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No time to ignore 'blood phosphates'

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By Bruce Munro
Saharawi refugees living in El-Aiun camp near Tindouf, in Algeria, protest against New Zealand's...
Saharawi refugees living in El-Aiun camp near Tindouf, in Algeria, protest against New Zealand's continued use of Western Sahara phosphate. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
New Zealand fertiliser companies are accused of helping prop up oppression in the Western Sahara. By implication, so are all New Zealanders. And Jacinda Ardern is accused of forgetting the plight of a people she once vocally supported.
Bruce Munro takes a look at this country's dependence on "blood phosphates''.
A secret ship, laden with controversial cargo, is headed for New Zealand.
It is no dinghy. At 188m long and 32m wide, it is more than one and a-half times the length of a rugby field and wide enough to fit a basketball court longways between its port and starboard handrails.
Its bridge and cranes are cream-coloured, the hull is black to the railings and red below the waterline. All-in-all, a medium-sized ordinary-looking sea-faring cargo ship.
It is not, however, behaving like a normal cargo ship.
During the past month and a-half, it has listed three different destinations. It did not load or unload any substantial cargo at the first port it reached, Rio de Janiero, in Brazil. It then listed its second destination as Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America, but did not stop there. Now it is displaying China as its final port of call - although not saying which of that country's dozens of ports it is supposedly heading for - all the while bearing down on New Zealand.
The bulk carrier has been at sea for 44 days since loading a cargo at the port city Moroccans call Laayoune, in Western Sahara.
The ship set sail on June 1. Sailing conditions were mostly fair in the Atlantic Ocean. The vessel was often making 10 knots. Since rounding the Horn, it has regularly been sailing in high winds and the average speed has, at times, halved.
All this detail is available through numerous ship-tracking websites, giving those willing to pay real-time data on each of almost 30,000 big and small marine vessels worldwide. Details including, of course, this particular vessel's name, Venture Pearl.
The only information missing is what its cargo is. That was provided by a watcher in Laayoune; someone who prefers to call his city by its local Saharawi name, El-Aiun. The Venture Pearl, he says, is laden with phosphate rock, the key ingredient in fertiliser, which underpins New Zealand's agriculture-dependent economy.
Where the Venture Pearl is making for is clear from the course it is tracking across the South Pacific Ocean, arcing in to the top half of the treacherous Roaring Forties while veering, not so much towards the land mass of Asia, as the small South Pacific islands of Aotearoa.
Not that the public of New Zealand is supposed to know. Nowhere on the publicly listed shipping schedules of New Zealand's several ports, among the dozens of vessels listed as in-port, departed or expected to arrive between now and the end of the month, is there a single mention of the Venture Pearl.
The omission is intentional.
Worldwide, New Zealand's two largest fertiliser companies, Ravensdown and Ballance Agri-Nutrients, are the sole-remaining, substantial, foreign buyers of Western Sahara phosphate.
It puts New Zealand in the international, political spotlight because Western Sahara is not a sovereign territory but a region occupied by Morocco.
The indigenous Saharawi people accuse the New Zealand fertiliser companies of helping prop up their oppression. In the same way that blood diamonds refer to precious stones mined to finance a warlord's activities, they say what is being mined in Western Sahara is rightly called "blood phosphate''. By association, all New Zealanders are implicated, they say. They also accuse Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who once vocally supported their cause, of forgetting their plight.
Phosphorous is an essential element in plant and animal growth. But New Zealand soils tend to be acidic, low in phosphate, sulphur and some trace elements.
So, our primary industry exports of $37 billion-a-year depend heavily on fertiliser. Ravensdown estimates that without phosphate fertilisers, New Zealand's rural production would fall at least 50%. To avoid that, the country imports phosphate. It just so happens that more than 75% of the known global reserves of phosphate rock are in Morocco and Western Sahara.
