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
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
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. …