Why a Segment of Saskatchewan’s Economy, and Our Ethical Compass, Hinges on an Undeveloped, War-Torn African Nation

Somewhere in the waters just off the southernmost tip of South Africa, a loaded cargo ship is going nowhere.

The NM Cherry Blossom and its 50000 ton cargo of phosphate was seized by a South African court on May 7, 2017

Exporting natural resources is routine in most places, but most places aren’t the Western Sahara. The last remaining colony in Africa, the Western Sahara is home to one of the most abundant phosphate reserves on the planet, as well as one of the world’s longest-running unresolved armed conflicts.

In 1884 Spain colonized the Western Sahara, which had been home to the Sahrawi people for hundreds of years, and in prior centuries, prime hunting ground for slave-traders.

In the 1960s the United Nations told Spain pack their shit and get out, but not before it organized a referendum on self-governance for the Sahrawi people.

In 1975, neighboring Morocco announced they were the rightful landlords of Western Sahara, and marched 375000 foot soldiers into the region to underline that point.

In 1976 Spain told the UN it had officially peaced out – without ever having held that referendum – and had left the keys to the Western Saharan Bou Craa phosphate mine under the mat for Morocco. The two countries, neither of which arguably had any right to do so, cut a deal that allowed Spain to retain 35 per cent of the mine’s ownership (which it eventually sold back to Morocco).

From that point on the Sahrawi people considered the Western Sahara occupied, and the Moroccon government considered the Western Sahara, well, Morocco.

In the midst of all this a Sahrawi nationalist movement dubbed the Polisario Front (PF) had been established, describing itself as the “legitimate representative of the Western Sahara”. In 1976, the same year Spain checked out, the PF proclaimed Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as the Western Sahara’s new name (though in this post we’ll continue to refer to the region as Western Sahara).

Morocco begged to differ, and a bloody territorial war broke out, raging for the next fifteen years and forcing hundreds of thousands of Saharawi residents into refugee camps in Algeria.

algerian refugee camp
Travelocity only gives it 2 stars. (Sahrawi refugee camp, 2016, Tindouf, Algeria.) (Reuters)

With no plant life, little water (unless delivered in bulk via flash flooding) – nothing but scorched, barren earth for hundreds of miles – Sahrawi camps are hellholes. Refugees are starving, exhausted and fed up. An entire generation has grown up in the camps, and is ready to fight to get their parents’ homeland back.

The conditions of these refugees camps is highlighted nicely by this uplifting story about a Sahrawi girl in one of those camps, whose mother found a human bone, put a scrap of fabric on it and gifted it to her daughter – who was legit thrilled to have it – as a new doll.

While a form of ceasefire was brokered by the United Nations in 1991 under a peacekeeping agreement called MINURSO, the cold war continues to rage. The front line is separated by a wall, chock full of landmines, built by the Moroccan government between their country – more importantly, the phosphate mine – and the tiny scrap of land the Sahrawi people have managed to hang on to.

In 2015, Morocco freaked out on the U.N. and kicked a bunch of MINURSO peacekeepers out of the region after former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visited Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria and referred to Western Sahara as “occupied” by Morocco. This came after Morocco breached the landmine buffer zone, prompting mobilization of PF troops.

Seems like a strange place for a Saskatchewan company to do business, no? (Credit)

Last month the United Nations issued its annual report on the conflict. In it, new U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recommends new talks, which he says should address proposals from both Morocco (essentially that they remain in power, giving the PF some form of provincial “autonomy”) and the Polisario independence (or bust) movement.

Helpful. I can’t believe no one has thought of that simple solution in the last 40 years (#sarcasm).

Today refugees in the Algerian camps refuse to return to their homeland until it is liberated from Morocco. As with any refugee crisis – nevermind one that’s over 40 years old – it’s complicated, made moreso by a recent surge of Muslim extremism in the region (i.e. Moroccans claim the PF are associated with ISIS, and vice versa).

So, why is Morocco so hell-bent on owning the Western Sahara?

Natural resources, of course.

