Tuesday, November 16, 2010

PotashCorp tentacles reach Africa

Have you ever known something that you think the whole world doesn't know about?

In my case it happened this past month when the news of a possible Potash Corp takeover by BHP Billiton covered every headline. It seemed as though every day we were bombarded with government announcements of whether or not PCS doors would be open. When the emphatic "NO" came from Mr. Clement's mouth, many Saskatchewanians breathed sighs of relief. But not I.

Only weeks before I learned that PCS had globalization tentacles which reached to a largely unheard of region in northwestern Africa. The region is called Western Sahara and it is an occupied territory of Morocco. How it got this way is a tribute to its dark colonial past.

In 1975 — after almost 100 years of rocky colonial rule — Spain withdrew its forces from a hotly disputed territory they called Spanish Sahara. Located southwest of Morocco and northeast of Mauritania, the area now called Western Sahara is home to Moroccan settlers and the indigenous Sahrawi people.

Following Spain’s exit in 1975 the Sahrawi claimed that the territory belonged to them. This resulted in conflict and bloodshed between a Sahrawi guerilla army known as the Polisario Front and neighbouring countries. Though Polisario was able to defeat Mauritania forces they were overpowered by Morocco to the north. As a result Morocco rules the territory in theory, even though the African Union and over 80 governments consider the territory a sovereign state.

In addition to territorial issues, the Western Sahara is rich in many minerals and resource including oil, fish, and of special interest to the PotashCorp, phosphate. An official with Western Sahara Rights Watch (WSRW) — a Western Sahara advocacy group — said that the region boasts one of the highest deposits of phosphate in the world. The fact that it is high quality, easily mined (only three feet underground), and in great abundance has attracted multi-national companies.

Enter the US-Canadian fertilizer producer Potash Corp, considered by WSRW the largest importer of phosphate from Western Sahara in the world. If i understand it all correctly Potash Corp ships the phosphate from the Western Saharan coast to Louisiana and onto Los Angeles where it is processed with ammonia and Saskatchewan potassium to make inorganic fertilizer.

Now this wouldn't be a problem if the Sahrawi people were benifiting from this phosphate extraction, but the reality is that Morocco is reaping all of the economic rewards. It is actually more likely that Morocco would give Western Sahara self-governing status if there were no resources to be had.

In 2002, a United Nations contract lawyer concluded that while the existing exploration contracts for the area were not illegal, "if further exploration and exploitation activities were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the principles of international law."

This caused some multi-national companies such as Total S.A. and Norwegian fertilizer company Yara to leave, but has not deterred the continued extraction of phosphate by the Potash Corp.

WSRW says that companies like Potash Corp will receive no penalty for this because the UN Security Council will not place an embargo on Morocco because one of its members, veto-wielding France — which has strong ties with Morocco — will not do so.

Having understood a lot of this back-story it became very difficult for me to watch the news everyday and see that nobody seemed to pick up on this. Thus, while we are happy that our sixth largest company is staying home thousands of Sahrawi suffer under a government given money by the very corporation we love.

Needless to say, I found myself perplexed and disturbed by the ignorance and am in the process to try to do something about it. I am realizing that it takes work to get people to talk about stuff like this.

Canadian journalist Cecil Rosner once said that when you do any kind of investigative work like this you have to keep an open mind. I'm trying to do that. Maybe PCS is not aware of all of this? Or maybe there is another side to the story? Hard to say right now, but I'll try to keep you posted. Because if one of our biggest companies is contributing towards an international injustice then Canadians deserve to know about it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010