Better to be talked about…

October 31, 2011

As regular readers of this blog will have noticed, my posts come in fits and bursts. By my own (admittedly quite slack) standards I’ve been pretty active lately, with four articles in just over a month. Usually when I’m this active there is a rapid response in the comments spaces from a small cabal representing the official Moroccan position on the Western Sahara conflict, enthusiastically pushing pro-Rabat and anti-Polisario/anti-Sahrawi propaganda. The cheerleader of this little group is someone who goes by the monicker of Ahmed Salem Amr Khadad (see here for a discussion of his approach and a for number of his comments). Ahmed Salem has been the most prolific commenter on my blog posts, and he can be found in many other corners of the internet, pouring scorn and vitriol on anyone critical of Morocco and its occupation of the disputed, non-self governing territory of Western Sahara, which both Morocco and the Polisario claim.

Lately I’ve been wondering where Ahmed Salem has got to, as this blog has been somewhat lacking in comments in recent months. However, thanks to Will Sommer of the currently (and sadly) dormant “One Hump or Two” Western Sahara blog, the mystery of Ahmed Salem’s silence and apparent lack if interest in attacking my material has now been solved. It turns out that he’s not been ignoring me after all. Far from it. Instead, he’s been putting his not inconsiderable talents (and I’m not being entirely facetious there) to use setting up the following Facebook page, of which he appears to be the administrator:

    Against the propaganda of Nick Brooks for the account of Algeria

So if you want to know what nefarious activities I’ve been up to, sitting in my secret eyrie stroking my diamond collared fluffy white cat while counting my millions in Algerian blood money, you now have a one stop shop where you can learn THE TRUTH of my evil plans. Join it and have some fun.

I’ve asked to join myself, and am waiting with baited breath to see if Ahmed Salem will let me in. I can’t wait to see what he cooks up. If the other Moroccan propaganda sites purporting to reveal THE TRUTH about their enemies are anything to go by, there should be some real peaches in the pipeline (1) .

As Will said. “You know you’ve made it when you have a Facebook page devoted to opposing you. Congrats.” A little generous perhaps, but I have to say I am flattered. All fun aside, I’m guessing the Moroccans wouldn’t bother with this sort of thing unless they were at least worried about this blog having some impact. While I have no hard evidence, I suspect that Ahmed Salem is more than just an enthusiastic Moroccan nationalist doing this in his own time. Morocco takes its propaganda very seriously indeed, and invests a lot of effort in it. So, until I have evidence to the contrary, I’m going to take this as an official state-sponsored propaganda undertaking aimed purely at attacking me as an individual, because of my support for the Sahrawi cause and my opposition to Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara and its supporting propaganda campaign. It gives me quite a nice warm glow to know that I’m having such an impact.

As that great statesman, terrible old colonialist, and sometime genocidal racist Churchill is reported to have said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Or maybe I’ll just go with the less objectionable and almost as amusing Oscar Wilde, with “it is better to be talked about than no.” (All quotes are unverified and may be apocryphal).

[Update: Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad has declined my request to join the group unless I put some pro-Moroccan links on my blog. This sounds a little like attempted blackmail to me – you don’t like what someone is saying, so you set up a forum in which to attack them, and then say you will only give them a right of reply if they promote your views. I think this tells you all you need to know about the Moroccan approach to debate and criticism]

(1) See, for example, Polisario Confidential and Polisario Think Twice for Moroccan propaganda sites attacking the Polisario (who knows, maybe there is some real dirt to be found there, but here it’s lost in a far dirtier mire of fabrication), Sahara Developpement and CORCAS for sites extolling the virtues of the Moroccan occupation here rebranded as “decolonisation”, and Morocco Board and the Moroccan American Center for Policy for the muscular promotion of Moroccan views in general (including propaganda on the Western Sahara conflict).

For other views that don’t push the propaganda line of an aggressive expansionist country illegally occupying and partitioning one of its neighbours, look to any of the Western Sahara blogs and news links to the right.

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The colonel is dead. Long live the king.

