Canadian company buys conflict minerals, raises serious legal and ethical questions.

In October of last year a Canadian company imported possibly the first conflict materials into the country since the South African Apartheid. Even though the phosphate rock bought is from the Bou Craa mines in Western Sahara, the money has ended up in the hands on the Moroccan government. As purchases of this nature become commonplace in the international community, serious questions are raised concerning their legality and the impact they are having on progress to the region.

In October 2010 a shipment of Phosphate arrived on the shore on North Vancouver carrying a cargo of worth $10 million. The new owner of this shipment is Calgary based agricultural business ‘Agrium’, who have entered into an agreement with Morocco to buy 1 million tones a year until 2020, a deal worth over $100 million.

Mike Watson, president and CEO of Agrium, said:

“We believe this agreement signifies the start of a significant partnership between Agrium and Morocco, offering clear benefits to both parties”

Agrium confirmed to Canadian newspaper ‘The Tyee’ that the resources were sourced in Western Sahara.

Western Sahara had been occupied by Morocco since 1975, when Spain, its former colonizer, rather than granting the state freedom, cut a deal with Morocco in return for resources. The International Court of Justice immediately condemned the takeover and the UN general assembly has declared Morocco’s ongoing presence an illegal occupation. No state in the world recognizes Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. 

During the 1975/76 occupation over half of the Sahrawi population - around 150,000 people - were forced into refugee camps in Algeria, where they still remain 38 years later, separated from their homeland, friends and family by a 2,700 km wall, and the longest strip of landmines in the world. The displaced Sahrawis are now living in one of the most inhospitable places on the earth, completely reliant on foreign aid, with no safe drinking water, unable to grow food in the 50-degree desert.

Meanwhile the Moroccan government has been extracting resources from the resource-rich Western Sahara, of which the Sahrawi people see none of the profits.

The Sahrawi Government in exile (SADR) has written a letter to Agrium, saying:

“The Saharawi people emphatically do not consent the development and export of their natural resources from the occupied part of their territory. We do not have the benefit of those resources, the revenues from which go to sustain the occupation.”

What is the legality of this practice?

So why are countries still permitted to buy ‘stolen’ resources from an illegally occupying government? Well, actually they’re not. A recent legal opinion from the New York City Bar Association to the UN found:

“….to the extent Morocco is using natural resources located within the territory of Western Sahara, unless such use is in consultation with and to the direct benefit of the people of Western Sahara, Morocco's use of the natural resources of the territory constitutes a violation of international law."

Agrium issued a response to SADR, defending their transaction. They said:

"On issues related to disputed territorial claims, Agrium looks to guidance from the Canadian and US governments before entering into any agreement which may be related to the territory. Agrium's agreement with Morocco complies with the respective trade and customs laws of these jurisdictions."

Furthermore, they claimed that:

"Agrium is committed to improving the quality of life in the communities where we do business, and we believe that our agreement will support the improvement of economic, environmental and social conditions in these communities."

Agrium’s statement is confusing and seems to be contradictory with many laws. Not only is it clear the UN have stated that resource extraction from the area is illegal, unless the trade benefits the Sahrawis - which it doesn’t - but in addition, the U.S have excluded Western Sahara from their free trade agreement, and Canada are currently in talks deciding whether or not to include the region as one of their free-trade partners, but, as yet no decision had been made. The transaction they have made is illegal, but the law in this case not being enforced by national or international bodies.

Legitimising and extending the conflict?

Not only is Agrium’s statement contradictory to the UN law on resource extraction, but it also fails to see the full perspective of the impact that the deal will have for, in their words, “economic, environmental and social conditions in these communities”.

The deal has raised concerns that an injection of money such as this will only serve to prolong the conflict and encourage the occupation. Since 1991 the UN mission for resolution MINURSO has been trying to find a resolution to the conflict. However, even with an annual budget of $60million, the progress is painfully slow, and the UN has come under harsh criticism for being the only peacekeeping effort in 35 years to not have on the ground human rights monitoring, despite numerous reports of widespread abuse. Unfortunately, this is because large international powers purposefully block human rights monitoring in order to continue their trade relations with Morocco. For example, in 2010 France voted against a Security Council attempt to implement human rights monitoring in Western Sahara, in effect blocking the entire effort.

It is often claimed that Morocco’s key interest in occupying Western Sahara is to enable them to have free resource extraction of the area (not only is the region the supplier of two thirds of the Worlds phosphate, making up a quarter of the countries exports, but it also has fish rich waters and plenty of oil). If this is the case then the continuation of resource trade will only serve to encourage Morocco that their occupation is economically beneficial. The SADR added in their earlier letter to Agrium that:

"The continuing, illegal occupation of Western Sahara is legitimized by individuals and corporations who deal with Morocco for the natural resources of the territory. The conflict over Western Sahara is prolonged, and the Saharawi people denied their economic future, by such engagement.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars in resources are extracted and sold from Western Sahara every year, and Agrium are just the latest in a long line of trades made against the will of the Sahrawi people. Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) estimates almost $300 million in phosphate have been exported from Western Sahara in 44 shiploads last year alone. Many countries in the world partake in the illegal buying of resources from the area, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia. 

However, some countries are choosing to take a stand against the illegal buying of conflict minerals. In 2010 The Swedish Government Pension fund – the repository for $700billion of the countries wealth - announced that it would be ending relations with companies that invested in mineral from Western Sahara because they considered such imports “grossly unethical”. The move followed a similar decision by Norwegian State Pension Fund earlier that year. The Swedish funds issued a statement, saying:

"This is not only due the fact that the local population is not receiving the benefits; the current manner of exploitation is also contributing to maintaining an unresolved situation and consequently, Morocco's presence in a territory over which it does not have rightful sovereignty. In the view of the Council, there is a concrete, mutually beneficial relationship between Morocco's violations of norms and the companies purchasing phosphate from Western Sahara."

This ‘mutually beneficial relationship’ that was also spoken of by the President of Agrium, certainly seems to be a prevalent theme. It is unquestionable that both Morocco -who are gaining free resources - and the buying party – who are gaining discounted minerals – are both benefiting. But there is, of course, a third party that is not benefiting, and these are the Sahrawi people.

Despite the legal and moral drawbacks of the Western Sahara mineral trade, there remains a genuine difficulty in persuading companies to withdraw from trade. As long as international law is not enforced and there is no expression of clear guidelines at the national level, it looks as if companies will continue to exploit this ‘mutually beneficial relationship’.

In a quote published last year in Think Africa Press last year, a representative from Western Sahara Resource Watch said:

“Responsible governments need to provide legal clarity by providing guidelines to all private companies that any exploration or exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources must respect international law. In failing to provide this clarity, governments will indirectly be allowing companies to violate the sovereign rights of Western Sahara's people to control their own resources."

So what can I do?

Although international law and national governments seem to be doing very little to curtail the practice of conflict trade, there are measures that we, the population, can take. Firstly, Canadians can stop buying mineral fertilizers for their garden. The fertilisers contain phosphate, and are most likely to be sourced in Western Sahara.

Secondly, check out where you can see the latest on illegal purchases leaving Western Sahara.

Additionally, you can write a letter to put pressure on the companies, governments and international powers that hold the ability to stop the practice of illegal conflict trade. For a list of addresses and letter outlines please visit