Western Sahara: West's resource theft prolongs occupation

About half the Saharawi population fled to refugee camps on the border with Algeria, where more than 165,000 people remain today

Offshore oil drilling operations off Western Sahara, carried out by the US firm Kosmos Energy, were denounced by Western Sahara Resources Watch (WSRW) on March 2.

“Kosmos Energy did nothing to obtain the consent of the people of Western Sahara,” said WSRW chair Erik Hagen.

The Dallas-based company said its exploration well had not yielded a commercial find and would be plugged, Associated Press said on March 2.

However, the company said it would continue exploration in the 22,000 square kilometre concession it had been illegally granted by the Moroccan government and a second well would be drilled.

Western Sahara is included in the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, making the legality of the oil exploration questionable.

The country was colonised by Spain in the late 19th century. In 1973, the Polisario Front began an armed independence struggle. By 1975, in the dying days of the Franco dictatorship, Spain had been fought to a standstill.

However, rather than allow independence, Spain made an agreement with neighbouring countries, Morocco and Mauritania. Backed by Spain, these countries invaded Western Sahara to allow Madrid to retain access to its resources.

Polisario resisted the invasion and declared the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976.

France became involved in the war, sending military advisers and an air force contingent to support the Mauritanian dictatorship. Along with Israel, the US and several other Western countries, it helped arm Morocco.

By 1978, Mauritanian forces faced military defeat. An uprising overthrew the Ould Daddah dictatorship, and the new Mauritanian regime withdrew from the war and recognised the SADR.

But the war with Morocco continued. About half the Saharawi population fled to refugee camps on the border with Algeria, where more than 165,000 people remain today.

The SADR controls about a third of Western Sahara, but the area is entirely desert. Morocco controls the coast, major urban areas, the country's fertile land and maritime resources. The Moroccans built a wall dividing the liberated and occupied zones.

In 1991, a ceasefire was signed under UN auspices. This provided for a referendum on independence, but the UN has not implemented this.

The SADR is recognised by many Asian and Latin American states, most African nations and the African Union. Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, however, is recognised by the Arab League and several other countries, including France.

The US is officially neutral, but in practice supports Moroccan rule. Its pro-Moroccan stance was more explicit under the Clinton and Bush administrations.

With Cuban assistance, Polisario has made great strides in education, health care and gender equality in the refugee camps. A relatively egalitarian and socially cohesive society has been forged.

However, the camps are dependent on dwindling UN food aid and malnutrition is widespread. A lack of water resources makes the future viability of the camps uncertain.

In the Moroccan-occupied zone, human rights abuses are widespread. Saharawi activists are routinely subjected to arrest, torture and extrajudicial executions.

State-sponsored transmigration is threatening to make the Saharawi population a minority in their own country. Moroccan settlers have far greater educational and economic opportunities than the Saharawi population.

Settlement is encouraged by subsidised fuel, and basic goods and tax exemptions for settler-owned businesses. A confidential 2005 US diplomatic cable, published on WikiLeaks, revealed that without the heavy state subsidies, the Moroccan settler population in Western Sahara would be unviable.

Western support for Moroccan rule is the result of access to natural resources. Other US and French corporations are involved in oil exploration, in particular French firm Total. Australian company Incitec Pivot is involved in looting Western Sahara's phosphate deposits.

The main economic interest is fisheries. An EU-Moroccan agreement allows EU fishing fleets to plunder the seas off Western Sahara, despite a 2010 European Parliamentary Legal Service finding that this is illegal. France is again the main beneficiary.

The March 4 Guardian reported that activists were taking action in the British High Court against tomatoes from Western Sahara being labelled as Moroccan and receiving tarriff benefits.

The agribusinesses producing the “conflict tomatoes” are “owned by [Morocco's] wealthy King Mohammed VI, others by powerful Moroccan conglomerates or French multinational firms. None [are] owned by the indigenous Saharawi people,” the Guardian said.

Over March 19-20, a conference will be held in Melbourne to discuss the plunder of Western Sahara's natural resources. Speakers include Mouloud Said, Saharawi Minister Delegate in charge of Asia and the Pacific, and Sultana Khaya, President of the Saharawi League for the Protection of Natural Resources and Human Rights of Boujdor.