October 21, 2011

The dark hypocrisy that lurks at the heart of the Libyan revolution

So, Colonel Muammar Qadhdhafi – crafty tyrant, political funster and would-be leader of Africa – is dead, and Libya is entering a new era of hope. Hope that its people will live in a more open society in which they are free to determine their individual and collective fates, to talk about politics, to disagree with each other and with the government, to challenge their leaders, to engage with the rest of the world, and to prosper economically. As someone who has spent some time in Libya (some six months in total, between 2000 and 2006), I share this hope. Wars are always horrific, and civil ones often especially so, but I can’t be the only one who has seen the TV footage of plucky, cheerful rebels espousing broadly secular, democratic values in good English and thought, “these guys are, for want of a better way of putting it, pretty cool.” With Qadhdhafi out of the way, the National Transitional Council (NTC) should be free to propagate freedom and democracy throughout the country, so that Libyans can bask in the blossoming of the Arab Spring. It’s a heady prospect.

However, a dark hypocrisy lurks at the heart of the Libyan revolution, or at least at the heart of the NTC. Those who have been following the conflict closely will be aware of the reprisals against black sub-Saharan Africans wrongly labelled as mercenaries (although by all accounts Qadhdhafi did employ some hired guns from the other side of the Sahara). They may also be aware of the reprisals against ordinary Libyans who for reasons of politics and historical tribal loyalty supported Qadhdhafi, or were seen as Qadhdhafi sympathisers. However, few will be aware of the potential implications of Libya’s revolution for the outcome of another conflict 2000 km to the west, and for the futures of the Sahrawi people living under military occupation and oppression, or in exile as a result of the theft of their land by an aggressive expansionist neighbour. These implications are not what you might think, given all the lip service paid by the NTC and its supporters to freedom, democracy, and the need to overthrow autocratic regimes.

Back in 1975, around the time of publication of Qadhdhafi’s Green Book, Morocco was busy invading and laying claim to Western Sahara, which had been governed by Spain during the colonial period. This was despite despite having had its “historical claim” to the territory rejected by the International Court of Justice, which had examined the issue of sovereignty over Western Sahara at Morocco’s behest. The Polisario independence movement of Western Sahara, having fought Spain for independence, now turned its guns on the invading Moroccans (1). War raged until 1991 when the UN brokered a ceasefire and installed a peacekeeping force (MINURSO) to monitor the ceasefire and organise a referendum on self-determination (which has never happened, and looks increasingly unlikely). Since 1991 Western Sahara has been effectively partitioned by a series of defensive walls, often collectively referred to as the Berm, stretching across the entire territory of Western Sahara for some 1500 km, with Morocco controlling the majority (some three quarters) of the territory to the north and west of the Berm, and the Polisario controlling the remainder.

In the early days of the conflict, Polisario was supported by a number of countries, principally Algeria, which still plays host to five vast refugee camps now housing anything up to 200,000 displaced Sahrawi, as well as the Polisario government-in-exile – the government of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), recognised by dozens of countries and a member of the African Union. However, another big supporter of the Western Saharan independence movement was Libya, which for a time was Polisario’s primary supporter, before Algeria gave its full backing to the independence movement when Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975. In the early days of the conflict Libya supplied Polisario with arms, with support peaking between 1979 and 1982. In 1980 Libya formally recognised the SADR, after some vacillation by Qadhdhafi. However, active Libyan support for Polisario ceased in the 1980s, with Libya signing the Treaty of Oudja with Morocco in 1984, in which Libya agreed not to challenge Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara (2). Although King Hassan of Morocco revoked the Treaty of Oudja in 1986, active Libyan support for Polisario did not resume (2). Nonetheless, until recently Libya remained one of the few countries in which Sahrawi could travel on their SADR passports, and a number of Sahrawi went to Libya for schooling, although Sahrawi colleagues of mine complained in the 2000s that Libya’s support was minimal and increasingly lukewarm.

Even that lukewarm support seems likely to vanish now, in the new democratic Libya. Seeing an opportunity to change Libya’s position on Western Sahara, Morocco was quick to dispatch its foreign minister, Taeib Fassi Fihri, to Benghazi in August to meet with Libya’s NTC. Presumably grateful for this early recognition of its legitimacy, the NTC in turn was quick to cosy up to Morocco, with NTC spokesman in London Guma al-Gamaty reportedly stating on regional television in Laayoune, occupied Western Sahara’s principal town, that “The future of the Sahara can only be conceived under the sovereignty of Morocco.” (3)

Of course politics is all about horse trading, and a rebel organisation battling an entrenched autocratic regime is going to be eager for support, and will take it where it can get it. That’s certainly what Polisario did, in the face of invasion by a powerful neighbour supported and encouraged in its aggression by even more powerful players, namely the United states and France (2). However, it is rather unedifying to see the liberators of Libya supporting Morocco’s unelected monarch and its illegal military occupation of Western Sahara. For the self-styled champions of freedom, democracy, and the right of Libyans to determine their own future free of autocratic interference to support the suppression of these same principles elsewhere in North Africa is deeply hypocritical.

