Stolen wealth: How Africa feeds Australia

Friday, November 26, 2010

In early November, I attended the Wesfarmers AGM at the Perth Convention Centre. Yes, that Wesfarmers, the one that owns Coles, Bunnings, Officeworks, coal mines and plenty more. Not my usual sort of haunt, but I was there holding proxy votes for members of the Australia Western Sahara Association.

Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975, when Morocco invaded the country before a vote of self-determination could be held.

This occupation is not recognised by the United Nations or international law. Yet Morocco has been aided and abetted by Spain, the US and particularly France ever since. It's much like the bipartisan support for the Indonesian occupation of East Timor by the Australian government for nearly 25 years.

So what's the Wesfarmers connection? Each year over a quarter of a million tonnes of North African phosphate becomes the fertiliser spread Australia’s farmland. The rock from Western Sahara is Australia’s most important source of high quality phosphate. Wesfarmers subsidiary CSBP Fertilisers is one of the main importers. It has a plant at Kwinana just south of Fremantle.

I reminded company chairperson Bob Every that this phosphate was supplied by companies that are profiting from the illegal and violent occupation of Western Sahara and asked whether the company would end its importation of these stolen goods. He replied that the company's advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is that they are not breaking the law.

The mining and sale of the phosphate does not have the consent of the Saharawi people. However, its importation is not illegal under Australian law: our government hasn't banned it precisely because outfits like CSBP want the stuff. Human rights don't get a look in.

Phosphate is more valuable than ever. Just like oil, we're using it up quicker than nature can produce it. "Peak Phosphorous" is approaching, maybe only 30 years away.

Wesfarmers managing director Richard Goyder trumpeted the company's campaign against the Rudd mining tax. It has plenty of muscle, so it's hard to imagine the senior bureaucrats in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading doing anything other than dropping to their knees when they get a call from companies like this.

Of course, I mentioned the 14-year-old boy, a resident of a 20,000-strong tent city, shot dead by Moroccan soldiers in October; a whole people made refugees in their own land; the human rights activists held without charge in Morocco itself, and much more. Would this sway the suits up on the stage? I must have been dreaming.

A shareholder naively asked if the company might drop its coalmines in favour of clean energy. Every confidently asserted that coal would remain a key part of energy supply for a further 30 years. There's something a whole lot more frightening than climate change deniers — the rich and powerful who know it’s happening but just don't give a shit.

If the prospect of whole ecosystems in collapse and tens of millions of climate refugees on the move doesn't worry you, then a few hundred thousand Saharawis are just another bug on the corporate windscreen.

Because Wesfarmers has its origins in a farmers' cooperative, "mum and dad" shareholders from the country were the majority in attendance, but only a minority of the actual votes. Several engaged me in sympathetic conversation, while reminding me that my morning bowl of Weet-Bix wouldn't have been possible without phosphate.

So why is our agricultural system built on ripping resources out of the Earth first from small Pacific Islands and now Western Sahara? A question for another day.

As I left, a security guard approached. Shit, I hadn't broken any laws, had I? "I liked what you said. Good on you."

On February 27, Fremantle joined several other councils around the country flying the flag of Western Sahara in recognition of the right of the Saharawi people to a referendum on their future.

Meanwhile our federal government supports a trade that lines the pockets of the very regime that is defying the UN and blocking the referendum. How much longer will we let them get away with it?

[Sam Wainwright is a councillor for Fremantle Council and a member of the Socialist Alliance. His website can be found at www.freoreport.net .]