Fish, phosphates and tomatoes

By Olivier Quarante for
LeMonde diplomatique, Friday 7 March 2014

Morocco exploits Western Sahara’s natural resources

Morocco is making considerable profits from the land and waters of the annexed Western Sahara, and no external power, including the UN, has challenged this.It’s impossible to count the lorries laden with octopus and fish streaming north on the main road between El Aaiun, the major city in the north of Western Sahara, and Dakhla, 500 km south. Western Sahara’s coastline is over 1,200km long and its waters have some of the world’s biggest fish stocks. According to a report by Morocco’s Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE), the fishing industry accounts for 74,000 jobs in Western Sahara, and that does not include the large grey economy. Fishing here generates for 17% of the region’s GDP, 31% of employment and 78% of Morocco’s catch. This industry in the “southern provinces” (as Morocco officially calls Western Sahara) is big business, and Morocco has monopolised it since 1975, when it annexed Western Sahara, classed as “a non-self-governing territory” since the UN General Assembly’s resolution 2072 in 1965.

On this dangerous road — the only route south — we encountered other trucks transporting tomatoes, cucumbers and melons produced around Dakhla. According to the NGO Western Sahara Resource Watch, there are 11 agricultural production sites near the city, one of which is run by the Tawarta company. One of its greenhouses extends for at least half a kilometre alongside the road; the cherry tomatoes grown here are marketed under the French company Idyl’s Etoile du Sud brand. In 2008 Western Saharan produce, mislabelled “produce of Morocco”, was being grown over nearly 600 hectares and sent on to Europe from the Moroccan port of Agadir, 1,200km north.

The CESE considers this a high value-added activity. The Green Morocco plan projects that Western Sahara’s fresh produce output, which has increased from 36,000 tonnes in 2008 to 80,000 tonnes in 2013, will reach 160,000 tonnes by 2020, with 2,000 hectares under cultivation. All of it is for export. The number of people employed in agriculture, currently around 6,000, is expected to triple.

Further north, 10km from El Aaiun, is the port operated by the Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP, a Moroccan national company). The phosphates arrive here after a 100km desert journey by conveyor belt from the Bou Craa mine. All you can make out through the fine dust that fills the air are the storage silos and the bulk carriers from all over the world that ship the ore. Phosphates are vitally important to Morocco: OCP is the second-largest producer and the biggest exporter of unrefined phosphate and phosphoric acid in the world, as well as one of the main exporters of phosphate fertilisers. Morocco has the world’s largest phosphate reserves and 6% of its GDP in 2012 came from these products.

‘They’re pillaging our resources’

Mohamed Alisalem Bobeit, vice-president of a group that monitors natural resource issues in Western Sahara, is well aware of the importance of PhosBoucraa to Morocco. This site produces around 10% of OCP’s phosphates and output is expected to double by 2020. “They are pillaging resources that belong to the people of the Sahara,” Bobeit told me. Expressing such views in public is risky: Sid Ahmed Lamjayed, the president of the association (which is illegal, as are all Sahrawi associations) was arrested on 25 December 2010 because of the huge protest movement organised at Gdeim Izik, and sentenced to life imprisonment by a military court in Rabat.

But judging by the increasing number of demonstrations, support for such views is growing. Since October 2010 and the Gdeim Izik protest camp, one demand has been paramount in the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front (the armed political organisation considered by the UN to be the “legitimate representative of the Saharan people”): stopping resource exploitation until a referendum on self-determination. “A UN resolution forbidding Morocco’s exploitation of resources would create the right conditions for a significant step towards resolving the conflict,” said Brahim Sabbar, secretary general of ASVDH (Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State).

A divided international community allowed Morocco to take de facto control of this territory of 270,000 sq km in 1975. Morocco was able to control PhosBoucraa under an agreement with the former colonial power, Spain, which had run the site since 1962 and remained a shareholder until 2002. The war with the Polisario Front had already broken out and Western Sahara featured on the list of non-self-governing territories under article 73 of the UN charter. In 1962 the UN declared: “The right of peoples and nations to permanent sovereignty over their natural wealth and resources must be exercised in the interest of their national development and of the well-being of the people of the state concerned”. Subsequently, international law has talked of the inalienable rights of the inhabitants of non-self-governing territories to their natural resources and their right to determine the future exploitation of those resources.

The current debate centres on the extent to which the Sahrawis should benefit from Morocco’s economic exploitation. The signing of oil-prospecting contracts in October 2001 between Morocco and two oil companies (one of which was TotalFinaElf) prompted a statement from the UN, which subtly altered the principles expressed previously: according to the under-secretary-general for legal affairs, “the question is whether the principle of ‘permanent sovereignty’ prohibits any activities related to natural resources undertaken by an administering power … in a non-self-governing territory, or only those which are undertaken in disregard of the needs, interests and benefits of the people of that territory.”

