New Zealand farmers are out of step. As a developed agricultural nation selling our produce and our brand to the world, our companies should be among those showing social responsibility in refusing to buy rock phosphate fertiliser from Moroccan occupied Western Sahara.
Some of the biggest previous importers of Western Saharan phosphate have withdrawn their trade because the Moroccan controlled supply has failed due diligence tests. Companies from Australia, Lithuania (the world’s hitherto second biggest importer), Scandinavia and the US have all stopped buying stolen Western Saharan rock phosphate.
That leaves NZ farmer fertiliser co-operatives Ravensdown and Ballance AgriNutrients among only nine companies worldwide who continue to support Morocco’s illegal occupation through purchase of rock phosphate. This means New Zealand farmers are complicit in exploiting the resources of the local Saharawis, condoning both the occupation of land, the appropriation of their resources, and injustices inflicted upon them.
New Zealand’s intensive agriculture requires intensive fertiliser, to be successful. A 2010 figure estimated that NZ used one million tonnes of phosphate per annum and we’re highly dependent on imported rock phosphate to sustain the industry. But New Zealand agriculture has long come at the cost of indigenous communities and their self-determination – observe Nauru.
Ravensdown and Ballance are the (only) two member companies of the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand and supply 98% of all fertiliser used in New Zealand, a $2billion market share. The Association says they’re ‘aware of the territorial dispute in the non-self-governing territory of the Western Sahara’; An invasion, followed by illegal occupation for 40 years and human rights violations as established by the International Court of Justice and the European Court. But the Association says ‘that’s no reason not to use rock phosphate from the area’. Federated Farmers say ‘NZ needs the phosphate, and the price is likely to go up if the Western Sahara supply was taken off the market”. The Ravensdown Chief Executive links access to Western Sahara phosphate with social stability, warning ‘if it wasn’t available, then globally we could have social unrest, because we wouldn’t be able to produce the food we need’.
Morocco and Western Sahara produce three quarters of the world’s phosphate exports, and phosphate is essential for plant growth. The implication is that because global, and New Zealand agriculture in particular, is dependent on international phosphate trade from a few sites, including Western Sahara, we should accept current oppression as collateral damage. It’s the price we pay for our meat and milk.
And even though the Fertiliser Association say their trade isn’t in disregard of the interests and wishes of the local population, that’s not what the Polisario say – and they should know. The Polisario are the exiled representative body and liberation front of the oppressed Saharawis. The Saharawis are the only people in Africa who haven’t been decolonised, according to Michael Dobson, a Global Politics Doctoral Student. Their country is segregated by ‘the Berm’ a 1500km series of walls, into Morocco-occupied Western Sahara, and the area controlled by the Polisario (mostly ‘economically ‘useless’, heavily mined and almost uninhabited’). Between 90,000-120,000 Saharawis are concentrated in refugee camps in Algeria, facing food insecurity while we live in a land of milk and cheese produced at their expense.
400,000 tonnes of phosphate from Western Sahara are imported into New Zealand every year. The recent seizure of a bulk carrier shipment of phosphate intended for Ballance AgriNutrient’s customers which is 8% of New Zealand’s annual demand, and worth $5million, puts the wholesale price per tonne at just $94.
Chatham Rock Phosphate who unsuccessfully applied to the Environmental Protection Authority to mine the resource from the deep seabed off the Chatham Rise, claim that the seizure of the Western Saharan phosphate shows their application ‘was right all along”. That application was declined because of its potential adverse effects on the marine environment.
Ravensdown says Moroccan phosphate is better than others because of its lower cadmium and other toxic element content. Everyone with an interest in the continued exploitation of Western Saharan phosphate, wants it to continue. However, the Saharawi people and their democratically elected governors in the Polisario should be the ones to determine that future for themselves. A long-promised referendum on self-rule, and an end to Morocco’s illegal territorial occupation might well improve conditions for peace and security, and therefore trade, of this precious resource.
Rock phosphate takes between 10-15 million years to form. There’s no synthetic alternative. About 1.5million tonnes are exported from Western Sahara each year. It’s an agricultural white gold. And since at least the 1960s, we’ve been applying it on New Zealand hills, valleys and soils, from where it runs into our lakes and rivers, like there’s no tomorrow.
Unfortunately, as with many agricultural inputs, phosphate is undervalued economically, socially and environmentally. It’s clear that farmers and their fertiliser interests, don’t want to face up to the humanitarian implications of rock phosphate imports from Western Sahara. But this isn’t just an input problem in some far away country that no-one’s really heard of much. It’s an output problem for the New Zealand environment.
Phosphate leaching from farmland makes a significant detrimental impact on aquatic receiving environments. Eutrophication of rivers and streams is a direct consequence of nutrient overload, and this significantly due to agricultural runoff. 34% of imported phosphate is used on dairy farms and in the Waikato region, dairying alone, accounts for 42% of phosphate entering waterways from 22% of the land area. Dairy farming in four Rotorua lake catchments is estimated to leach more than 4 tonnes of phosphate per annum. We waste too much of the nutrients we depend on, with long term harmful effects.
It’s not rock phosphate from the Chatham Rise that we need as an alternative to Western Saharan supplies. We need a different agricultural model that doesn’t demand intensive fertiliser inputs that come with a human rights abuse price tag. We need agriculture that doesn’t reduce ecosystems to monocultures, and that doesn’t choke our rivers and streams to death with wasted fertiliser resource.
We need a model that avoids, and rectifies the polluted, toxic legacies of nutrient overload to date, for the sake of future generations.
Federated Farmers, the Fertiliser Association, and their constituent parts continue to inflict self-interested, market driven externalities on communities and the environment both here and in Western Sahara. As usual, social and environmental injustices are linked. Just as our milk and cheese and meat are linked to nutrient pollution in our waterways, so are they all linked to oppression in Western Sahara.