- Yara, the world leader in fertilizers, has pulled out of Western Sahara after it was known that the Norway-based company had bought large quantities of phosphates from the occupied territory. Yara's owners question the ethical standards of trade with natural resources from the territory. Phosphates are the main export goods from Western Sahara and from its occupier, Morocco.
According to the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara, Yara International has now bowed into pressure to stop its imports of phosphates from Western Sahara. Rolf Wermundsen of the Committee told afrol News that one had suspected that Yara was buying phosphates from the occupied territory for several years, but that the company had not wanted to inform about this trade.
Yara's biggest shareholder is the Norwegian Ministry of Trade and Industry (36.2 percent), with other Norwegian government institutions holding further large share posts. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier has urged restraints in trade with or investments in the natural resource sectors of Western Sahara due to a UN legal opinion, denouncing resource exploitation in the occupied territory.
According to Mr Wermundsen, long-lasting research by the Committee had documented that Yara indeed had bought larger amounts of phosphates from the mines in Boucraa, which are located in Western Sahara and controlled by a Moroccan state company. Yara's shareholders, including the Oslo government, were not informed of this trade, it was found. "Yara is caught with its pants down," a representative of the Committee noted.
Yara this week indeed had to confirm its trade with Western Sahara phosphates. In a letter, the Oslo-based fertilizer giant confirms the purchase of "three shiploads totalling 27,000 tonnes of phosphates from the mines in Boucraa." Yara however emphasises that it considers this a very small quantity, amounting to only 0.3 percent of the company's phosphate purchases in the period.
In the same letter, Yara announced that its phosphate trade in Western Sahara is now "terminated", a decision celebrated by the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara. Mr Wermundsen however deplored that the company will not guarantee that the trade will not be resumed and announced the Committee would contact the Oslo parliament to increase pressure on Yara.
Morocco controls two thirds of the world's phosphate production. The open pit mining centre at Boucraa has an annual production capacity of more than 2 million tonnes, making it the third largest Moroccan controlled phosphate mine. The Sahrawi mines are owned by Phosphates de Boucraa SA (PdB), where the state-owned Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP) has a 65 percent ownership.
OCP directly controls the two large phosphate mining centres in Morocco proper and international traders deal with the state-owned giant when buying Moroccan phosphates. Phosphates from Western Sahara are however sold by PdB, making the dubious product relatively easy to identify. Major trade partners such as the US also demand to know the origin of these goods as Western Sahara products are excluded from the Morocco-USA free trade agreement.
The phosphate deposits in Boucraa, some 100 kilometres south-east of El Aaiun, have been considered Western Sahara's main natural resources since their discovery by Spanish colonial officers in the 1950s. Phosphate exports began in 1973 and as Spain withdrew in 1975, Western Sahara had become the sixth major phosphate exporter in the world. After falling under Moroccan control, the processing plant has been the target of several sabotage acts.
The exiled Sahrawi government on several occasions strongly has protested any kind of natural resource exploitation in the occupied territory, leaning towards UN declarations. Lately, there has been a special focus on Western Sahara's rich fishery resources and its potential of offshore oil production. Norwegian investments in these two sectors earlier have caused political controversy in Oslo and diplomatic protests from Sahrawi officials.
Earlier this year, it was known that Norway's Ambassador in Rabat encouraged private investments in the Moroccan-controlled fisheries sector in Western Sahara, defying the official policy of the Oslo Foreign Ministry. The Ambassador was called to Oslo for consultations, where he apologised his behaviour and merely escaped dismissal.
Last month, the Norwegian Petroleum Fund - one of the world's largest funds - divested from the US petroleum company Kerr-McGee due to that company's "unethical" oil exploration activities off Western Sahara. This was the first time ever that the state-controlled fund had divested in accordance with its ethical guidelines, sending a clear message to Kerr-McGee and other shareholders of the company.
So far, there has been a limited focus on the Moroccan phosphate exploitation in Western Sahara. Activists however hold this could be a key to put pressure on the occupying power. While the mines in Boucraa only are Morocco's third largest, it is estimated that the phosphate sector generates more than half of the Kingdom's national income.
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