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In remote Western Sahara, prized phosphate drives controversial investments

Morocco's mining of the lucrative fertilizer ingredient in occupied Western Sahara has sparked charges it is violating international law – and that global customers are looking the other way.

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A government spokesman contradicted this claim, and said that while Moroccan investment in Western Sahara is high, the cash does not come specifically from Boucraa's profits. OCP has budgeted $250 million over the next 10 years for regional programs to promote health and education and reduce poverty, said officials. They also said that 55 percent of the mine's employees are Saharawi. Saharawi activists contest that claim, saying the figure is less than 30 percent.

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The Moroccan government spokesman, Mustapha Al Khalfi, also touts the investments the Moroccan government has made in Western Sahara in healthcare, housing, and other fields as well as in the ports and the phosphate mine. The government strives to keep investments up in Boucraa, despite the limited profits, for the “social impact” on the region. He emphasizes the stability of Western Sahara compared with other parts of the Sahel region.

The two sides argue about who benefits from the phosphate extraction because of the implications for the legality of the mining operation. Yet at the end of the day, that is peripheral to the main fight of Saharawi activists: the right to vote on the future of Western Sahara. "What we really want is not just a university, but the right of self-determination and the respecting of international law," says activist Lahcen Dalil.

Phosphate shipped around the world

Despite the controversy, international companies continue to line up to purchase the phosphate that pours down the conveyer belt to the port. PotashCorp is the biggest customer, but phosphate is also shipped to Australia, Lithuania, Mexico, and elsewhere.

In a statement on its website, PotashCorp said it buys phosphate from the Boucraa mine because it is the only source for the particular quality of phosphate it needs to satisfy a longterm contract. It also said OCP's local development programs mean the mining benefits the Saharawi people and complies with international law. A spokesman for PotashCorp declined to answer questions about its purchase of phosphate from Western Sahara. 

Last year, the Norwegian government, which has the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, divested PotashCorp because of its purchase of Western Saharan phosphate. Several European banks have done the same. And the European Union last year ended a fishing agreement with Morocco, which included Western Sahara waters, because of concerns that it violated international law.

Other resources are still being exploited. Sand is exported to the nearby Canary Islands, owned by Spain, to bolster beaches there. Several international companies are exploring for oil in Western Sahara or off its shores. Activists say the Austin, Tex.-based company Crystal Mountain Sel Sahara is producing salt in Western Sahara. And several European companies as well as American company UPC Renewables are developing wind farms in Western Sahara, with plans to export the energy. Such investments go forward with little controversy, despite the legal gray area.

The International Women's Media Foundation funded travel to Western Sahara for this story.

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