World News


How New Zealand Farmers Found Themselves Involved in a Political Settling of Scores

Last May, New Zealand farmers may have found the incident a bit strange and hoped it was just a one-off when their expected shipment of fertilizer did not arrive on time from the Western Sahara. The phosphate that they needed had been loaded onto ships but was intercepted by the Polisario Front. After years of unsuccessful disputing Morocco’s claim over the Western Sahara, the armed separatist group chose to change tactics and launch judicial attacks and countless legal initiatives to harass anyone using the mineral they consider to be theirs.

Recently, with their claims being disavowed by all international bodies, the Polisario Front has chosen to launch a last-ditch effort to attack Moroccan run mines and shipping routes by intimidating their customers. The Polisario Front’s “indirect warfare strategy” ranged from sending countless requests for payload seizures in harbors around the world (all of which were denied, save one) to addressing letters of intimidation to customers, and listing them on its website, along with accusations, so as to increase pressure on them.

The dispute has been ongoing for decades and has gone through various phases. Despite elections having never been held, the Polisario Front claims to be the lawful representative of the inhabitants of Western Sahara. The Polisario Front has failed to achieve international recognition and credibility as a governing body or even a potential local partner. A refugee camp was set up on the Algerian border, the management of which was given to the separatist group, but it quickly turned into a hotspot for the black market, and human rights organization have voiced their concerns about conditions in the camp.

The United Nations is still running the peace process, despite disruptions from the Polisario Front, and other governing bodies, such as the European Union and the African Union, have been trying to consolidate it. The African Union recently published: “The African Union (AU) will be limiting its peace efforts in the Western Sahara in order to support the United Nations’ (UN) process in the region.” The Fertiliser Association of New Zealand has also called for the ongoing UN peace process to be respected: “We consider that the United Nations is the most appropriate organisation to make judgments on situations like this.” International organizations have been attempting to safeguard the peace process, but re-inject factual analysis into the debate, while trying to defuse hostilities from within.

But New Zealand farmers can fear further disruptions from the armed separatist group, for two reasons. The first is that the Polisario Front simply doesn’t have many options. Despite efforts by the UN to inject some calm, the armed separatist group doesn’t seem to be downsizing its activities. “After a series of provocations, blocking Moroccan trucks carrying goods from getting access to Mauritania and keeping its fighters in Guergarat despite UN secretary general, António Guterres’ call on both parties to withdraw unconditionally from the region, Polisario Front is now directing its threats to the United Nations,” writes Saad Eddine Lamzouwaq.

The second is that commercial interests have penetrated the issue and domestic interests are now at play. A New Zealand company, selling an alternative type of fertilizer, has every reason to develop the crisis. The New Zealand newspaper Stuff recently launched a commercial spearhead with a domestic businessman, hoping to seize the opportunity: “Dr. Bert Quin, a former chief scientist for soil fertility at the Ruakura Research Centre who now runs his own company, Quinfert, says he imports a mineral from Algeria known as reactive phosphate rock (RPR), which he hopes will become more widespread.”

In the following months, time will tell whether stabilization will come from the top, and farmers can resume their operations, or if the disruption will continue. Consequences would then lie both on the economic level in New Zealand, and the social level in Western Sahara. The New Zealand Fertiliser Association had this to say: “There is no question that New Zealand’s primary industry needs phosphate fertilizer,” says Dr. Vera Power, Chief Executive of the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand. “It’s important that the people of Western Sahara benefit from the trade. Both Ravensdown and Ballance are emphatic about that. Refusing to buy OCP’s phosphate would affect the livelihoods of many local families in Western Sahara.”

Farmers in New Zealand could hardly have predicted being pulled into such a distant political struggle, having no ties to the matter whatsoever. But their misfortune shows that, despite the United Nations pushing the peace process forward, and closely applying their standards to the Western Sahara, special interests will continue rocking the boat and will not hesitate to take hostages or undermine the process.