Agrium’s import of phosphate from occupied Western Sahara raises serious legal, ethical questions. Steaming towards Vancouver is a freighter holding almost $10 million of phosphate rock from Western Sahara — a region that has been militarily occupied by Morocco since 1975.
When the load arrives around Oct. 24 at Neptune Bulk Terminals in North Vancouver, it could be the first import of conflict minerals coming directly into Canada since the apartheid era in South Africa.
Plight of the Saharawi people
Calgary-based Agrium is the owner of the 60,000 tonnes of phosphate rock aboard the freighter Ultra Bellambi and has entered into an agreement with Moroccan state-owned company OCP to import one million tonnes each year until 2020. Agrium confirmed to The Tyee that at least some of this material is being sourced from Western Sahara.
Western Sahara has been called Africa’s last colony, and has been in limbo since the Spanish withdrew in 1975. The territory is the traditional homeland of the Saharawi people that declared independence in 1976. The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) has since been recognized by more than 80 countries worldwide and is a member of the African Union.
Some 80,000 Moroccan soldiers still occupy two-thirds of the territory behind a 2,400-kilometre sand berm that divides Western Sahara with five million landmines along its length — the longest fortified structure in the world. No state recognizes Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara and the United Nations General Assembly has declared the kingdom’s continued presence an illegal occupation.
About half of the entire Saharawi population, totalling 150,000 refugees, live in camps across the border in southwest Algeria. Their home villages were bombed with napalm and white phosphorus by the Moroccan air force in 1976, reportedly killing thousands of civilians. Almost four decades later this diaspora and their descendants continue to endure some of the most inhospitable conditions on the planet.
Summer temperatures often top 50 degrees Celsius and sandstorms and drought are common. Saharawi refugees living in many of the camps have no access to safe or sufficient water, cannot grow their own food and are completely dependent on international aid. Almost half of children below five years of age suffer from acute or chronic lack of nutrition. 47 per cent of women suffer from lack of iron.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describes the health conditions of the refugees as “dire.” According to Janak Upadhyay, a senior UNHCR officer who visited the camps:
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