But no mechanism for assessing these interests exists. The circumstances in which “colonial peoples of non-self-governing territories” could exert their legitimate rights over their natural resources have not been defined. Therefore the question has become part of the power struggle between the parties involved in the conflict. The Polisario Front has condemned Morocco’s pillaging of resources and its disregard for the people of Western Sahara. In November 2012 it instituted proceedings at the European Court of Justice seeking the cancellation of the commercial and agricultural agreement between the EU and Morocco, which was signed in March 2012 and included Western Sahara. The essence of the case was that the Polisario Front had not been consulted.

Propaganda battle

The Moroccan authorities are engaged in an intense propaganda battle to convince people that their economic exploitation benefits “the population of the territory”. Announcements of new investment programmes come thick and fast, and are regularly reported in the French and Moroccan press. It is unclear, though, whether “the local population” means the Sahrawis or the Moroccans (hundreds of thousands of whom have moved to the region). The Polisario Front talks of “the people of Western Sahara”. Both expressions are used by the UN’s legal adviser when referring to the Sahrawis.

The Moroccan authorities are striving to promote the idea that the Sahrawis benefit from their region’s natural wealth. OCP claims it has a social policy: “All PhosBoucraa’s net revenue is reinvested in the region and benefits its inhabitants,” said its 2012 report. After the events at Gdeim Izik, 530 young Sahrawis were taken on by the mine, the sons of employees from the Spanish era dissatisfied with their pensions. “An agreement was reached, but the young people were employed at an obsolete grade and therefore on a lower salary,” said Eddia Sidi Ahmed Moussa, secretary general of the (banned) Sahrawi Trade Union Confederation.

Another lever Morocco uses is the distribution of national promotion cards, a social security scheme worth $200 per month, which appears to be widespread. Several accounts confirmed that this payment, distributed by tribal chiefs, is being used to engineer social peace and stem political unrest. The authorities are able to withdraw aid from anyone who takes part in pro-Sahrawi demonstrations.

So are there any genuine benefits for the Sahrawis? In the absence of reliable data, which the occupying country is not obliged to provide as the UN does not consider it an administrating power, it is impossible to give a definitive answer. What is beyond doubt is that the Moroccan authorities are making full use of this claim. The CESE’s “new development model for the southern provinces” (November 2013) aimed to add civil society’s contribution to the “success of the Moroccan autonomy initiative”. Since 2007 Mohammed VI has presented this initiative as his counterproposal to the self-determination referendum that the UN has been requesting since 1991.

The most recent example: on 10 December 2013 the EU approved a new fishing deal, which extended the 2007-11 agreement to the period 2014-17.

Once again, “Morocco” is taken to include the waters of Western Sahara, though this is not spelled out. The agreement provides for an annual subsidy (down from €36m to €30m [$41m]) to develop the sector; in return Morocco grants licences to European boats and species-specific fishing quotas. In December 2011 the EU had refused to extend the original agreement, so this recent vote looks like a clear sign of approval for the Moroccan authorities and their “reformist” policy.

The EU’s legal department has sidestepped the question of benefits to the Sahrawis by taking the view that Morocco is entitled to include the waters of Western Sahara, and that such an agreement is legal as long as Morocco “respects its obligations towards the people of Western Sahara”. Unfortunately the only EU parliamentarians Morocco permits to visit the territory belong to the EU-Morocco friendship group. The French Socialist European MP Gilles Pargneaux, who heads this group, said: “It’s a mistake to think the Western Sahara problem can be solved by rejecting this fishing agreement. It should be remembered that Morocco’s proposal for the autonomy of Western Sahara submitted to the UN in 2007 is the only possible solution”. It’s unfortunate, too, that the economic and financial benefits of the agreement have been ignored: an independent assessment of the previous fishing agreement revealed a “very poor” cost-benefit ratio and a very high degree of inefficiency.

France, the largest foreign investor in Morocco, contributes actively to maintaining the status quo, to the detriment of the Sahrawis. Last November, the opening of a new fishing port at Boujdour, which has an impressive main jetty 724m long and a lateral jetty of 260m, was made possible through financial support from France’s development agency; its investment in Morocco has gone from €380m in 2011 to €831m ($1.1bn) in 2012. In Boujdour, Sultana Khaya, a young Sahrawi human rights activist, recently set up the League for the Protection of Natural Resources. She is worried about exploratory drilling by Total, which carried out seismic testing in July 2013 — 12 years after the first contract agreed in Western Sahara — in a zone of over 100,000 sq km called “Anzarane Offshore”.