Main photo: The world’s longest conveyor belt in Boucraa, Moroccan controlled part of Western Sahara
Phosphate is a vital source of phosphorus – commonly used in the production of fertilizers. It is something you associate with food security, not conflict. Well, not until you visit Boucraa, a massive open-pit phosphate mine in Western Sahara – a desolate windblown territory controlled by Morocco.
Here a 98 km-long conveyor belt – the world’s longest- moves 2000 metric tons of phosphate rock every hour to the Port of Laâyoune, from where it is shipped overseas. So large is this facility that it can be spotted from outer space. The mine is operated by Phosboucraa – a subsidiary of the state-run phosphate mining monopoly, OCP Group. It processes 2.6m tons of phosphate rock each year and is the single biggest employer in the region. Now that in itself is not particularly interesting. What is noteworthy is that this site is located in a territory widely considered as ‘occupied’.
Western Sahara is Africa’s last remaining unresolved matter of decolonisation. The year was 1975 and Spain’s withdrawal from this region looked imminent. A referendum was to be held to determine the status of the region but King Hassan II rejected it and, in a pre-emptive move, ordered the settling of 350,000 Moroccans on the territory. This came to be known as the ‘Green March’.
A week later Madrid signed a secret agreement splitting Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania, with the former getting two-thirds of the 266,000 sq km territory, including the phosphate-rich Boucraa. Fighting broke out soon after, resulting in the displacement of thousands. An independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was declared on February 27, 1976, and from its base in Algeria, the Polisario Front launched an armed campaign for independence. Mauritania eventually renounced its claim and allowing Morocco to seize its part of the territory as well. Hostilities did not end until 1991 when a ceasefire was brokered by the UN. Now that truce is under threat. The Polisario Front has recently launched sporadic attacks on the buffer zone that separates them from the Moroccan armed forces.
Rabat has made significant financial, diplomatic and military investments to keep the region under its control. What was once a grim flat underdeveloped region hums with activity. The beach town of Dakhla has transformed into a windsurfing paradise. Phosboucraa publishes glossy pictures of young Sahrawi women jogging here in colourful track pants.
Moroccan intervention has brought modernisation and prosperity to some parts of the territory. Urbanisation has diluted the nomadic way of life in the region. Indeed, many residents identify themselves as Moroccans. But that does not mean there exists a splendid harmony.
Some resent the demographic change that has occurred since the annexation. It makes them feel like minorities in their land. But life across the 2700 km long man-made ‘berm’ wall, an extraordinary defensive perimeter built by Morocco to keep the Polisario out, is particularly harsh. Here they live mostly as refugees. A massive sand wall separates the Moroccan controlled part of the region from a sliver of the land under rebel control.
So what does phosphate have to do with this conflict? It helps the Kingdom finance its control and make friends. Morocco is the largest exporter of this white stuff in the world, netting more than US$5bn a year. Although Boucraa contributes only 10% to that revenue, Western Sahara holds the second-largest reserve of phosphate rock in the world. If it ever gained independence it could break Morocco’s domination of the global raw phosphate market.
The OCP Group is not just another commercial monopoly. Its influence extends wide. For years the West has been its most lucrative market. But in recent years the company has set its eyes on Africa. OCP is assisting Ghana, Rwanda, Cameroon and others map soil fertility. A US$600m processing facility near Casablancais the lynchpin of its expansion plan. The group already has a 65% share of the phosphate-based fertiliser market in Africa. As food security becomes a priority it could grow further. OCP even provides African farmers with tools to analyse soil. Such efforts have reaped dividends. The number of countries that recognise the SADR is dwindling. In December 2020, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) became the sixteenth African state to open a consulate in Dakhla.
Phosphate is not often seen as a strategic asset but it is. The best estimate of the total phosphate reserve that can be economically extracted is 69bn tonnes. Morocco accounts for 70% of this reserve. That gives it valuable leverage. When I first reported on the conflict in 1997 the SADR had an ‘embassy’ in New Delhi. Three years later it was shut down. The Indian fertilizer industry wanted phosphoric acid and Morocco turned out to be a reliable supplier. So New Delhi decided to switch sides. Many others have since followed suit.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn
Amit Jain is a Singapore-based consultant who helps clients navigate frontier markets and fragile states. He provides technical assistance and transaction advice on upstream projects.
Follow Amit Jain on Twitter @Amit_Jain_World