About 85% of the world’s phosphate reserves are held by Morocco, and one state-owned business controls all of it.
What the heck is phosphate? It’s main use is in fertilizer; the majority of it gets used on corn, which is used to make everything from corn syrup to cattle feed and ethanol. However it is also used in detergents, food additives (including Coca-Cola) and lithium-ion batteries as found in mobile phones.
Lucky Morocco. Except there’s a hitch. A lot of the phosphate comes from the occupied territory of Western Sahara. The largest phosphate mine in the world, Boucraa, is located in this territory. Since arriving in 1975 Morocco has offered subsidies, tax credits and land grants to encourage Moroccans to move in. The state-owned Moroccan mines, unsurprisingly, tend to employ Moroccans rather than Sahrawis and today there are 90,000 Sahrawis living in refugee camps just across the border in Algeria. Armed soldiers guard the phosphate rumbling down the 100km conveyor belt to port and thence to your dinner table and mobile phone battery.
Morocco has been repeatedly criticised for its actions in Western Sahara by rights groups and by the United Nations.
Australian conglomerate Wesfarmers is the major importer of Moroccan phosphate into Australia. Last November Wesfarmers’ Chairperson Bob Every was asked at the company AGM how he felt about the manner in which the phosphate was sourced. He replied that the company is ”not breaking the law”.
Australia, which mines phosphate at Mount Isa, Queensland, and on Christmas Island, still imports 75% of its supplies. Alternative markets aren’t an option. Alternative products aren’t an option either, phosphate is just so embedded into daily life. Perhaps assisting a Western Sahara action group might be the only way to go, the equivalent of purchasing carbon offsets? I invite any reader suggestions in the ‘Comments’ section.
Update 10 Feb: In recent months a number of European banks have divested from Moroccan fertiliser, citing Corporate Social Responsibility as the reason. Read more.
- Sources: ‘Phosphate: Morocco’s White Gold’ BusinessWeek, 4 November 2010; ‘Warning of World Phosphate Shortage’ The Australian, 12 March 2008; ‘Stolen Wealth: How Africa feeds Australia’ Green Left, 27 November 2010