At the end of a pier stretching more than a mile-and-a-half into the Atlantic Ocean from Laayoune, a 75,000-ton tanker vessel rocks slowly in the ocean swells, creaking and groaning as it takes on a new load.
A long spout pours phosphate from a conveyor belt into the ship's hold, and some of the powdery substance spills into the air like dust, coating the deck of the vessel and stinging as it blows in the strong wind. By the next day, this tanker, called the Double Rejoice, will be on its way across the Atlantic to Baton Rouge, La., where its load of phosphate will be delivered to PCS Nitrogen Fertilizer, the American subsidiary of PotashCorp, the biggest fertilizer company in the world.
Farther out to sea, two more vessels wait for their turn to load.
Phosphate is a key ingredient in the fertilizer that helps makes it possible to feed the world's growing population. The world's supply of phosphate is concentrated in just a handful of countries, with more than three-fourths of that in Morocco and Western Sahara. But exploiting Western Sahara's supply of this critical resource is controversial.
Once a Spanish colony, Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1976, and roiled by regional power politics and an independence movement that waged a guerrilla war until a cease-fire in 1991. With Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara unrecognized by the UN, many in the international community argue that Morocco is violating international law by exploiting the territory's resources and that global companies should not be party to that.
Yet the phosphate mining by a Moroccan company goes on, and foreign companies like PotashCorp continue to buy. In 2008, prices for phosphate rock spiked, raising the incentive to ignore international law and continue exploiting Western Sahara's phosphate. Prices have since dropped, but have still increased by more than 300 percent since 2007. At current prices, the load in the hold of the Double Rejoice would be worth nearly $14 million.
"It's a huge ethical dilemma. And the companies PotashCorp simply look away from that dilemma. They choose to look away," says Erik Hagen, head of Western Sahara Resource Watch, which tracks the companies that buy resources from the disputed territory.
Why the mine draws fire
The output of the mine in Western Sahara, called Boucraa, is about 2.5 million tons per year. That's only a small percentage of the 27 million tons that Morocco, the world's largest phosphate exporter, produces every year. Yet it is draws fire because International law prohibits occupying powers from exploiting the natural resources of the territories they control unless they do so in the interest of, and according to, the wishes of the local population. Morocco says it meets these conditions because it invests heavily in Western Sahara, local and regional governmental bodies are headed by Saharawis, and representatives from the region have a say in development and resource extraction.
The Moroccan government has spent millions of dollars developing fishing ports in Western Sahara, which has a population of about 500,000. It says it is spending millions more on development projects in Laayoune and elsewhere, including plans for urban public spaces, public transportation, the second-largest public library in Morocco-controlled territory, and Western Sahara's first university. The government has also attracted thousands of Moroccans to the territory with incentives like land, subsidized food, and lower taxes, changing the demographics of Western Sahara so that Saharawis are now believed to be a minority.
But Saharawi activists say that Saharawis don't reap the benefits from exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources. They complain of government neglect and discrimination against Saharawis in Western Sahara.Hospitals are so poor that many people try to go elsewhere for treatment, they say, while pointing out that there is yet no university in the territory. …