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A great deal of this uncertainty likely comes from the region’s tense political situation. At the center of the conflict are the Sahrawi people, who have inhabited Western Sahara since before colonial times—a fact that Morocco contests—and have been fighting for the right to self-determination since Spain agreed to allow Morocco and Mauritania to split the area in 1975. (Mauritania later abandoned their claim to the region.)
According to Zunes, the Moroccan government squashes any hint of Sahrawi nationalism, follows foreigners, and bans the press. The United States, Morocco’s long-time ally, has acknowledged many of these issues in the State Department’s most recent human-rights report. Much of the native population now lives in Algerian refugee camps.
Thanks partly to foreign military support on both sides, an armed conflict following the 1975 occupation ended in a stalemate in 1991, when a United Nations treaty was signed by the Sahrawi nationalist movement, which is known as the Polisario Front, and the Moroccan government. The treaty installed a peacekeeping force referred to as MINURSO (an acronym for the French translation of United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) and laid the groundwork for a future referendum on Western Sahara statehood. Zunes argues that this vote has no chance of occurring due to the political structure of the UN.
MINURSO is the only UN peacekeeping force in the world without a mandate to report on human rights, and in March of this year, civilian MINURSO workers were briefly expelled from the region because the UN’s secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, used the word “occupation” during a visit to Algerian refugee camps. Now, the conflict is back in the news once again, because Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has been campaigning to rejoin the African Union, an organization Morocco left in 1984 when it recognized Western Saharan statehood.
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Currently, the price of phosphate is not high enough for there to be an economic need for governments and private companies to rely on Western Sahara’s sources, says Weber; there are sufficient domestic or other international reserves. In fact, an increasing number of companies have been divesting their interest in Western Saharan phosphate due to investor concerns about human rights, says Eric Hagen, of the Western Sahara Resource Watch, a Norwegian-based NGO that monitors and advocates against the international trade of resources originating from Western Sahara.
But according to Stuart White, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, demand for phosphate in fertilizer will rise in the coming decades, partly due to demand from an increasingly developed Sub-Saharan Africa, which he describes as “a sleeping giant in terms of demand for phosphorus,” and also due to global dietary changes. While there has been a plateau in meat consumption in places like the U.S., Europe, and Australia, he says, places like Southeast Asia and China are seeing skyrocketing rates, and meat requires relatively more phosphate for production.