There may also be an element of sour grapes in the NTC’s favouring of Morocco. It has been reported that Algeria – bête noir of the Moroccan regime for its long-standing support for Polisario – has been holding out on the nascent Libyan regime, refusing to recognise the NTC until it forms a government and pledges to combat al Qaeda, based partly on Algerian fears about the role of Islamist militants in the Libyan revolution. Global Security News reported that Algeria voted against the Arab League’s resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011, apparently fearing the break-up of Libya and the exploitation of such a scenario by militants with their own agenda. Algeria has a long history of combating such militancy, and conflict between Islamists and security forces in the 1990s turned into a brutal and dirty civil war that cost many tens of thousands of lives, so Algerian sensitivity – some might say paranoia – is understandable. Of course Algeria is also likely to be wary of any movement that seeks to overthrow unaccountable anciens regimes in North Africa, given its own problems of political legitimacy.

While Algeria’s relations with Qadhdhafi’s Libya were hardly smooth, they were certainly more cordial than its relations with Morocco, which were poisoned by Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara and Algeria’s support for the Polisario.

The NTC has accused Algeria of supporting Qadhdhafi’s forces, accusations which Algeria has denied (see last link). All this suggests that there is an element of playground politics in the NTC’s support for Morocco and its occupation of Western Sahara – supporting Morocco on the basis of that old tribal cliché that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in order to punish Algeria for not giving the Libyan revolution the support it wanted. As usual, the Sahrawi and their reasonable and legitimate demand for self determination have fallen victim to the geopolitics of the region.

Now that Qadhdhafi is out of the way, the NTC is free to move forward with its ostensible project of creating a free and democratic Libya. The new Libyan regime has widespread support, not least from powerful energy-hungry nations desperate to get their hands on Libya’s oil and gas fields. The NTC is not desperate for friends in the face of an existential threat, as the Sahrawi were back in the 1970s (and still are in many respects). It can afford to have some principles. Instead it has betrayed the very principles it claims are its heart, even before it has extended its mandate across the nation it hopes to govern. This is a bad start, and does not bode well for effective, principled, inclusive government in Libya under the new regime.

Deposing a dictator only to offer your support to a foreign king and his colonial aspirations is not good for your revolutionary, or democratic, credentials. Come on Libya – you can do better than this.

_______________

(1) And also on Mauritania, whom Morocco had persuaded to join the invasion on its behalf pending a carve-up of Western Sahara. The Polisario successfully countered the Mauritanian incursion in the south of Western Sahara, Mauritania withdrew, and cordial relations were established between Polisario and Mauritania.

(2) Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy, 2010. Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution. Syracuse University Press.

(3) Quote from Morocco World News (Gaddafi’s fall strengthens Morocco over Western Sahara), which appears to be relatively impartial on the issue, at least insofar as it discusses it in terms that are quite far from the usual partisan discourse emanating from the official Moroccan press and organisations sympathetic to Morocco’s position. [Qualifying statement, 23.10.2011. Morocco World News talks about “Western Sahara” and recognises the conflict as one between Morocco and the Polisario, whereas official Moroccan propaganda generally talks about the “Moroccan Sahara” or just “the Sahara”, and casts the conflict as one between Morocco and Algeria in order to marginalise and delegitimise the Polisario as a party to the conflict. However, other Morocco World News articles are quite close to the official Moroccan propaganda line in some respects, for example in their generally positive coverage of Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan”, and their reference to the “population held against their will in the Tindouf camps” – a common theme in Moroccan propaganda (and one that is not borne out by the high degree of movement in and out of the camps or by my experiences in the camps and interacting with Sahrawi exiles). I would tentatively suggest that, while Morocco World News does not appear to be an official organ of the Moroccan state, it appears that much of the official Moroccan orthodoxy on Western Sahara is reflected in Morocco World News articles, although these are not simple representations of the official Moroccan line. The name “Morocco World News” does remind me of the wonderfully culture-centric book title “A Basque History of the World”.]