Western Sahara is 266,000km2 of mostly desert on the northwest coast of Africa. It is home to half a million mainly Muslim Arabic-speaking Saharawi people. What it lacks in grass, the region makes up for in growth-promoting phosphate rock, abundant fish stocks and what is believed to be an untapped offshore oil resource.
Western Sahara was colonised by Spain in the 1880s. In 1975, the colonists withdrew, giving joint control to Morocco and Mauritania. But fighting broke out between them and a Saharawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front.
The Polisario Front proclaimed an independent Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with a government in exile, in Algeria.
Morocco eventually gained control of most of the territory. A man-made buffer strip called "the berm'', laced with landmines and fortifications, stretches the length of the disputed territory separating the Moroccan-controlled majority of Western Sahara from the small eastern area controlled by the Polisario Front.
In 1975, weeks after Morocco took control of the main cities and resources in Western Sahara, phosphate was being exported from the Bou Craa mine, 100km southeast of El-Aiun, says human rights organisation Western Sahara Resource Watch. The mine is managed by the Moroccan-state owned OCP company and generates Morocco's main source of income from Western Sahara, estimated at NZ$247 million per year.
The dispute has been festering for 44 years.
In April, Amnesty International reported continued human rights violations in Western Sahara, including "arbitrary restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, particularly of individuals supporting self-determination for Western Sahara''.
"During this period, the Moroccan authorities continued to regularly disperse peaceful demonstrations, sometimes using unnecessary or excessive force'', the report said.
A Saharawi widow, whose husband worked for OCP and whose eight children are all unemployed, holds...
A Saharawi widow, whose husband worked for OCP and whose eight children are all unemployed, holds a sign calling on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to stop New Zealand fertiliser companies taking phosphate from Western Sahara.PHOTO: SUPPLIED
About 160,000 people have been displaced by the conflict. The majority live in refugee camps in Algeria.
Tecber Saleh, who now lives in Spain, grew up in the refugee camps. She says life was ``difficult, tough and challenging''. But, until she was 8 years old, she thought it was normal.
"My father ... explained to me that we are refugees and the camps are not our homeland,'' Saleh told the Otago Daily Times this week. "It's only temporary [he said]. That's our home, it's a beautiful home and we can't see it now because Morocco is occupying it.''
The United Nations has recognised the Polisario Front as the legitimate representatives of the Saharawi people and lists Western Sahara as the world's largest and most populous non-self-governing territory. The UN also backs the call for a Saharawi referendum on self-determination.
New Zealand's dubious history of importing phosphate began 20 years before Spain colonised Western Sahara. In 1867, the first shipment of rock phosphate arrived here from the Pacific Island of Nauru.
In the ensuing decades, the atoll's phosphate-rich surface was destroyed "to fertilise the poor soils of Australia and New Zealand'', historian Judy Bennett has said.
The University of Otago emeritus professor said much the same happened to Kiribati's Banaba Island, where phosphate was extracted "at bargain-basement prices'' and the inhabitants were forced to leave their devastated island and relocate in Fiji.
In 2012, Ravensdown and Ballance were two of 15 companies, from 13 countries, buying Western Sahara phosphate.
By the end of last year, it was down to four, when what had been the biggest player, Nutrien, of Canada, pulled out. That leaves Sinofert, a Chinese company importing small quantities, Paradeep, which is a subsidiary of Moroccan-owned OCP, and the two New Zealand companies, which are believed to have each imported between 215,000 and 228,000 tonnes of Western Sahara phosphate last year, worth a combined NZ$57 million.
In 2017, a New Zealand-bound vessel carrying a $5 million cargo of phosphate was seized in South Africa, where a court decided the cargo legally belonged to the Saharawi government, the SADR, and not OCP.
A similar case in Panama was not upheld by courts there. But since then, no ships carrying Western Sahara phosphate have stopped in South Africa or gone through the Panama Canal, instead having to take the long route to get their cargo to buyers.
In Western Sahara, the anger and frustration of the Saharawi is increasingly being turned on New Zealand.
