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 The SADR is recognised by dozens of countries and is a member of the African Union, but some countries have withdrawn recognition in recent years (1), presumably as a result of political pressure, bribery or blackmail by Morocco.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.


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.


Cultural heritage plays second fiddle to politics at UNESCO

June 23, 2008

A while back I wrote that UNESCO might be involved in evaluating and restoring archaeological sites vandalised by MINURSO peacekeeping personnel in the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone” of Western Sahara, and promised an update on this matter in due course. Well, a due course has been run, so here’s the update.

After my initial complaint to MINURSO about the vandalism, and following coverage of the destruction in the Times newspaper and elsewhere, MINURSO undertook to address the bad behaviour of some of its staff. It has to be said that the MINURSO leadership took the issue seriously, and implemented at least some measures to try to prevent similar vandalism occurring in the future. The precise nature of these measures could still do with some clarification, although they did include the erection of signs at archaeological sites warning MINURSO staff to respect the cultural heritage of the region, under pain of military discipline.

One of the matters that I and colleagues discussed with MINURSO was the possible rehabilitation of vandalised rock art sites, involving the removal of existing MINURSO graffiti if this proved to be feasible (and this may turn out to be impossible without causing further damage to the sites). An obvious place to turn was UNESCO, the UN organisation responsible for science, education and culture, which has designated a number of historical sites around the globe as World Heritage Sites.

I was always somewhat sceptical of the prospects of getting UNESCO involved in the rehabilitation of damaged archaeological sites in the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara, given the presence of eight UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites in Morocco (not to mention UNESCO’s self-declared “close relationship” with the government of Morocco – Note on 12.02.09: this wording has now been removed from the UNESCO Morocco page), and the UN’s reluctance to engage with governments that are not universally recognised and which are not members of the UN (e.g. the Polisario, which is still fighting for recognition as the legitimate government of an independent Sahara, with heavy opposition from Morocco and its allies).

I was taken to task for my scepticism by a number of people who didn’t see what the problem was. After all, the conflict in Western Sahara is a political matter, and UNESCO is interested in preserving world heritage for all of humanity, a noble cause that should transcend politics. So why should UNESCO do anything but jump at the chance to help protect the unique, spectacular and threatened heritage of this little known region?

I’m sorry to say my scepticism seems to have been justified. MINURSO approached UNESCO for advice and assistance with the assessment and restoration of the sites in question. UNESCO’s eventual response was to provide MINURSO with a list of independent experts who might be able to assess and restore the sites. At least some of these experts had already been identified by my Spanish colleagues, who have been conducting the bulk of the research work into the rock art sites which were the targets of the vandalism. It was clear that UNESCO would have no direct involvement in any rehabilitation efforts.

As I wrote earlier, Morocco became quite exercised about the vandalism story, and over UNESCO’s role in particular. It was reported in the Moroccan daily l’Opinion on 5 February 2008 that UNESCO was moving to evaluate damage to sites in the Polisario-controlled zone of Western Sahara without bothering to consult Morocco. Obviously this was, to the Moroccans, an unconscionable violation of their self-declared sovereignty over this region in which they have no presence (1).

On 6 February 2008 UNESCO issued a statement (2) emphasising that its involvement in this matter consisted of the provision of a list of experts who could be consulted by MINURSO, and some vaguely defined assistance with information and publicity campaigns aimed at MINURSO personnel. The message was clear – UNESCO would give some low-level advice to MINURSO, but would not be involved directly in any assessment or restoration of the sites in question. In other words, it would not be treading on Morocco’s toes.

This statement was gleefully seized upon by the Moroccan press, which went on to report on 7 February that UNESCO had promised Morocco that it would not undertake any assessment of these sites without first obtaining permission to do so from the Moroccan government. Furthermore, it was reported that UNESCO had emphasised that it had no links with, and did not recognise, the Polisario.

These claims by the Moroccan media were widely dismissed as propaganda by a number of people who had been following the story (via personal communication). However, to my knowledge UNESCO did not issue any statement clarifying or refuting these claims by the Moroccan press (I am happy to be corrected on this, but have not been able to find any such statement). As far as I can tell, that seems to have been that – I’ve had no news of any further developments on the UNESCO front.

It seems that UNESCO was more concerned with a Moroccan panic about it getting involved in the preservation of cultural heritage in areas Morocco claims but does not control, than it was with press statements implying that the organisation was prepared to favour one side in a dispute over territory whose status is yet to be determined.