I’ve gone with Zunes and Mundy’s transliteration of “Qadhdhafi”, as they’ve already thought about how best to render the Arabic into English. There is an extensive menu of possible spellings, and I can be a bit of a purist when it comes to Arabic-English transliteration.


TARA out of her depth

October 18, 2011

Another story of collusion with the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, by people who should know better.

A year ago I posted an article about the restoration of some rock art sites in the Free Zone of Western Sahara, that had been vandalised by UN peacekeepers, whose inability to live up to their mandate, and indeed their name, is going from strength to strength.

In the same article I mentioned a meeting in the town of Smaara on the preservation of rock art sites, organised by the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) in collaboration with the occupying Moroccan authorities [see here to locate Smaara on a map showing the division of Western Sahara between Morocco and the Polisario independence movement under the terms of the UN ceasefire signed in 1991]. At the time of the post I had very little information on the Smaara meeting, other than that it was reported in the Algerian daily Ennahar and smelt a bit fishy.

The TARA meeting in occupied Smaara, from 19-21 October 2010, was followed by the so-called “Smara Declaration” on the protection of rock art. Despite the publicity about this declaration at the time, the Declaration seems to have disappeared from the web, and specifically from TARA’s website, which describes the outcome of the meeting as a “19-point Declaration that encourages governments and rock art professionals to take proactive conservation measures.” The ostensible links to the Declaration itself (in English and French) now point to a page of “rock art news” and related information. Hovering over the links reveals a ghostly web address to “Morocco_declaration_final.pdf” and “Declaration_du_Maroc_final.pdf”. Calling a declaration made in Smara, an important town in occupied Western Sahara, the “Morocco Declaration”, even in a URL, is a bit like calling something agreed in Glasgow the “England Declaration” (in terms of political ignorance and general daftness), or an agreement made in the West Bank the “Israel Declaration” (in terms of crass insensitivity).

So, what on Earth was TARA doing holding a meeting on the preservation of cultural heritage in a town in an illegally occupied territory, in collaboration with the occupying power? This is insensitive to say the least. In the view of one of my colleagues, an academic who has spent decades carrying out research work in various parts of the Sahara:

“The Moroccan monarchy and government are responsible for the worst case of theft of cultural heritage (and all other resources) after now 35 years of illegal occupation of the Western Sahara. The Moroccan rulers and military are also responsible for vandalism in the largest sense through the bombardments and destructions during the 16-year long war against the Sahrawi resistance, and by the construction of the 2,700 km long wall with its countless landmines. Indirectly, the Moroccan occupants can also be held responsible for the destruction of prehistoric rock art since the armistice in 1991 by members of the United Nations MINURSO that we observed during a mission in the Free Zone in 2007 (http://www.revistaelobservador.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1259&Itemid=1).

Cooperating with a Moroccan ministry to launch declarations against theft and vandalism is therefore sheer mockery. Selecting a venue in an occupied zone is unacceptable…”

In the months that followed the Smaara meeting I had some correspondence with members of the board of TARA, initiated by an email copied to various interested parties including TARA, in which I summed up the situation thus:

“Anyone attending the Smara meeting has, by definition, collaborated with an occupying power in a disputed, non-self governing territory, and has acted to further the cause of colonialism in Africa, against the spirit of the numerous UN resolutions on decolonisation in Western Sahara (and the values that most of us would no doubt claim to hold). This displays an astonishing level of naivety on the part of the international delegates at this conference, who have been used as political pawns in an ongoing process in which Morocco attempts to legitimise its occupation of Western Sahara and mislead the international community about the situation in the territory.

I applaud the wide work of organisations such as TARA. However, more political acumen needs to be displayed in future, particularly when addressing issues in Western Sahara and other disputed territories. Perhaps TARA could redress the balance by organising a similar meeting on the other side of the Moroccan wall that partitions Western Sahara, where the Polisario have taken significant and effective steps to preserve the archaeological sites in the areas that they control.”

