April 6, 2022

Occupied Western Sahara: Lucrative trade in conflict minerals 


The phosphate deposits in Morocco and the occupied Western Sahara are among the largest in the world. The raw material plays a considerable role in the forgotten conflict over the last colony in Africa. A recent report sheds light on the mining and trade of phosphate rock, which is needed for the production of fertilizers - a business with Swiss involvement.  

In a non-self-governing territory such as Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, resource extraction is only permitted under international law if the affected people give their consent. Business in Western Sahara is therefore not only an ethical problem, but also a legal one.

In the case of phosphate, the problem is compounded by the fact that both mining and trade in the raw material are handled by the Moroccan state-owned company OCP. The revenues from phosphate mining and trade thus directly benefit the occupying power. Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) estimate in their recent report "P for Plunder". earnings for the year 2021 to $349 million.

Swiss companies are also involved in the dirty business with phosphate. The state-owned Moroccan commodity trading company OCP operates an office in Geneva under the name Saftco. And Zug-based EuroChem exported the raw material to Estonia. Until recently, the company's main shareholder was sanctioned oligarch Andrey Melnichenko. Swiss shipping companies were also involved in shipments.

Conflict phosphate in Europe again

The Western Sahara phosphate comes from the Bou Craa mine. As in the previous year, in 2021 most of the phosphate rock, around 40 percent, went to the company Paradeep in India - an 80 percent subsidiary of OCP itself. The second largest customer was the U.S. company Innophos, which imported 28 percent of all phosphate rock into Mexico.

However, the import of the conflict phosphate to Estonia in October 2021 by the Swiss EuroChem is particularly disturbing. The company had previously imported Western Sahara phosphate, but after criticism the company communicated in 2016 that it would refrain from doing so in the future. A statement that it confirmed several times.

EuroChem last told WSRW in February 2020 that it had no further plans to import the conflict mineral. The company would not comment to terre des hommes schweiz on the specific facts surrounding the 2021 shipment to Estonia. 

Shipping companies involved

Swiss shipping companies were also involved in the Western Sahara phosphate trade. In March, the transport ship "Hopa" reached its port of destination in China, with an estimated 61,000 tons of phosphate rock from the Bou Craa mine on board. The operator of the "Hopa" is Geneva-based SwissMarine Service AG.

One of the Innophos transports to Mexico took place on the "Genava" in September 2021. The "Genava" is listed with the shipping company Zürich AG and, according to its information, is owned by Bulk Shipping Switzerland AG. SwissMarine was the operator in this case as well. Neither the shipping company Zürich AG nor SwissMarine responded to inquiries from terre des hommes switzerland.  

Injustice in the third generation

According to various statements by OCP, a substantial part of the phosphate deposit in the Bou Craa mine has already been exhausted. This is particularly frustrating for the Sahrawis, who have been waiting since 1991 to exercise their right to self-determination and to use their own resources.

The referendum promised at the time has since been blocked by Morocco, which has occupied two-thirds of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara since 1975. The Sahrawis also suffered a setback at the end of March, when Spain deviated from the UN position and approved the autonomy plan proposed by Morocco in 2007 instead of the referendum agreed in 1991. 

This is particularly hard to bear for the young Sahrawis, who are now the third generation to grow up in the occupied territory or in the refugee camps on Algerian soil. terre des hommes switzerland supports a project for young Sahrawis in the Smara refugee camp.

Please also read

30 years of waiting for liberation

In the forgotten conflict over Western Sahara, there is an anniversary, but no reason to celebrate. Most Sahrawis still live in refugee camps or under Moroccan occupation. The situation is again very critical.

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