suggests there is little chance of fully curtailing the trade.

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