Specifically, the Bou Craa phosphate mine, which allegedly sits on an estimated 1.1 billion cubic metres of phosphate rock. According to one United States Geological Survey (2016), that equals 72 per cent of the world’s total phosphate stores.

According to a report of a human rights organization called Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW), which is dedicated to the crisis in that region (check out their website for tons of information), in 2016 alone 1.86 million tons of phosphate rock trundled down a 100-kilometer-long conveyor belt connecting the Bou Craa mine, which is operated by a Moroccan government-owned corporation called OCP, to the African coastline.

The world’s longest conveyor belt. (Western Sahara.) (Credit)

There it was loaded onto cargo ships like the Cherry Blossom and sent to its buyer’s destination.

In 2016, just like many, many years before it, over half of the ships carrying phosphate mined out of Western Sahara were destined for either Agrium (predominantly) or Potash Corp of Saskatchewan (PCS) (they’re now basically the same company).

According to their 2016 annual report, Agrium’s phosphate fertilizer products are retailed primarily in Western Canada and the northwestern United States, likely because those regions have a phosphate deficiency problem, thanks in part to our appetite for high-yield crops and over-seeding our land.

In January 2017 the Western Producer reported that 81 percent of 2015 soil samples from Saskatchewan alone “tested below the critical level of 15 parts per million” of phosphate.

Phosphate and nitrogen are two of the most vital components of synthetic fertilizer, but unlike nitrogen, phosphate is a finite resource. It is also extremely difficult – impossible, really – to grow and feed the North American (or any) food chain without it.

In other words, we’re pillaging exploiting relying on Western Sahara, an unstable, third-world country, to satisfy our first-world hunger for bigger, better beef, corn and soybeans.

While not their biggest moneymaker, PCS and Agrium grind out billions of dollars annually in phosphate fertilizer sales. Just like our food supply, it seems those sales also hinge on that same poverty-stricken African country in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

This bears repeating: food production in North America and Potash Corp profits, in part, are both reliant on a third-world, war-torn African nation.

Which brings us back to the Cherry Blossom, currently bobbing quietly in a South African port, where it awaits the outcome of a hearing scheduled for a Cape Town courtroom on May 18, 2017*, at which the PF will argue that the phosphate bounty was stolen from the region.

It is expected that the hearing will test a recent European court ruling that said Western Sahara should not be considered part of Morocco in European Union and Moroccan deals.

If they win, the PF are demanding the phosphate be returned to the Western Sahara and to their control. If they lose, the PF claim they will sue.

So that’s the legalities of the thing – but what about the ethics?

That’s not a new debate either.

In 2008 another company with deep Saskatchewan ties, Mosaic Potash, began investigating the well-documented human rights violations committed by the Moroccan government against the Sahrawi people, including deliberately excluding Sahrawis from employment at the mine (90% of its 2000 employees are Moroccan), and violently shutting down dissent by kidnapping, torturing and murdering Sahrawi protestors.

After a two year investigation, Mosaic spent $385 million on a 35 percent stake in a Peruvian mine to supply rock to its phosphate operations in North and South America, and advised the WSRW that they would no longer purchase phosphate from the Moroccan government.

After undergoing a 2008 police investigation in their own country for importing from the Western Sahara, Norwegian fertilizer company Yara International quit the habit as well.

In 2011 Norway’s state pension fund — one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the world — nixed investment in PotashCorp, and in 2014 four Swedish pension funds sold off their stake in the company, all because of ethics concerns over its phosphate deals with Morocco.

PCS itself isn’t oblivious to the controversy; in 2015 they published a report defending their relationship with the Moroccan government.

Check it out for yourself, but IMHO the assertions PCS put forward as justification for trade with the Moroccan government don’t match up to the reports and observations of both accredited and respected news agencies and human rights watchdogs (many of which are linked in this piece).

For example, in the report PCS claim they are,

“aware of the humanitarian concerns for historically displaced inhabitants living in refugee camps in Algeria and other regions…”

but then quickly add,

“it is important to separate politics from the responsibilities of OCP as a company and its inability to influence or control the refugee situation, which was the result of an armed conflict.”

Sorry, what?