It is inconceivable that Morocco would not exert diplomatic pressure on UNESCO behind the scenes in this matter. UNESCO are certainly doing what Morocco wants, insofar as they are refusing to get involved in the assessment of damage done to valuable archaeological sites by another UN agency, or in efforts to rehabilitate these sites. We don’t know what undertakings UNESCO did or didn’t give the Moroccans, but the organisation is certainly acting in accordance with Morocco’s demands and wishes in this matter. I strongly suspect that UNESCO caved in to Moroccan pressure, meaning that a UN agency tasked with preserving world heritage sites is effectively taking sides in a political and military conflict, in a way that undermines efforts to preserve unique, important and threatened world heritage dating from prehistoric times.

Of course I wanted to hear UNESCO’s side of the story, so I emailed them. The email went to UNESCO HQ in New York ( and to UNESCO’s Bureau of Public Information ( That was on 26 February. Four months on I am yet to receive a reply. Given that I direct an archaeological research project in the region in question, that I’m the one who broke the story about the vandalism, that I have been discussing this matter constructively with MINURSO, and that I work regularly with UN agencies (so I’m far from being a UN hater), you’d think they might have wanted to talk to me. But, apparently, they don’t.

(1) The vandalism as recorded by our team and publicised in the world’s media took place in the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone” zone, in which there is no Moroccan presence. Parts of the Free Zone were occupied by Morocco during the war, before being abandoned or recaptured by the Polisario. Other parts of the Free Zone have never been occupied by Morocco. There is no access to the Free Zone from the Moroccan-controlled areas, except for UN personnel.

(2) This statement, and reproductions of the relevant articles from the Moroccan media, are collected in the 7 February MINURSO Press Review (click here to download – most of the relevant material is in French).

UN Personnel Vandalise Archaeological Sites

December 18, 2007

In 1991, the United Nations sent a force to Western Sahara to monitor the ceasefire between the occupying Moroccan forces and the Polisario independence movement. The Force, known by its French acronym MINURSO, was also tasked with facilitating a referendum on self-determination within the territory – in fact this was its principal purpose. Some 16 years on, the referendum has failed to materialise, and MINURSO is widely viewed by the indigenous Sahrawi, and by some commentators, as leaning towards Morocco. On a positive note, the ceasefire has been maintained without any serious violations, and MINURSO recently has been arranging family visits for Sahrawi separated from their relatives by the effective partition of Western Sahara.

So, MINURSO has overseen a period of relative peace and stability (or helped to maintain the status quo as Morocco consolidates its occupation, depending on your opinion), and has (belatedly) helped Sahrawi exiles in the refugee camps in Algeria maintain contact with family members on the other side of the Moroccan Berm that cuts divides the territory into two zones. However, it has singularly failed in its main task, which is to organise a referendum on self-determination. Perhaps MINURSO cannot be blamed entirely for the continuing stalemate, given the wrangling over voter eligibility and lack of will of the international community to resolve the conflict in Western Sahara in an equitable fashion, if at all. What is clear is that MINURSO is increasingly irrelevant when it comes to determining the future of Western Sahara. It is the view of at least some Sahrawi that MINURSO no longer has any business being in Western Sahara at all.

A recent visit (Nov-Dec 2007) to Western Sahara by this blogger revealed a more unsavoury legacy of MINURSO’s presence in Western Sahara – the deliberate vandalism of archaeological sites. The most dramatic example of this is at Lajuad in the Southern Sector of the Polisario-controlled zone, where MINURSO recently installed some communications hardware on the inaccessible (except by helicopter) summit of a smooth granite hill. It appears that the MINURSO personnel responsible for the installation amused themselves by spray-painting their names on the wall of a rockshelter that is also an important archaeological site (see photos). Although the paintings and engravings in this shelter are somewhat faint, it is difficult not to notice that the wall defaced by the MINURSO personnel houses ancient paintings and engravings, as does the floor of the shelter. Note the engraved and painted wavy lines in the second photograph below, under graffiti from what appear to be Egyptian and Russion MINURSO personnel (see this Flickr album for more photos of the defacement of the Lajuad rockshelter). Perhaps the visiting UN staff were encouraged by the apparently earlier Arabic graffiti – they have certainly left a much greater impression at this site.

Reviewing MINURSO vandalism, Lajuad

MINURSO graffiti over ancient rock art

This isn’t the first example of the deliberate vandalism of an archaeological site by MINURSO personnel. Similar defacement of decorated rockshelters by UN staff can be seen at the more accessible site of Rekeiz in the Northern Sector of the Polisario zone. Here MINURSO staff again have seen fit to write their names over ancient rock art.

