The Desert Rock That Feeds the World

A dispute over Western Sahara’s phosphate reserves could disrupt food production around the globe.

A vehicle carries untreated phosphate at a phosphate mine in Western Sahara. (Youssef Boudlal / Reuters)

Aided by the longest conveyor belt in the world, a steady stream of chalky white powder emerges on the North African coast from deep within the desert. The belt, its presence betrayed by the bright windswept powder scattered around it on the brown earth below, travels 61 miles across the rugged terrain of Western Sahara, from the mines of Bou Craa to Port El Aaiún, where massive ships transport its contents across the globe.

The white powder is phosphate rock—a commodity both valuable and vital. Without it, humanity’s growing population couldn’t feed itself. Phosphate, along with nitrogen, is one of the two most necessary components of synthetic fertilizer. But unlike nitrogen, which makes up 78 percent of the atmosphere, phosphate is a finite resource. And there’s no way to manufacture it.

Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco, just north along the coast, since 1975. If you include this disputed region, Morocco holds more than 72 percent of all phosphate-rock reserves in the world, according to the most recent United States Geological Survey study. The next closest country, China, has just shy of 6 percent. The rest is spread out in smaller pockets around the globe. Morocco aggressively and sometimes violently argues that the notion of Western Sahara statehood is illegitimate, and that the region’s rich supply of phosphate is theirs. As a result, Western Sahara has been the stage for a growing human-rights conflict as well as significant regional geopolitical tensions.

“I've been to 70 countries, including Iraq under Saddam and Indonesia under Suharto,” says Stephen Zunes, an international-studies professor at the University of San Francisco.* “[Western Sahara] is the worst police state that I’ve ever seen.”

This political conflict, like the natural resource issues tangled into it, has remained obscure on the global front. But as other country’s domestic reserves of phosphate become more costly to extract in the coming decades, this disputed region could have more of a monopoly over phosphate than OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, has over oil—which has major implications for the future dynamics of food and its availability in the developing world.

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In the 1960s, the widespread use of synthetic fertilizer, part of the Green Revolution, allowed millions of people who would have otherwise starved to be fed by dramatically expanding the land suitable for agriculture around the world. This was driven by the Haber process, which allows atmospheric nitrogen to be converted into a form biologically available for crops. But for any increase in nitrogen in soils, life also requires a commensurate increase in phosphorus, which is mined in the form of phosphate from geologic deposits around the world. The demand for mined phosphate skyrocketed.

No matter how impressive technological advances become, a Haber-like technique for creating phosphate will never exist: There is a fixed amount in the Earth, it’s stuck in the ground, and the only way to get it is to mine it. So now there’s a controversy about how much phosphate remains in the world, and how its distribution will affect food production in the future.

In 2009, a research paper based on then-current United States Geological Survey estimates of phosphate reserves sparked fear that the world was about to enter a period of “peak phosphorus.” Its authors argued that current reserves could be depleted within a century’s time. In response, the International Fertilizer Development Center—a non-profit NGO focusing on the fertilizer industry, food security, and global hunger—released its own independent study of phosphate reserves the following year. They estimated almost four times the USGS’s amount, allaying concerns over the commodity’s imminent disappearance.

Stephen Jasinski, the USGS specialist in charge of monitoring phosphate reserves, says that almost all of this massive increase came from a reinterpretation of data provided by Morocco’s state-run mining company back in the 1980s, as well as independent studies from the same time period. The USGS now accepts these new Moroccan values as accurate. But according to Olaf Weber, a professor of sustainability management at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, “it’s hard to figure out” exactly how much phosphate Morocco really has.

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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.

That means an increased reliance on the phosphate of Western Sahara. As the value of that resource increases, so too will the pressure to hold on to it. According to the Western Sahara Resource Watch, about 10 percent of Morocco’s phosphate income comes from the Western Saharan mine in Bou Craa. If that reflects, even broadly, the relative amounts of phosphate in Morocco’s undisputed territory and the disputed Western Sahara region, then Western Sahara is the second largest reserve of phosphate rock in the world. If Western Sahara gained independence, it would become a counter to the massive phosphate monopoly Morocco otherwise would enjoy as other reserves become less viable.

The dynamics of the entire phosphate market, then, could be shaped significantly by the conflict in Western Sahara, its resolution, or its continued stalemate. In 1975, a UN fact-finding mission to Western Sahara suggested that Morocco and Western Sahara combined would one day become the largest exporter of phosphate worldwide. Morocco has argued that its own reserves of phosphate are large enough to make the Western Saharan reserves insignificant. But, as Toby Shelly argues in Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony?, that position ignores the fact that an independent Western Sahara would significantly reduce Moroccan market share and their ability to control the price of the commodity.

The existence of a Moroccan monopoly would have a disproportionate effect on poorer countries, according to White and other researchers. In a 2011 Nature comment, the sustainability and natural resources scientists Jim Elser, of Arizona State University, and Elena Bennet, of McGill University, argued that “developing-world farmers cannot afford phosphate fertilizers even at today’s non-monopoly prices,” let alone in a future dominated only by Moroccan phosphate. “Many of the world’s food producers are in danger of becoming completely dependent on trade with Morocco, where press reports have emerged of Dubai-style luxury developments being planned in anticipation of phosphorus windfalls.”

Morocco, for their part, has been denying Western Saharan independence with growing vigor. In February of this year, Morocco’s Minister of Communication announced a program to train Moroccan youth to defend the government stance on Western Sahara through social media. Leaked diplomatic cables suggest increased concern over the international perception of Morocco’s claim to the land. The Polisario, meanwhile, have stated that they are ready to raise arms, once again, over Western Sahara.

The future of the region, the actual distribution of the world’s phosphate reserves, and the market forces driving the commodity’s future are full of uncertainty. The one thing that is certain is mentioned in a footnote in the USGS mineral resources report: “There are no substitutes for phosphorus in agriculture.”

* This article originally stated that Zunes is a professor at University of California, San Francisco. We regret the error.