The recent seizure of phosphate from a Moroccan state company in South Africa and Panama is a blow to corporate Canada and a victory for national independence struggles. It should also embarrass the Canadian media.
This month courts in Port Elizabeth and Panama City okayed requests by the POLISARIO Front asking South Africa and Panama to seize two cargo ships with 100,000 tonnes of phosphate from Western Sahara, a sparsely populated territory in north-western Africa occupied by Morocco. Ruled by Spain until 1975, Moroccan troops moved in when the Spanish departed and a bloody 15-year war drove tens of thousands of Sahrawi into neighbouring Algeria, where they still live in camps.
No country officially recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The UN calls it “occupied” and the Fourth Geneva Convention as well as the Rome Statute prohibit an occupying power from exploiting the resources of territories they control unless it’s in the interest of, and according to, the wishes of the local population. In 2002 the UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Hans Corell described the exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources as a “ international law principles applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories.”
Saskatoon’s PotashCorp and Calgary’s Agrium, which are merging, have a partnership with Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s OCP Group to export phosphate mined in Western Sahara. The two Canadian companies buy half of Western Sahara phosphates and it was an Agrium shipment that was seized in Panama.
To deflect from its complicity in violating international law, PotashCorp says OCP’s operations benefit the Sahrawi people. A 2014 PotashCorp statement claimed: “ a proactive affirmative action campaign to the benefit of the local people and, importantly, is making significant economic and social contributions to the entire region. As a result, we believe those who choose to make a political statement about OCP are effectively penalizing Saharawi workers, their families and communities.”
International solidarity activists have called on businesses to stop exploiting Western Sahara’s resources, which has led the credit union, four pension funds in Sweden and Norway’s $800 billion pension fund to divest from PotashCorp. A number of fertilizer companies have also severed ties to OCP, Morocco’s company. The POLISARIO Front national liberation movement and African Union claim deals with OCP to export Western Sahara phosphate contravene international law and prop up Morocco’s control.
While only preliminary, the recent court decisions are important for national independence struggles. The South Africa case is thought to be the first time an independence movement has won legal action to intercept the export of state property.
Aside from a handful of stories in the business press, the Canadian media has basically ignored PotashCorp and Agrium’s role in violating international law. In the lead-up to the 2015 Saskatoon launch of Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation I submitted a piece about PotashCorp’s role in buying the non-renewable resources of Africa’s last remaining colony. The Saskatoon Star Phoenix opinion editor, who I’d communicated with on a few occasions when writing op-eds for a union, told me he was considering it and then responded a week later. “Hi Yves, Thanks, but I will pass on your op-ed. This issue has been on our pages in the past, with both sides of the debate making their points.” But when I searched the Star Phoenix database for articles on the largest publicly traded company in Saskatoon ties to Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara there was a single 264-word letter to the editor criticizing PotashCorp’s policy two and a half years earlier (and a rebuttal from a company representative). Apparently, the Saskatoon business titan’s role in violating international law only warrants 264 words.
As part of writing this story, I searched Canadian Newsstream for coverage of PotashCorp and Agrium’s ties to Western Sahara. I found eight articles (a couple appeared in more than one paper) in major dailies on the subject, as well as three letters to the editor, over the past six years. Yet, as if violating international law is only of interest to those making investment decisions, all but one of the articles appeared in the business pages. When the Sisters of Mercy of Newfoundland brought a resolution to PotashCorp’s 2015 shareholder meeting about Western Sahara, the Canadian Press reported on it but only a few news outlets picked up the wire story.
While the Sahrawi struggle is unfamiliar to Canadians, it is widely known in African intellectual circles. An international solidarity campaign, with a group in Victoria, has long highlighted corporate Canada’s ties to the Moroccan occupation. I wrote about it briefly in my Canada in Africa and in an article for a number of left websites. In September 2015 Briarpatch did a cover story titled A Very Fertile Occupation: PotashCorp’s role in occupied Western Sahara and last week OurSask.ca published a long article titled Why a Segment of Saskatchewan’s Economy, and Our Ethical Compass, Hinges on an Undeveloped, War-Torn African Nation. An activist in Regina has been crowd funding for a documentary project titled Sirocco: Winds of Resistance: How the will to resist a brutal occupation has been passed on to two women by their grandmothers.
As my experience with the Star Phoenix suggest, the mainstream media is not unaware of the subject. Rather, there is a deeply held bias in favour of the corporate perspective and unless activists politicize the issue editors will ignore corporate Canada’s complicity in entrenching colonialism in Africa.