It is a tragedy that UN personnel tasked with resolving one of the world’s longest running military and political conflicts are engaging in the willful destruction of important archaeological sites that have much to teach us about the prehistory of a part of the world that is virtually unknown to the international research community. It is also a tragedy for the cultural heritage of Western Sahara, and is indicative of a contempt for the Sahrawi people on whose land these crimes have been committed. The Polisario, who control the region in which this vandalism has occurred, have apparently complained to MINURSO about these actions, but as of late November 2007 had received no formal response.

It is clear that the destruction and defacement of archaeological sites is unacceptable. The only way for MINURSO to redeem itself in this matter, and by extension the reputation of the United Nations in this region, is to pay for the professional restoration of the sites that its staff have willfully vandalised. MINURSO must also make clear to all its staff that such actions will not be tolerated in the future. Any UN staff found vandalising archaeological sites should be disciplined, and preferably sent home. The funds for restoring damage sites might come from the relevant UN agency (in this case the Department of Peacekeeping Operations), or perhaps from the nations contributing to the MINURSO mission whose military personnel have taken part in these wanton acts of destruction. The guilty parties have, after all, been good enough to leave details of their home countries, their own identities, and the dates on which they committed their misdemeanours.

There is a further irony here, in that the personnel under the jurisdiction of one UN department are busy destroying archaeological sites as another UN agency (UNESCO) is about to embark on developing an inventory of rock art sites in Western Sahara with the aim of recording and preserving the territory’s cultural heritage. As long as UN staff on the ground in Western Sahara delight in defacing rock art, perhaps it is best not to advertise its location.

Western Sahara – The Partition

July 13, 2007

Western Sahara Map

Western Sahara Map,
originally uploaded by Western Sahara Project.

Most of the media stories about Western Sahara and the arguments over Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan” give the impression that the entire territory of Western Sahara has been annexed by Morocco. The implication is that the question of limited “self government” as part of a greater Morocco, as opposed to independence, is really one of whether the rest of the world should accept the done deal of Morocco’s occupation and annexation of Western Sahara.

However, the reality on the ground is more complex. Western Sahara is in actual fact partitioned into a region occupied by Morocco (about two thirds of the territory), and one controlled by the Polisario independence movement. The latter is known locally as the “Free Zone” and consists of all the territory to the right (east and south) of the red line shown on this UN map. The areas to the left (west and north) of the red line are those occupied by Morocco.

The red line itself represents the line of defensive works that Morocco has built to seal off the occupied territories from the Free Zone. This line of earthworks, which exploits the natural topography, is known as “The Berm”. Although this map shows the Berm as being contained entirely within the territory of Western Sahara, it actually extends into Mauritania, where the official border between Western Sahara and Mauritania makes a sharp turn to the east (i.e. where the Berm is shown as just about touching the border where the latter forms a right angle). Presumably the Mauritanians don’t feel inclined or able to make a fuss about this Moroccan annexation of an admittedly very tiny and not especially useful part of their country, and the UN don’t want to embarrass them by making public the fact that Morocco has taken some of their territory and they aren’t doing anything about it.

The point of all this is that, even if Morocco’s occupation in Western Sahara is “normalised” via international acceptance of its autonomy plan (as favoured by the United States and some other countries), the problem won’t be solved. A rump Western Sahara will still remain, controlled by the Polisario, which is under pressure from the 160,000 – 200,000 Sahrawi refugees in Algeria to renew the conflict. The autonomy plan will solve nothing, and the conflict will still fester. It may even explode into violence as the exiled Sahrawi and the Polisario feel they have nothing to lose, the rest of the world having betrayed the UN’s promise to arrange a referendum on self-determination. Self determination might be compatible with annexation in the tortuous Byzantine arguments of Morocco and it’s supporters, but the Polisario and the exiled Sahrawi (as well as many if not most of those living under Moroccan occupation) view it as meaning, well, the right to determine their own future and political status.

Unfortunately, most of the politicians tasked with deciding whether their countries should reward Morocco’s occupation and annexation of this disputed territory seem to be entirely unaware of the political and geographical realities on the ground. They seem to believe that by endorsing Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara they will help to solve the problem of Western Sahara’s status. They are wrong. Endorsing an annexation is morally reprehensible. Endorsing a partial annexation is just stupid.