How do you separate politics from the OCP, which is owned and operated by the f**king Moroccan government?

A government which could easily “control the refugee situation” by getting the hell out of the region they’re occupying?

A government that comprises one half of said “armed conflict”?

Then there’s the nuns.

When nuns are attempting to stage a coup at your Annual General Meeting, maybe you ought to rethink your company’s choices.

In May of 2016, 95 Catholic nuns took to the floor at PCS’s AGM to ask the company to undertake a human rights study of its operations in the Western Sahara. Their motion was backed by the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation, which handles pension funds for B.C. public servants, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, among others.

The nuns lost the vote, but certainly won the attention of PCS senior management.

It wasn’t enough, though.

One of PCS’s main arguments for why it continues the controversial trade practice is that its imports from OCP have helped to provide jobs, training, education, local investment and other benefits to the people of Western Sahara.

Now let’s pretend that’s true.

Just kidding.

By virtually all accounts, it’s probably not.

But is it PCS’s job to broker a resolution between the Moroccan and Western Saharan regimes?

Of course not.

So this is where I defer to the words of someone much smarter than I.

“We can’t expect a company like (PCS) to take any responsibility for the political situation that’s there,” said Sisters of Mercy general superior Elizabeth Davis at the PCS AGM. “But what they can take responsibility for is ensuring that their involvement is not adding any further complexity to the political situation and is actually supporting the people themselves in getting a bit closer to their own autonomy.”

Which it’s not – all PCS is doing is making itself and the Moroccan government richer.

And normally, I’m totally fine with that. Global trade is complex and imperfect. It employs millions of people and more often than not, the corporations involved – including PCS – are exceptional corporate citizens.

But as I write this from my cushy coffee shop in downtown Saskatoon, staring up at the Potash Corp logo emblazoned across their office headquarters, my mind keeps wandering back to that starving little girl cuddling her bone-doll in the Algerian refugee camp, and I wonder why the Saskatchewan people working under that logo wouldn’t want to do better.

I mean, have we really learned nothing about the consequences of invading other people’s territory, displacing them from their homes and helping ourselves to their resources?

On a personal level, I find myself having to question whether by sitting at a fireworks festival, or marveling over ice statues, am I potentially contributing to that little girl’s plight?

PCS CEO Jochen Tilk and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall cut a ribbon on a new STARS helicopter which maybe we’ve earned which we have earned at the expense of a displaced African nation. (Credit Weyburn Review)

Shouldn’t the Saskatchewan government have something to say about this, given our important reciprocal relationship, nevermind our tax dollars subsidizing the jobs of the people making the decision to do business with an occupying military force?

In their own 2015 report, PCS admits that their margin on West Saharan phosphate “accounted for less than 0.5 percent of our corporate total” and the amount of phosphate rock imported “accounted for approximately 6 percent of the phosphate rock we processed company-wide” between 2010 and 2015.

So why not just stop?

Even if they don’t want to, PCS might not have a choice because the problem isn’t going away. Yesterday (May 17, 2017) a second cargo ship of phosphate from Western Sahara, owned by Agrium and en route to Vancouver, was seized under court order in Panama.

Panama maritime authorities confirmed to this news outlet that the vessel, which is operated by another Saskatchewan company, Canpotex, is being held in port in Panama by a judicial decision.

Emhamed Khadad, a PF party leader and the “senior SADR official responsible for natural resources,” had this to say about the second cargo seizure:

“We are optimistic this second recourse to applying the law, to bring an end to the blatant theft of a resource belonging to a people under occupation, will demonstrate our resolve.

I guess we’ll see.

But if you think something needs to change, Saskatchewan, I think we’re in one of the best positions on earth to make that happen… because we may not own PCS anymore, but we still own the potash they can’t survive without.

Let me know in the comments if you think this matters, or Tweet your thoughts to @PremierBradWall or @PotashCorpSask.

*A decision on the fate of the NM Cherry Blossom has been held over by a Cape Town courtroom til June 9th.

For those of you who care, I’m Tammy Robert. I’m a writer, but pay the bills consulting in media and public relations. Email me anytime at tammyrobert@live.ca

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