Natural Resources plundering in Western Sahara

Occupied Western Sahara

Since 1963, Western Sahara has been listed as a Non-Self-Governing Territory by the United Nations. The then Spanish colony was in 1975 relinquished by the dying Franco regime in favor of Morocco and Mauritania. Although the Madrid Accords are not legally recognised by the international community, in 1976 Morocco occupied most of the Western Sahara territory. More than half of its indigenous population fled during the war and repression that ensued towards refugee camps, mainly in neighboring Algeria.

According to International Humanitarian Law, Morocco has illegally annexed the Western Sahara, which means that it has internally integrated the region into its own state borders. The illegal annexation, is alos understood at the international level as an illegal occupation, and as such the Moroccan government is still bound by International Humanitarian Law and international human rights law. Third parties also “have the obligation to not recognise an illegal annexation and to not assist in the continued occupation and annexation” (Wrange, 2015:39).

Western Sahara is today the largest territory in the world still to be decolonized (UNGA 1990).



The right to Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources for Indigenous People

The right to Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources for Indigenous People was asserted by the UNGA Res. 1803 (XVII) as the right to dispose freely of natural resources. This right applies to the Western Sahara Occupied Territory and it must be respected by Morocco and Third Parties. The principles of this right are included in a myriad of international conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966. Their common Article 1 states that “[a]ll peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources […]”. This right is held not solely by States but by ‘peoples’ and it “can be defined as the right of all States and/or peoples to dispose freely of the natural resources, of any kind, found within their territory, including the maritime space” (Enyew 2017:222).

Sahrawis thus should be able to decide over the resources found in and on their territory, how to exploit them or conserve them. Under IHL and the laws of occupation, occupying powers do not have the right to dispose or benefit from the resources found on occupied land, nor to grant exploiting rights to foreign companies without the consent, benefit or monitoring of the Sahrawi people.

On the contrary, Morocco has changed completely the demographic and economic structure of Western Sahara, especially with the help of foreign investors and third states ready to profit from business potentialities in the area. Most of these developments, infrastructural and exploitation projects have only benefited Moroccan and foreign companies, and at the local level, Moroccan settlers are employed at higher percentages than Sahrawis.

This document provides a short overview of some of the resources that are being plundered in Occupied Western Sahara. The indigenous people of Western Sahara have currently no control over these resources and thus their right to dispose of their own natural resources is being violated. Pillage in occupied territories is prohibited by IHL and it can be regarded as a war crime[1].



One of the most important materials for construction is sand, a resource abundant in Western Sahara. The first known export of this material from Western Sahara dates back from 1955, under Spanish colonial rule. Since then many Spanish beaches have benefited from Sahrawi sand, bought from Moroccan companies, especially in the last years.

Sand is also used in the production of cement. In occupied Western Sahara, Laayoune, there are two rectification plants: Cements du Maroc, belonging to the Italcementi Group; and LafargeHolcim Maroc, belonging to the LafargeHolcim Ltd group. The LafargeHolcim factory uses material supplied by the Spanish company CEMENGAL (ODHE 2018a)


More than 3 million tonnes of phosphates are shipped out of Western Sahara by Morocco’s holding company OCP. The phosphate mines in Phos Boucraa, in Laayoune, started their work during the Spanish occupation. Spain later relinquished all its shares in benefit of Morocco’s semi-public company Office Chérifien du Phosphates (OCP).

The benefit of phosphate mining is not only going to the Moroccan company OCP and to its King, Mohammed VI, who is shareholder of OCP. Also employment is benefiting settlers more than indigenous people. According to AMNPENWS the total number of indigenous workers has gone down from 45% in 1975 to 30% in 2017. The number of technical positions filled by Sahrawis has gone from 19% to 5% (2018:1).

OCP exports phosphates to many foreign companies and countries in the world. In a close monitoring for the years 2012 and 2013, WSRW found that 10 companies plus two unkonw exporters were benefiting from the phosphate business in WS. 50% of the exports were accounted for two companies PotashCorp (US) and Lifosa (Lithuania). In 2013, a total value of $330 million was estimated to be shipped in 48 bulk vessels out of WS (WSRW 2014). Other fertilizer firms making business with OCP are such as Mississippi Phosphates and Agrifos Fertilizer, Fertiberia, FMC Foret, Ership, Granintra or Isofotón (ODHE 2018a).

Morocco is one of the first exporters of phosphates in the world, although the rhythm of exploitation might make phosphates run out within the next century.

However, some companies have decided to disinvest in Morocco’s Occupation and others have been forced by courts. In 2017, a South African court blocked the continuation of a ship carrying phosphates deemed illegally extracted from the Western Sahara mine by OCP and transported towards New Zealand for the firms Ballance and Ravensdown (McBeth 2018).