Way smoothed for genocide in Western Sahara

February 27, 2007
The following is extracted and edited from a letter to Charles Clarke, my Member of Parliament. Morocco is being extremely active in promoting its new plan for the the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which it partially occupies, and has had a number of “constructive” talks with European politicians in recent weeks. Morocco has been praised for its efforts by a number of individuals and bodies, including political representatives of the EU. It appears that the way is being smoothed for Morocco to implement its own, unilateral “solution” to the problem of Western Sahara.The Moroccan plan involves what Morocco calls “regional autonomy” for the territory of Western Sahara within a greater Morocco. This plan rejects any future negotiations with the Polisario Independence government regarding the region’s status, and excludes a referendum on independence, counter to the rulings of the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, and the public position of the government of the United Kingdom, all of which claim to support the right of self-determination of the indigenous Sahrawi people. Morocco’s strategy appears to be to normalise its occupation of Western Sahara by appearing to give ground by granting autonomy, while in actual fact consolidating its control and neutralising the efforts of the international community to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.

Western Sahara is in reality partitioned between a Moroccan-occupied zone (the majority of the territory) and what the Sahrawi refer to as the “Free Zone”. The latter consists of most of the regions bordering Algeria and Mauritania in the east, and is of significant size. It is in the Free Zone that I and my colleagues conduct our field research, so I can speak on this matter on the basis of first hand experience.

If the international community supports Morocco’s plan to incorporate Western Sahara into a greater Morocco, the status of the Free Zone will be a key issue. Most commentators and politicians seem to be under the impression that Morocco occupies the entire territory of Western Sahara, and that support for its position would simply involve accepting the existing annexation, meaning nothing much would change. I suspect that if the reality of the situation (and the geography of the region) was understood better, there would be more concern about the security implications of the Moroccan approach.

Accepting the Moroccan position that Western Sahara is a part of Morocco is likely to lead to one of the following outcomes, all of which have severe security implications:

1. Morocco consolidates its occupation of existing territory but does not attempt to occupy the Free Zone, which remains under Polisario control, essentially becoming a de facto Sahrawi state. An uneasy peace continues as Algeria exerts pressure on the Polisario to avoid conflict with Morocco, but continues to support them as part of its ongoing political conflict with Morocco.

2. Morocco consolidates its occupation but does not enter the Free Zone. However, under pressure from the exiled Sahrawi population the Polisario declares war against Morocco, once it is apparent that they have nothing to lose, the international community having washed its hands of the issue. The scale and consequences of the ensuing conflict depend largely on the position of Algeria.

3. Morocco immediately attempts to occupy the Free Zone to extend its control over the entire territory of Western Sahara and in order to remove a potential future threat from a Polisario-controlled Free Zone. The Polisario resist, and the conflict drags in Algeria, and possibly Mauritania. (The Moroccan wall which separates the occupied territories from the Free Zone has already annexed a small area of Mauritanian territory. This is not shown on any maps – perhaps to avoid embarrassment to Mauritania – but is apparent on the ground and visible on satellite imagery.)

4. With the help of the West, Morocco makes a deal with Algeria in which Algeria agrees to restrain the Polisario from restarting the conflict as Morocco completes its occupation. A best case outcome under this scenario would be the dispersal of the exiled Sahrawi population in Algeria, Mauritania and other countries (including the EU and countries such as the UK). A worst case outcome would be that the Sahrawi in the camps resist and are expelled or exterminated by the Algerian security forces. With nothing to lose, the Sahrawi, who have to date been vehemently against terrorism in support of their cause, might change this position. Eschewing terrorism has certainly not helped them regain their homeland.

None of these scenarios is particularly optimistic, ranging from a festering of the conflict for decades to come to the possibility of actual genocide, with the emergence of new recruits to terrorism a possibility.

We can be certain that in its desire for the Sahrawi to disappear and in its repeated denial of the existence of the Sahrawi people, the Moroccan state is on the road to genocide, at least of the cultural variety. Whether this translates into actual extermination remains to be seen and will depend on whether the physical conflict resumes.

While this is on the one hand a question of justice and human rights, it is also an issue of international security. No-one will benefit from renewed war in the Maghreb. The only options for ending this conflict are to allow Morocco effectively to exterminate the Sahrawi people and their culture (the likely consequence of “political realism” on the part of the West), or to exert pressure on Morocco to enter into real and meaningful negotiations on self determination aimed at restoring Western Sahara to the Sahrawi people. The latter has been the preferred approach (at least in principle) of the United Nations and the international community, but efforts to this end have failed because of the lack of pressure on Morocco from UN member states. Indeed, Morocco has used its considerable diplomatic weight to sabotage the peace process since it began in 1991. There is little to be gained by telling the Sahrawi and their political leaders in the Polisario that they should accept an illegal occupation of their land and return to live under the control of an oppressive occupying power which would not welcome them, and which routinely tortures and sometimes murders their kin who live in the occupied territories.

Political pressure from Western governments can make a real difference here, helping to deliver security to a region beset by conflict for decades, and justice to a people who have lived in exile for over thirty years, perhaps even saving them from a possible genocide.