"The complicity of the New Zealand Government with the companies Ballance and Ravensdown and the silence of the New Zealand people is increasing the suffering of the Saharawi people in the territories occupied by the Moroccans and in refugee camps,'' Dihani Mohamed, who lives in El-Aiun, told the ODT.
On June 1, the Liberian-flagged bulk carrier Venture Pearl left the port of El-Aiun with a cargo...
On June 1, the Liberian-flagged bulk carrier Venture Pearl left the port of El-Aiun with a cargo-load of phosphate from the disputed African territory of Western Sahara. Reaching China by its given ETA of July 21 is unlikely given its speed and its course. The more likely destination is a New Zealand port, despite Venture Pearl not being listed on shipping schedules here.
Amnesty International says Moroccan security forces have kept Dihani under close surveillance since his release from prison in 2015, after five years of arbitrary detention. He continues to speak out.
"Today we live under an apartheid regime that is trying to kill the Saharawi people through the use of a new weapon, that is, to reduce demographic growth by depriving our people of economic and social rights and exploiting our wealth,'' he says.
"The ships carrying phosphate are kept secret because they are pirate ships. If they are not on your port schedules it is further proof of what I have just said.''
At the far end of the phosphate supply chain, here in Dunedin, Dihani and the other Saharawi whose public protests are regularly broken up by Moroccan police, have the vociferous support of Environmental Justice Otepoti (EJO).
EJO members, brother and sister, Sam and Rose Murphy say all New Zealanders have a responsibility to take a stand on this issue.
"In this globalised world, where we are all connected, we need to make sure that our actions and the actions of those around us aren't causing harm to others,'' Rose says.
"If we've drunk New Zealand milk or eaten meat or drunk wine, then Western Sahara is in us ... That absolutely makes it our issue,'' Sam adds.
Ballance and Ravensdown have a wholly different view.
Ravensdown spokesman Gareth Richards says it is a complex geopolitical dispute that needs to be resolved at a government level via the UN.
Richards says the OCP has assured Ravensdown that all funds from the phosphate mine are invested in local programmes that benefit the Saharawi people.
Ravensdown is "not immune to the humanitarian dimension of the situation'' and has been exploring alternatives, but "this remains a challenge due to New Zealand's particular environmental and agronomic requirements''.
"It remains our position that we are trading legally; operating within UN expectations.''
Ballance spokesman David Glendining says his company's operations also meets UN requirements regarding non-self-governing territories.
Glendining makes the point that New Zealand fertiliser companies buy phosphate, not from OCP, but from the OCP-owned company Phosboucraa. He reiterates that they have been told all of the profits stay in Western Sahara.
He points to a recent European Union report giving the green light for the EU to do business in Western Sahara.
The report emphasises that economic development in the region will bring socio-economic benefits such as access to employment and social benefits, he says.
The EU report is "a farce'', Kamal Fadel says.
Raised in a Saharawi refugee camp, Fadel is now the Western Sahara representative to Australia and New Zealand. An ambassador based in Australia, but without a country to represent.
He says the EU delegation did not visit Western Sahara and only consulted a few pro-Morocco organisations.
"The EU was also in breach of the decisions of the European Court of Justice [ECJ] which confirmed that Morocco has no sovereignty over Western Sahara and therefore has no right to deal in Western Sahara resources.''
Foreign companies that buy Western Sahara phosphates embolden Morocco to maintain the occupation, he says.
"They provide legitimacy and funding to Morocco and deny our people a vital resource that we would need to rebuild our country after decades of conflict and suffering.''
Fadel says New Zealand's involvement has tarnished its international reputation as a nation that defends human rights. He calls on the New Zealand Government to "do the right thing'' and "put an end'' to Western Sahara phosphate imports until Morocco has enabled a genuine referendum of Saharawi people on self-determination.
Rose and Sam Murphy, of Environmental Justice Otepoti, say anyone drinking milk has a bit of...