Fishery – emptying the banks

83,7% of the fish that Morocco obtains comes from the waters around the Dakhla area. The fishing banks are thus part of Western Sahara resources. Less than 5% of the workers in this sector are indigenous Sahrawis (AMNPENWS 2018). Morocco is the largest canned sardine exporter in the world. Sardines make up for 62% of Morocco’s fish catch.

In fact, after the phosphates, fishing is a fundamental element in the occupation policy. Fishing acquires several important functions:

  • Economic benefits for the regime and for colony elites or collaborators
  • Possibility of infrastructure development
  • Construction of a development image
  • Creation of complicit alliances with beneficiary countries in order to reinforce the diplomatic support for the illegal occupation.The main foreign importer of Western Sahara fish is the European Union, even though several european institutions have identified this trade as illegal, notoriously the Court of Justice of the EU[2].



Different international companies have started prospections on the potential oil exploitation of Western Sahara land and territory, among them Glencore in the offshore blocks of Foum Ognit et Boujdour Shallow, that later disengaged following political pressure (Amar 2017). Other companies involved in oil exploration are Pura Vida Energy, Longreach Oil & Gas, or the French company Total. These projects have been initiated with the agreement of the Moroccan government and Office national des hydrocarbures et des mines (ONHYM), which in 2014 had grante 113 licences for oil exploration in different regions, including the OT (Telquel 2017). The projects have never been agreed by the indigenous Sahrawi people, including the refugee populations outside of Western Sahara.

In a letter dated 29 january 2002 and addressed to the president of the Security Council (s/2002/161), the UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, Hans Corell, explained that Contracts for oil exploration in Western Sahara were in violation of the principles of international law applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories. This restriction was later extended by, to fishery agreements (Wrange, 2015: 41).


Other industries

Other industries and business projects must be specially monitored such as the renewable Energy sector, where Morocco is trying to attract big investment in Western Sahara and profit from a greener image of the country and its occupation policies (ODHE 2018b).


Responsibilities and complicities

Under International Humanitarian Law, Morocco is the occupying power that is responsible for ensuring the rights of Sahrawis. IHL states the fact that Occupying powers cannot dispose of resources belonging to the people of Western Sahara, the pillage of these resources could constitute a war crime by virtue of IHL.

The consequence of the Moroccan continued occupation of most of Western Sahara, and the continued oppression of indigenous Sahrawis that still live on their land is multiple. Even under Morocco’s efforts to present itself as a Climate-friendly country, the treatment of Western Sahara, water, living animals, refuse and other natural resources speaks loudly otherwise. WS’s environment is being degraded fast due to Morocco’s exploiting strategy.

At the same time, an authoritarian regime like Morocco’s does not give voice to Western Sahrawis’ in any issue and on the contrary any dissonant voice is met with repression.

The complicity of Third Parties and foreign companies in normalizing and supporting illegal occupation must be stopped through an active non-recognition of Morocco’s annexation. This includes the exclusion of WS from any trade agreements with Morocco and the strict restriction of foreign companies from benefiting in investments or exporting any natural resources from the OT without the unequivocal consent of the Sahrawis.



AMAR, A. (November 10, 2017).  “Paradise Papers: les plans secrets de Glencore au Sahara”. LeDesk. Online:


AMNPENWS. Summary Report: Western Sahara – A Non-Self-Governing Territory. 29th June 2018.

BOUCHACHIA, Hassan. (1999) Success stories industrielles en série. Edition N°:414 Le 04/01/1999. En línia: (11/07/2018)

ENYEW, E.L. (2017). “Application of the Right to Permanent Soverignty over Natural Resources for Indigenous Peoples: Assessment of Current Legal Developments”. Arctic Review on Law and Politics, Vol. 8, pp. 222-245.

ODHE. (2018a). Report on the Construction and Infrastructures Sector. Online:

ODHE. (2018b). Report on the Renewable Energy Sector. Online:

MCBETH, J. (January 26, 2018). “Sahrawis and Kiwis in a fight over fertilizer”. Asia Times. Online:

TELQUEL. (November 10, 2017) “Paradise Papers : au large du Sahara, il n’y a pas que le pétrole qui était offshore pour Glencore”. Online:

WAR ON WANT. (July 2016). The New Colonialism: Britain’s scramble for Africa’s energy and mineral resources. London. Online:

WRANGE, P. (June 2015) Occupation/annexation of a territory: Respect for international humanitarian law and human rights and consistent EU policy. Directorate-General for External Policies. Policy Department. European Parliament.

WESTERN SAHARA RESOURCE WATCH. (June 2014) P for Plunder. Western Sahara Resource Watch Report. Melbourne.

WESTERN SAHARA RESOURCE WATCH. (2011). “The dirty sand of Canary Islands’ beaches”. Online:

[1] See for example Article 8(2)(b)(xvi) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court or article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949

[2] Court of Justice of the European Union. PRESS RELEASE No 21/18 Luxembourg, 27 February 2018. Judgment in Case C-266/16 The Queen, on the application of Western Sahara Campaign UK V Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Online: