A Polisario Front fighter stands next to a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic flag on the outskirts of Tifariti, Western Sahara. Photo: Facebook

West Africa’s Polisario Front has finally initiated legal action in its efforts to prevent what it says are illegal shipments of phosphate rock from Morocco-controlled Western Sahara to the lush fertilizer-fed grasslands of New Zealand.

The spearhead of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the Polisario Front has applied for a judicial review in New Zealand of investments by the state-run Guardians of New Zealand Superannuation in farms that use Saharan phosphate.

New Zealand provides universal superannuation for people over 65 and the purpose of the NZ$44 billion (US$27 billion) New Zealand Superannuation Fund is to partially pre-fund the future cost of the so-called old-age pension, which is expected to rise as the nation’s population grows grey.

The Polisario Front argues that the use of Western Saharan phosphate is inconsistent with the Guardians’ statutory obligation to administer the fund in a way that is not prejudicial to New Zealand’s reputation as a responsible member of the world community.

“The Sahrawi people are determined to protect their natural resources with all available means,” says Sydney-based Sahrawi representative Kamal Fadel. “This legal action is a message to all involved in the exploitation of Sahrawi natural resources that they face legal action, reputational risks and investor withdrawal.”

The Polisario Front’s latest legal action comes three years after the South African government seized and subsequently sold 45,000 tons of Western Saharan phosphate aboard a bulk carrier transiting though Port Elizabeth on its 27,000-kilometer voyage from the Saharan port of Laâyoune to New Zealand.

Polisario Front tanks in the Wester Sahara in a file photo. Photo: Wikimedia

In that case, the High Court of South Africa awarded the Sahrawi provisional government ownership of the cargo, ruling that Western Sahara had been illegally occupied by Morocco through the use of armed force. 

The United Nations, which recognizes Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory, regards the Polisario Front as the legitimate representative of 570,000 Sahrawi tribesmen of mixed Arab, Moor, Berber and Taureg heritage who, it asserts, have a right to self-determination.

Unlike South Africa, New Zealand is not one of the 44 states which supports the SADR’s sovereignty claims. But it is part of a 43-nation bloc that believes the Sahrawis, many living in squalid refugee camps along the Algerian border, have the right to self-determination.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who visited the camps as a concerned junior parliamentarian in 2008, has reportedly advised Ballance Agri-Nutrients and Ravensdown Ltd, a second importer, to look elsewhere for suppliers.

Ardern’s office did not respond to Asia Times’ emailed request for comment, but the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has urged the two companies in the past to find alternative sources.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to the press in Wellington in a file photo. Photo: Agencies

Given New Zealand’s “clean and green” image, the Polisario Front’s legal campaign may succeed purely on environmental, social and governance grounds, according to sources who have tracked the case.

The superannuation fund has also encouraged Ballance to look for alternatives and Maori-led farming cooperatives, which form part of the company’s shareholder structure, are said to be sympathetic to the Polisario Front’s cause.

Ballance’s management has always maintained that it is in full compliance with international, national and local laws and regulations, including UN provisions for trade with non-self-governing territories.

Industry spokesmen say the two companies take their social responsibilities seriously, but continue to insist that it is only the UN Security Council that can find a lasting resolution to the region’s fraught political situation.

New Zealand, with an economy that relies heavily on agriculture and primary produce, is the second largest importer of phosphate from Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony the Moroccan government annexed in 1975. The SADR clings to about 25% of the territory along the border with Mauritania.

Morocco and the Polisario Front fought a desert war until a 1991 ceasefire, but since then the Front has taken aim at the Casablanca-based OCP Group, the world’s largest phosphate exporter which controls 30% of the world market and is a major producer of phosphoric acid.

New Zealand importers turned to Morocco in the early 1990s after exhausting phosphate deposits on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, which had fueled a massive surge in agricultural productivity, especially with the advent of so-called “aerial topdressing” after World War II.

A plane in New Zealand “topdressing” agricultural fields with phosphate. Photo: Facebook

Local producers of chemically-treated superphosphate, the fertilizer that revolutionized the farming industry, say their supply chain is designed around soft Saharan-type phosphate and it would take time to switch suppliers.

Morocco and the 270,00-square-kilometer Western Sahara contain 50 billion tonnes of the world’s 65 billion tonnes of phosphate reserves, trailed by China (3.1 billion) neighboring Algeria (2.2 billion) and Syria (1.8 billion).

Although there are three small mining operations in the northern part of Morocco, by far the largest deposit is around Bou Craa, lying in Western Sahara to the west of an UN-administered buffer strip along the border with Mauritania.

The Polisario Front says the phosphate trade encourages Morocco to continue delaying a UN-administered referendum that would allow Western Sahara to assert its independence.

Over the past decade, companies in Australia, Canada and the United States have all stopped importing Saharan phosphate, leaving New Zealand as the only country in the Western world to continue the trade. New Zealand imported 450,000 tonnes last year.

The Norwegian Government Pension Fund, Britain’s National Employment Savings Trust, APG (Netherlands), AP Funds (Sweden), FDC (Luxembourg), and BMO Global Asset Management have all boycotted firms that extract resources from Western Sahara.

While China also supplies India, along with Japan, Vietnam and much of the East Asian market, the sub-continent remains OCP subsidiary Phosphates de Boucraa’s largest customer; it also operates a fertilizer plant in concert with the Indian government.

A warehouse full of phosphate fertilizer in New Zealand. Photo: Facebook

Up to last year, bulk carriers shipped more than two million tonnes of rock phosphate from the disputed region each year, aided by a 90-kilometer conveyer belt, the longest in the world, stretching from Bou Craa to Laayoune on the Atlantic coast.

The ships now take a circuitous route to New Zealand around South America’s Cape Horn to avoid South Africa and also the Panama Canal, where one of the vessels was temporarily detained while carrying a phosphate shipment to Vancouver in 2017.

West Sahara Resources Watch claims Saharan exports in 2019 were the lowest in seven years, an indication that the worldwide boycott is starting to bite. Losing the New Zealand market would be another major blow in what may be an increasingly losing battle against a tiny desert foe.