Famine times are back. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the inflationary trend in world economies. The restrictions on Ukrainian and Russian exports of wheat, corn and barley prevent ensuring the basic food of millions of people and animals.
The shortage of certain products that had been dragging on since the stoppages due to the covid-19 pandemic (to this day, China continues to close factories in response to outbreaks) and since that incident of the container ship stranded in Suez in March 2021 is worsening. The price of gas and oil has reached highs that have shut down businesses and sparked protests in many parts of the world.
Fertilizers make fewer headlines, but rising prices affect the viability of agricultural production from Brazil to Sri Lanka. What happened in this country is indicative of the importance of chemical fertilizers.
In a bid to promote organic farming, the Sri Lankan government banned the use of chemical fertilizers in 2021. When it tried to reverse that decision in March this year, prices were already unaffordable for farmers, who joined a virulent rebellion whose end is yet to be decided.
Fertilizers are today essential for various industries and for feeding the world population. Along with nitrogen and potassium, phosphorus is a key component of agricultural fertilizers.
So much so that in the second half of the 19th century the struggle for its control unleashed “the guano wars”, which confronted Spain with Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia, but which also motivated the first imperial movements of the United States in the Peaceful.
Nowadays, commercial phosphate does not come from bird droppings, but from phosphorus ore mines. But the geopolitical tensions around his control are just as hot. The root of the problem is not so much scarcity as unequal distribution.
Morocco, 70% of phosphate reserves
Only five countries have accessible phosphate and in sufficient quantities to offer it to the world market. Russia and China, among the main exporters, banned their sale abroad last fall, and they are not going to lift the ban in times of war. Meanwhile, Morocco holds an alarming 70% of the world’s known phosphate reserves.
The fact that this official estimate accounts for phosphate from Western Sahara demonstrates that the international community, with few exceptions, de facto recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. But before explaining that story, it is important to understand two important aspects of the world market for phosphates derived from the oligopoly situation of a handful of countries.
Pollution and volatile prices
The first is that prices are very volatile. Many farmers around the world cannot afford to buy the necessary phosphates to keep their crops productive. We are now approaching a price peak similar to that of 2008. To maintain the escalation, phosphate mining countries simply have to slow down the rate of extraction or simply not increase investments in prospecting and new mines. It is about producing scarcity.
The second is that phosphorus is one of the most dangerous pollutants for the Earth’s waters. The eutrophication (over-fertilization) that its excess produces can drown rivers, lakes and seas (the Mar Menor, without going any further).
Scientists warn again and again about the advisability of establishing international coordination mechanisms on phosphorus similar to the one that the UN is developing for nitrogen, which could encourage recycling and other more geopolitically and environmentally sustainable practices, including promoting knowledge of the global cycle of phosphorus and quantify the benefits of its management.
An important step in this direction is the report that the Our Phosphorus Future working group is finalizing (with a very modest participation on my part) with the support of the UN Environment Program (UNEP). Despite these efforts, there is very little public and political awareness of the dangers of our dependence on phosphorus. The oligopoly also affects information, dissemination and media priorities.
Change of Spanish policy in the Sahara, why now?
On March 18, a letter was made public that the President of the Government of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, sent to the King of Morocco, Mohamed VI, aligning himself with Morocco’s plan for Western Sahara. This is a change of direction with respect to the policy of neutrality that Spain had been maintaining in recent decades.
Numerous voices, even within the Government, were raised to denounce what they considered a betrayal of Spain’s mandate as the theoretical administering power and of the hundreds of thousands of Sahrawis who, until 1975, considered themselves Spanish citizens and who since then have been requesting that the Right to Self-determination recognized by the UN.
Especially bloody is the case of the 300,000 Sahrawis stuck in refugee camps in Algeria, whose future is difficult to imagine under an “autonomy” controlled by Morocco (the possibility that Spain will take them in has once been put on the board).
The new relationship between Spain and Algeria
In view of these criticisms, on April 6, Congress rejected (in a non-binding manner) the Government’s change of position with the sole vote against the PSOE. Despite this, the next day Sánchez traveled to Rabat to meet with the monarch to symbolize the new relationship.
In addition to criticism, the shift towards the Sahara has raised a question: Why precisely now? The surprise comes because, in the middle of the war and with a greater dependence on Algerian gas than ever, approaching Morocco on the Saharawi issue could affect relations with Algeria.