While my suggestions about redressing the balance were not taken up, I did receive this response from David Coulson, who founded TARA in 1996:

“Thank you for your welcome and important feedback with suggestions.  The above workshop was planned and considered from the start as a low profile professional and non-political event to be one of about 3 rock art workshops in different parts of the country (next two may be Zagora and Rabat) over the next 3 or 4 years.  The organisers’choice of Smara was mainly dictated by nearby Tazina rock art sites as well as previously well publicized  incidents of damage (caused by UN peace keepers) in the region.  No endorsement of the current political situation in the territory was implied or intended.  Our sole motivation and ambition was to address the serious conservation issues in this part of Africa. TARA regrets any misunderstandings in this regard.”

In the interests of verisimilitude, and more importantly to save me some typing, I’ll simply reproduce my reply to David Coulson here.

“I’m sure TARA did not intend the meeting to reflect or support any particular political position, and that the meeting was intended to be completely apolitical. Unfortunately, nothing to do with Western Sahara remains apolitical for long.  Both sides in the conflict – Morocco and the Polisario front – will turn the activities of foreigners in Western Sahara to their perceived advantage where they can. Anyone undertaking academic work in the territory needs to acknowledge this and decide whether it is a price that is worth paying.

I have been working in Western Sahara since 2002, in the areas controlled by the Polisario. This requires cooperation with the Polisario on a logistical basis, as I am sure the organisation of conferences in parts of Western Sahara occupied by Morocco requires cooperation from the Moroccan authorities or their proxies. Our team believes that cooperation with the Polisario is ethically sound, given that they are recognised as the legitimate government of Western Sahara  by the Africa Union and most individual African governments, and have a decent claim to be the representatives of the indigenous Sahrawi people. We are working with, and for the benefit of, the indigenous people, rather than the occupying power.

Morocco’s position in Western Sahara, while tacitly supported by some Western governments, is at odds with the numerous UN resolutions regarding Western Sahara and the process of decolonisation, and also with the ruling of the International Court of Justice regarding the status of the territory. Morocco will certain use anything it can to further strengthen and legitimise its position in Western Sahara, in its ongoing and vigorous propaganda campaign. This politicking is also played out in the area of cultural heritage, as previous actions by Morocco have demonstrated. Holding a conference in occupied Western Sahara in collaboration with the Moroccan authorities serves the Moroccan agenda, and is a political act whether you like it or not. This is illustrated by the following statement from Moroccan journal Le Soir, which seeks firmly to establish Moroccan ownership of the issue:

“Le Maroc est le leader dans les pays africains en ce qui concerne l’art rupestre, c’est tout à fait normal d’organiser une réunion d’une telle importance chez nous et plus spécialement dans la région du Sud qui regorge de gravures rupestres ”, souligne Abdellah Salah, le directeur du patrimoine au ministère de la Culture.

Perhaps cooperating with Morocco, and thus helping lend the appearance of legitimacy to its occupation of Western Sahara, is a price worth paying if it results in the protection and preservation of rock art. This is a subjective judgment that must be made by individuals based on their personal priorities and beliefs. However, I’m afraid claims that such activities are apolitical are simply misguided, whatever the original intention. You and your colleagues may be apolitical in your views, but actions have political ramifications, rarely more so than in the context of the Western Sahara conflict.

I am not suggesting a boycott of Morocco, or even that you and your colleagues refrain from venturing into occupied Western Sahara. However, it would be prudent in the circumstances to ensure that any meetings likely to receive international publicity were held in Morocco proper, not in the Moroccan-occupied areas of the disputed, non-self governing territory of Western Sahara.

In the event that TARA decides to investigate rock art and related issues of heritage in the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara, where significant assemblages of rock art have suffered vandalism and are still at risk despite restoration efforts, I’d be happy to offer assistance. There is real will to protect the rock art there, but resources and capacity are severely limited, given that we are dealing with what is essentially a refugee population. Of course the political issues remain, albeit in a different form – the Moroccan authorities would surely be furious to see TARA operating on the other side of the Berm and undermining its ‘legitimacy” on the issue of Sahara cultural heritage. But there is a real opportunity for engagement there, in a way that would help foster a truly positive attitude to rock art among the Sahrawi population who are the de facto custodians of the rock art, and help to ensure that the cultural heritage of Western Sahara is preserved for future generations.”

Note: links added.

