Western Sahara: Wesfarmers agrees to stop using stolen phosphate, but doubts remain

A village in occupied Western Sahara.
Friday, October 19, 2012

Over the past three years Christian Super, a not-for-profit industry fund, has engaged in dialogue with Australian company Wesfarmers over its sourcing of phosphate rock from Western Sahara. Phosphate is used in its production of agricultural superphosphate.

“Western Sahara is a disputed territory where human rights abuses have been reported,” said Tim Macready, chief investment officer for Christian Super. “Companies doing business in this area may unwittingly aggravate the conflict or become complicit to oppression.”

Christian Super is one of several ethical investors and advisors that met with Wesfarmers to question its use of phosphate from Western Sahara. In 2009, Wesfarmers decided to invest in a technology and plant upgrade to reduce its reliance on phosphorous rock imported from Western Sahara.

Australia Western Sahara Association has been lobbying Wesfarmers/CSBP, Incitec Pivot and Impact — the three Australian fertiliser companies importing the controversial phosphate from Morocco, the occupying power in Western Sahara.

Wesfarmers’ notification that it will not use Western Sahara phosphate is most welcome and it shows that it is possible to be ethically responsible.

However, Christian Super's confidence in Wesfarmers by may be short lived. In an email to Australian Unions for Western Sahara from Samantha Torrens, CSBP Communication Manager, Samantha states that no deliveries of phosphate from Western Sahara are scheduled for the current production year, which typically runs from September to May.

Cate Lewis, vice-president of Australia Western Sahara Association (AWSA), said: “This is certainly a step in the right direction, but we are waiting to hear that Wesfarmers/CSBP is stopping these imports until the conflict in Western Sahara is resolved.”

This means that AWSA cannot yet recommend that Wesfarmers be removed from the “do not buy” list of ethical investment advisors. Several Scandinavian ethical investors have divested their shareholdings in Wesfarmers on account of its trade in Saharawi phosphate.

Western Sahara Resource Watch, an international organisation, has been monitoring the alleged resource theft from Western Sahara. It has reported on successful campaigns including the recent closure of a sardine canning factory owned by Jealsa in occupied Western Sahara and its removal to Spain.

Another way Australian farmers have the option to avoid the controversial superphosphate is offered by new fertiliser companies accessing the lucrative Australian market such as WENGFU, a recent arrival from China.

The Norwegian fertiliser company Yara said in 2009 that it did not wish to touch Western Sahara phosphates until the conflict was resolved. Last year, it confirmed that its new contract with Morocco covered only phosphate from Morocco itself.

Because of the upgrade of CSBP (Wesfarmers) processes, the ethical high ground could easily be claimed by Wesfarmers. Unfortunately this cannot be said for Incitec Pivot to date, but perhaps it will now be inspired to follow suit.

In an October 8 Australian article titled “Phosphate Supplies Under Threat”, Robin Bromby pointed out the volatility of the Middle East-North Africa zone, which could affect supplies and shipping.

Bromby was referring to the Syrian conflict and the fact that Syria has the 11th largest phosphates reserves in the world. Bromby’s argument was for Australia not to be reliant on this region and to make sure reserves of phosphate in Australia are available.

So far Morocco, which supplies phosphate to Australia has largely avoided the unrest and disruption of the Arab Spring. But the aftermath of protests in late 2010 at Gdeim Izik protest camp set up in Western Sahara in late 2010, which was violently dismantled by Moroccan forces, hangs in the air.

After two years in the notorious Sale prison, 22 Western Sahara independence activists still wait to be charged and face trial over their role in the protest camp. The Saharawi in the occupied zone sit and watch their natural resources being shipped off as Morocco's King Mohammed becomes wealthier.

Before the 1991 UN brokered ceasefire in which a vote of self determination was to be held, the supply line of phosphate to the port was severely disrupted. With no end in sight to resolve this forgotten conflict, could a return to hostilities again threaten this supply?

It is extremely unlikely but the Polisario, which represents the people of Western Sahara, are increasingly being pressured by the youth. After 37 years in refugee camps, they see going back to war as the only way forward due to the failure of the international community to enforce their democratic right for a vote of self-determination.
Disenchantment of the Moroccan people themselves, who may or may not be sympathetic to Western Sahara, could play a part in the future of this region. In the Madrid railway bombing the majority of the people charged for this atrocity were Moroccan nationals. Recently, several Moroccan judges took unprecedented action and held a sit-in calling for an autonomous judiciary.

It makes you question why Australia purports to hold high the principles of accountability, yet turns a blind eye to corruption of countries when it suits. Have we not learnt anything from relationships with regimes in Libya, Egypt and now Syria?

Knowingly supporting corrupt, dictatorial governments reflects badly on Australia. It makes us complicit in their crimes.

Australia has won a seat on the United Nations Security Council. To be worthy of this, we should show we are serious about such basic UN principals as respect for human rights.

Foreign minister Bob Carr was quoted on a recent tour of Morocco and Algeria in a French newspaper was quoted in saying that he valued trade with Morocco and that Australia could supply Morocco with frigates. Supplying naval vessels to a kingdom that has invaded another country and refuses to abide by the UN-brokered cease fire that it signed is a highly questionable practice.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have recorded many examples of abuse by Moroccan forces. Saharawi independence activist Aminatou Haidar, who has won many human rights awards, is just one of many such well-documented cases, spending years in jail for her activities.

For Australia to go through with such a sale repeats the mistake of supporting Indonesia’s military, which terrorized East Timor. Indonesia’s military, with Australian support, is now terrorizing West Papuans.
The Christian Super fund, after its learning experience with investments in the BHP and Ok Tedi environmental tragedy in Papua New Guinea, has led the way with superannuation funds on ethics. We need other industry funds and Australia’s Future Fund to follow this path.

[Ron Guy is secretary of Australian Unions for Western Sahara.]