Morocco's fish fight: High stakes over Western Sahara

Fishermen at Laayoune port Morocco's fishing is concentrated in what it calls its "southern provinces"

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At Laayoune's bustling port fishermen unload hundreds of trawlers, packing silvery sardines onto ice and into refrigerated containers.

Across the sea to the south, the end of a 98km (61 mile) conveyor belt is just visible, delivering phosphate - a key ingredient in agricultural fertiliser - from an inland desert mine to cargo ships.

The fish and phosphate, along with possible reserves of oil and gas, underlie a territorial dispute in Western Sahara that has long been politically deadlocked.

The Moroccan government contends that they provide a basis for economic development, helping drag this desert region into the modern era.

But for Sahrawi activists who still dream of independence, these are the spoils of an illegal occupation that is partly sustained in order to allow further plundering of natural resources.

The argument has played out this week in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where members voted down a fishing agreement between the European Union and Morocco amid objections that the deal was illegal.

Start Quote

Moulay Hamdi Ould Errachid

There are schools, hospitals with specialist doctors, clean water, two desalination plants with a third on the way, a great port”

End Quote Moulay Hamdi Ould Errachid Mayor of Laayoune
'Living in luxury'

Morocco seized control of most of Western Sahara in 1976, following the departure of the former colonial power, Spain.

It refers to the territory it controls as its "southern provinces".

Officials in Laayoune, the largest city in the area, say it has been transformed from a "wasteland" dotted with destitute nomads to a network of towns connected to national transport, power and telephone grids.

"There is a road from Tangier to Senegal," says Laayoune's mayor, Moulay Hamdi Ould Errachid, reeling off evidence of investment in the region.

"There are schools, hospitals with specialist doctors, clean water, two desalination plants with a third on the way, a great port."

Indeed, officials say the area has benefited from more investment than the rest of Morocco.

The authorities have declared Laayoune and Boujdour to be "cities free from shanty towns", a declaration which though disputed, could not be made in Casablanca or other Moroccan cities further north.

Western Sahara

Map
  • Seized by Morocco in 1975 after Spain and Mauritania withdrew
  • Polisario Front seeks independence but Morocco is only prepared to grant autonomy
  • Polisario fought a guerrilla war against Morocco but a ceasefire has been in place since 1991

Over the past 35 years, economic incentives have lured people from the north. These migrants, some of whom are ethnically Sahrawi, are now thought to outnumber indigenous inhabitants by as many as two to one.

Mr Ould Errachid, a Sahrawi dressed in traditional white and golden robes, says the split between indigenous people and settlers may be more even, whilst arguing that the influx was necessary for development.

"If we want to live just among Sahrawis, we would not have professors, doctors, pharmacists and engineers," he said.

He added that a range of programmes were in place to boost the level of employment among Sahrawis, and secure jobs for them in the phosphate and fishing industries.

But Sahrawi activists who oppose Moroccan rule say Morocco has settled Western Sahara in order to establish de facto control.

They complain of continuing social and economic discrimination.

"The Moroccan state uses pro-Moroccan Sahrawis, and they live in luxury of course," says Lahbib Salhi, a 63-year-old former employee of Phosboucraa, the state phosphate company.

"They can't do anything independently, so they act against the interests of indigenous citizens."

He added that despite official claims to the contrary, "reality shows that Sahrawis are marginalised".

Big public spending

Mr Salhi said Sahrawis at Phosboucraa were made to work longer for less money after Morocco took the company over, and that just a fraction of the employees were now Sahrawis.

Phosphate conveyor belt near Laayoune port Phosphate is exported from a conveyor belt said to be the longest in the world

Against any economic advantage for the Moroccan government has to be set the high level of public spending in the region.

The International Crisis Group estimated in 2007 that Morocco had sunk $2.4bn (£1.5bn) on basic infrastructure over 30 years and was spending about half its military budget in the region. It concluded that Moroccans were having "to shoulder an exorbitant financial cost that has hampered national development".

But Morocco talks of investments rather than costs, and phosphate and fishing are strategically important sectors. When prices boomed in 2008 phosphate accounted for 33% of the country's exports, earning 4.5bn euros (£3.8bn).

About 10% of national phosphate production comes from Western Sahara. If the territory was independent, it would provide local competition that might bring down global prices.

The fishing industry accounts for 6.5% of national jobs, and Morocco is aiming expand the value of the sector rapidly over the next eight years. Nearly 40% of the national catch comes from the region of Laayoune.

EU an 'accomplice'

Fishing has become the most politically sensitive industry in terms of the Western Sahara debate, largely because of a fishing agreement with between Morocco and the EU introduced in 2006.

The agreement, framed in a renewable annual protocol drawn up by the European Commission, cost 36m euros and gave access to more than 100 European boats.

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Fishing is dominated almost 100% by Moroccans”

End Quote Ismaili Mohamed Barek

Its critics said it was poor value for money and environmentally damaging. They also said it was illegal because the UN does not recognise Morocco as having sovereignty over Western Sahara, and because it was not clear that the fishing deal benefited Sahrawi people.

Isabella Loevin of the Swedish Green Party told the European Parliament this week: "74% of the EU fleet capacity does operate in the waters of Western Sahara and the people of this region have not been consulted on the matter.

"It is extremely clear that Morocco only wants to keep the fisheries agreement with the EU for one reason - to legitimise Morocco's illegal occupation of Western Sahara by making the EU an accomplice in this criminal act."

Even a confidential 2010 Commission report obtained by the BBC called the first four years of the agreement "disappointing".

Morocco claimed it had created jobs and was environmentally sustainable. But MEPs rejected the deal in its current form by 326 votes to 296 on Wednesday, which will lead to its immediate suspension.

They voted instead for a new protocol that is economically, ecologically and socially sustainable, and that fully respects international law.

Back in Laayoune, Ismaili Mohamed Barek, 34, had been hoping for such an outcome. He did a six months of work experience on a fishing boat, but said that he and his fellow Sahrawis were offered nothing at the end of it.

"Fishing is dominated almost 100% by Moroccans," he said.

"Because of this we want to see the pillaging of Sahrawi wealth stop, and we want an end to the agreement with the EU."

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