I should have added that if TARA wanted to speak to the issue of well publicised damage to rock art sites by UN peacekeepers as claimed, they could have held the meeting in the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara, where this vandalism took place.

David Coulson kindly acknowledged this email, and expressed appreciation for the offer of assistance, and a will to be more cautious about such matters in the future, and to seek appropriate advice.

That was all back in November 2010. (Yes, I know, I’m not particularly timely with my posts – blame over commitment and the need to juggle research, blogging and earning a living.) So, how did TARA ultimately respond to the criticism from myself and a number of other members of the academic community? Did they organise a goodwill event on the other side of the Berm, in the parts of Western Sahara controlled by the Polisario, the other party to the conflict? Did they put out a statement fessing up to, or even apologising for, their tacit endorsement of an illegal military occupation?

Well, there is one sentence on the TARA website that addresses this spectacular failure of political acumen, that reads

“Holding the workshop in Smara should not be interpreted as a political statement by TARA or WAC [the World Archaeological Congress].”

I’m afraid that’s it, although perhaps the lack of the text of the Declaration is the result of a surreptitious removal of what might be viewed as embarrassing evidence.

Of course, the TARA-Smaara debacle was followed swiftly by the repression of the Gdaim Izik protest camp by Moroccan security forces, the circumstances and repercussions of which are still quite murky. Needless to say, this overshadowed matters related to rock art and the political acumen of organisations dealing in cultural heritage.

Nonetheless, after my correspondence with David Coulson, I had further correspondence with people who had attended, or been invited to, the Smaara meeting. One invitee who did not attend the meeting had this to say:

“As someone who did not travel to Smara, I feel ashamed that we as a group of truely bona fide scientists (I think of us, who are doing rock art research, as some kind of collective body) did not notice early enough that a meeting in Smara has strong poltical implications. The demand on Morocco to allow the Sahrawi people to decide their own future is not by some obscure political organisation but by the UN and the AU (African Union – of which Morocco is the only African state that is not a member).

The theft of rock art touches our competence, so our voices should be raised. But to be trustworthy this cannot be done in an environment that is characterised by theft of land and opression of people. Ethics is an important element of our work with rock art and if this issue is anything, it is an ethical question. Therefore we should try and correct somehow this unfortunate decision of meeting in Smara, e.g. by placing a respective statement on the TARA homepage.

I hope that despite all uneasiness many of you can support this too.”

Of course this suggestion wasn’t taken up. One of the TARA board members, George Abungu, put it this way: “I feel this matter should be left to rest”. I guess this reflected the view of the board at large.

The last piece of written correspondence on the matter, on 9 December 2010, was from someone who had attended the meeting, who had this to say:

“I agree that we should make some statement on this.  I think few, if any, of us who attended the meeting, had a real understanding of the issues.  I have to admit that I was barely aware of where I was travelling to, much less that this was an occupied area, until I arrived in Morocco.  I must also say that conference some valuable outcomes, some of which drew upon  input from Sahrawi people.  I do not regret going there and meeting these people, and getting to understand their situation.

Of course, we were not aware that the Moroccan government would use our presence to endorse the illegitimate occupation of the area.  We are archaeologists – and we know that cultural heritage is used for political purposes – so we did become aware of this during the meeting.  I can’t speak for TARA, but I imagine that their experience is similar.

I’d be happy to work with people on developing a statement, around making it clear that our presence in Smara did not endorse the current occupation of the Sahara by the  Moroccan government.”

Apparently nothing happened after this, and the issue was indeed “left to rest”. This is a real pity. Through naivety and an unwillingness to address its colossal political error, TARA has given another little bit of support to the Moroccan occupation, and helped to further the cause of colonialism in Africa. For an organisation focusing on Africa and African rock art, an awful lot of which is in the Sahara, this level of naivety (and let us hope it is just naivety) is astonishing, and more than a little bit depressing.


Chemical low

October 9, 2011

The Bou Craa mine in occupied Western Sahara is one of the world’s largest sources of phosphorus, a vital component of the fertilisers on which much of the world’s agriculture, and global food production and food security, depends. For some time there has been concern about our reliance on a finite supply of phosphorus, and the implications of this for agricultural productivity, food prices and nutrition, particularly in developing countries. The term “peak phosphorus” has joined the term “peak oil” in the lexicon of 21st century scarcity.