Rose and Sam Murphy, of Environmental Justice Otepoti, say anyone drinking milk has a bit of Western Sahara in them.
The Western Sahara and the plight of the Saharawi is a story the Prime Minister of a South Pacific nation could be forgiven for not knowing.
Jacinda Ardern, however, has been there. And she has spoken out strongly about it.
In 2008, as President of the International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY), Ardern visited the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria.
Afterwards, speaking at an IUSY conference, she said "It is time the Polisario was recognised''.
Ardern mentioned Western Sahara in her maiden speech in parliament and in a piece she wrote in 2015.
Fadel says the Prime Minister is "very well aware of the issue of Western Sahara and has expressed sympathy and solidarity with the Saharawi people''.
"We are very grateful to her,'' he says.
Others express less conciliatory views.
Dihani says Ardern has done "nothing to put into practice her promises made to Saharawi women and children who are daily subjected to various abuses by the Moroccan authorities''.
"This is very sad for the Saharawi people, also because we considered the Prime Minister as a great political model for the protection of human rights.''
Sam Murphy says the New Zealand Government has done "sweet FA''.
Anything less than legislating to prevent imports of Western Sahara phosphate is "irresponsible and unethical'', he says.
Ardern is out of the country, unavailable for comment.
A spokesman addresses the broader issues and not, understandably, the question of whether the Prime Minister has forgotten the Saharawi and her earlier comments of support.
The Government has made it clear to the fertiliser companies that they must comply with international law, the PM's spokesman says.
Fertiliser industry representatives and government ministers have had several meetings to discuss Western Sahara phosphate imports.
"The importation of phosphate rock ... is a commercial decision,'' the spokesman says.
"However, the Government has encouraged the companies to look for alternative sources and to continue to develop and invest in technology that would make importation from a range of sources more viable.''
Someone not waiting any longer is North Otago farmer Neil Hamilton.
He still gets his fertiliser from Ballance, but has deliberately switched to a product that does not come from Western Sahara.
Importing Western Sahara phosphate is "not a good look'' and "shouldn't be happening''.
"The Western Sahara phosphate is good quality and cheap. That's why we've used it. But it is a finite resource.''
If it is all extracted before the dispute is settled, there will be none left for the Saharawi people to earn a living from when they eventually regain control of their territory, he says.
The fertiliser Hamilton now uses is a bit more expensive, costing $835 a tonne, compared to $660 a tonne.
He believes most farmers do not properly understand why Western Sahara phosphate is controversial.
No longer importing the phosphate would help, he says.
``I think it's hard for the UN to solve. So, I think we should be bringing some pressure to bear.''
Sam Murphy has been trying to do that for some time.
He says about 10 cargo ships brought Western Sahara phosphate to New Zealand last year. Each vessel visits multiple ports to offload cargo.
A few months ago, he could see on Port Lyttelton Company's live webcam phosphate being unloaded from a ship not listed as being in port.
He phoned the port to ask which ship it was and why it was not on the shipping schedule.
The person who took the call said they were not allowed to divulge the name. That was because phosphate cargoes were a sensitive issue, he was told.
When Murphy asked more questions, his call was transferred to the port's marketing staff.
It is now almost certain Venture Pearl is making for New Zealand.
The bulk carrier's current course and speed make its given destination and ETA, China, by July 21, an impossibility.
By this morning, the ship will be about 6000km east of New Zealand. At its current speed that would put it at anchor somewhere along New Zealand's eastern coastline in about a fortnight.
Where, only the fertiliser and port companies know.
Whenever the next Western Sahara phosphate ship does dock here, the Murphy siblings say they and other members of EJO will be on hand to make their views known.
"It will be an important moment to bring to attention the fact that this ship has come from the other side of the world with what we believe are stolen goods,'' Sam says. "It would be wrong if there was no-one there to say it was unwelcome.'' (SPS)