At the same time that Morocco announced the return to diplomatic relations (broken since in April 2021 Spain gave sanitary asylum to the leader of the Saharawi Polisario Front), Algeria called its ambassador to Spain for consultations. This may even affect the price at which Algeria sells its gas to Spain.
Several plausible answers have been offered. The fact that the President’s letter described as “serious, credible and realistic” the Moroccan proposal to consider the territory under its sovereignty but with a status of special autonomy has led to the consideration that the United States and France may have promoted this action, given that it is the same terminology used by the officials of those countries in their respective announcements of support for the Moroccan plan.
It has been speculated that the reason for this alignment has to do with the desire to close fronts in times of war and to strengthen NATO-EU cohesion with respect to a key region in the control of immigration and terrorism.
The possibility has even been considered that Algeria, despite its dramaturgical fuss, is interested in somehow giving way to a dispute whose resolution would allow it to reopen the gas pipeline that carries its gas to Spain through Morocco, which it closed as an example of his support for the Saharawis when the armed struggle resumed in November 2020.
If France agreed to open the paralyzed gas pipeline between Catalonia and the Midi, this would allow more Algerian gas to reach countries that are now dependent on Russian gas. In addition, Western Sahara offers its own resources.
Other economic reasons considered are the promise of solar energy generated in the Sahara, fishing, oil off the Canary Islands, land communication routes between Southern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa… and phosphates.
The historical perspective: from the Green Revolution to the Green March
In 2013, a historical investigation on the links between geophysics and geopolitics in Western Sahara brought to light forgotten files in the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain that contained valuable information on the geological surveys that the geologist Manuel Alía Medina carried out in the region.
These surveys laid the seed for subsequent geophysical studies that followed an ancient coastal formation in the interior of the territory until the discovery of the Bu-Craa mine in 1962.
The same investigation analyzed the historical archives of the INI (at SEPI) relating to the public company in charge of the Bu Craa mine. Between 1964 and 1975, secret talks took place between various gangs between the different countries interested in the phosphate of the Sahara, which in addition to Spain and Morocco included, in particular, France and the United States.
The key was in the emerging world market for phosphates. The exponential increase in agricultural productivity that has been called the Green Revolution began precisely in the early 1960s.
Despite the social and environmental problems of monocultures associated with it, the Green Revolution is what sustains humanity. Among its best-known pillars were hybrid seeds and fertilizers. The price of phosphate multiplied every year. In a world divided by the Cold War, Morocco knew how to play its neutrality and its enormous reserves to dominate the price of phosphate ore, which was then manufactured in France and sold throughout Europe. The OCP, the state company in charge of phosphates, became the pillar of the Moroccan economy and, therefore, of the stability of the royal dynasty.
The Bu-Craa mine could not be compared to the huge reserves under Moroccan soil. But the ore was of enormous quality and easy to extract. A competitor to the south in exports to Europe would have made it impossible for Morocco to continue to control the price. After years of frustrated agreements, when Spain began to bring phosphate to the market, events took place at a dizzying pace. In 1972 Morocco and Spain reached a secret agreement that allowed Spain to export certain quantities without going to a price war.
In 1973 the conveyor belt that carried phosphate from Bucraa to the port of Aiun was attacked by the newly proclaimed Polisario Front. The Spanish government understood that, without the Saharawi cooperation, the exploitation would not be possible. In 1974 he announced before the UN Decolonization Committee that he would organize a referendum on Self-Determination.
Immediately, Hassan II let Kissinger and Ford know that they could not accept this. Without Western Sahara, the monarchy would fall, both because of the symbolic value that it had given to the idea of Greater Morocco and because of the economic value of the phosphates.
Next, Kissinger and Ford let then Prince Juan Carlos know that the United States could not accept the fall of the Alaouite monarchy: there was a risk that a pro-Soviet government like that of Algeria would take over Morocco or the Sahara, giving the USSR a naval base in the Atlantic.
A few days later, hundreds of thousands of civilians advanced from Morocco to the border with the Sahara in the so-called Green March, the Spanish army withdrew, and the Moroccan took up positions. Without too many shots, Western Sahara became the last colony in Africa.
A secret clause in the Madrid Agreements assured Spain a stake in the Bu-Craa mine after it left the country in 1975. But a bloody war between Morocco and the Polisario Front continued until 1991, making extraction difficult. Morocco focused on protecting the “useful triangle”, which included the phosphate mine. However, for many years, the vulnerability of the tape prevented the mine from operating. It did not matter. Then, as now, war also serves to produce artificial scarcity.