An article in this week’s Nature journal (Elser and Bennett, 2011) addresses the phosphorus problem, tackling issues of demand, supply, pollution resulting from our profligate use of phosphorus, and waste of this valuable resource (of which there is a lot, related in no small part to the pollution).

The Nature article has this to say about Morocco’s control of a sizable chunk of the world’s phosphorus supply:

“Overall, three countries control more than 85% of the known global phosphorus reserves, with Morocco clearly in the driver’s seat. … Such a power imbalance is a potential source of tension, given the political turmoil in northern Africa and the fact that developing-world farmers cannot afford phosphate fertilizers even at today’s non-monopoly prices. Many of the world’s food producers are in danger of becoming completely dependent on trade with Morocco, where press reports have emerged of Dubai-style luxury developments being planned in anticipation of phosphorus windfalls.”

Morocco’s control of Western Sahara’s phosphorus resources gives it another political string to pull, particularly when it comes to tying trade to political support, for example by putting pressure on countries not to recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the state proclaimed in disputed Western Sahara by the Polisario Independence Movement, or to withdraw recognition already given. The SADR is recognised by dozens of countries and is a member of the African Union, but some countries have withdrawn recognition in recent years (1), presumably as a result of political pressure, bribery or blackmail by Morocco. Recent culprits include Malawi, Zambia, Papua New Guinea and (earlier, in 2000) India, as well as a number of small-island states (watch out guys – you might be dispossessed soon too, with those rising sea-levels).

The extent to which access to phosphorus has played any direct or overt role in the politics of occupation, appeasement and recognition to date is unclear (if anyone has specific information I’d be interested). However, the “phosphorus problem” is likely to become more prominent in the foreseeable future (a study by Cordell et al. (2009), cited in the Nature article, projects a peak in production around 2030), and is another string to Morocco’s political bow.

The figures provided by Elser and Bennett (2011) are indicative of shocking levels of waste in our use of phosphorus. Citing Cordell et al. (2009) they report that of the 17.5 million tonnes of phosphorus mined globally in 2005, some 14 million tonnes were used in fertliser, but only about 3 million tonnes actually made their way into food. Around 8 million tonnes of phosphorus were lost through soil leaching and erosion due to sloppy application (e.g. not being targeted at the right locations or applied at the best times). A further 1 million tonnes of phosphorus is lost every year in wasted food – food that is simply thrown away.

Our profligacy with and waste of phosphorus causes substantial environmental pollution, helping to create “dead zones” in coastal waters and degrading freshwater ecosystems. It also helps to give Morocco political leverage over other nations, making its partial occupation of Western Sahara more secure (the United States, an enthusiastic support of the occupation, has included phosphorus in its list of rare elements crucial to its national security, according to Elser and Bennett).

Better use of this valuable resource would help not only the environment and global food security, but also the cause of justice and regional stability, by making the world just a little less desperately dependent on a resource controlled in large part by an aggressive expansionist power whose occupation of a neighbouring territory is an obstacle to peace and development in the Maghreb.

The discarding of food in supply chains and by consumers needlessly accelerates the depletion of the world’s phosphorus reserves, helping to consolidate Morocco’s control over this key resource and ensuring that the Moroccan regime and its cronies benefit even more from rising commodity prices. This is particularly ironic and unjust, given that Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara has created a refugee population living of sparse food aid and suffering from widespread malnutrition.

References:

Elser, J. and Bennett, E. 2011. A broken geochemical cycle. Nature 478: 29-31.

Cordell, D., Drangert, J.-O. & White, S. Global Environ. Change 19, 292–305 (2009).

(1) The sometimes reliable Wikipedia lists all the countries that have recognised the SADR, with details of those that have withdrawn or frozen recognition. It places the number of countries currently recognising the SADR as 48, out of 84 that have recognised the Sahrawi state at some point. 32 countries currently have ambassadorial level relations with the SADR, with Sahrawi embassies in 17 countries.

Below: One of the world’s largest sources of phosphorus, the Bou Craa mine in occupied Western Sahara. From top: rail line from the Bou Craa mine to the coast; Bou Craa mine; close-up of track showing wind-blown material from the phosphorous trains on the south-west of the track. Imagery from Google Earth.