The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a partially recognized state that claims sovereignty over Africa’s Western Sahara region, is taking aim at far-off New Zealand to stop what it says are illegal fertilizer shipments from territory it claims in a decades-long struggle for independence from Morocco.

South Africa’s seizure last May of a Marshall Islands-flagged freighter carrying 54,000 tons of Moroccan phosphate after it pulled into its Port Elizabeth for refueling while on a 27,000-kilometer voyage to New Zealand is putting those claims to an intriguing legal test.

The seizure is a new legal tactic employed by the rebel Polisario Front in its long-running conflict with the Moroccan government over the disputed territory, which Rabat annexed in 1975 and where the two sides fought a guerrilla war until a 1991 ceasefire.

The Casablanca-based OCP phosphate company has refused to participate in a South African court’s subsequent decision to hold a hearing to determine ownership of the US$5 million shipment, insisting “it is a political claim cloaked in a legal claim.”

The phosphate was ordered by Ballance which, along with Ravensdown, is one of two New Zealand firms that have been doing business with OCP since the Pacific island of Nauru ran out of phosphate viable for extraction in the early 1990s.

Last December, SADR President Brahim Ghali called on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to stop importing phosphate from Western Sahara, claiming the shipments are in violation of international law.

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic's President Brahim Ghali attends the 5th African Union - European Union (AU-EU) summit in Abidjan, on November 29, 2017.Ivory Coast President opened a Europe-Africa summit on November 29, calling for "all urgent measures" to end migrant abuses, including slave trading in Libya. / AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s President Brahim Ghali on November 29, 2017. Photo: AFP/Issouf Sanogo

Wellington has cause to resist. New Zealand’s widespread use of superphosphate, or chemically-treated phosphate, fueled a massive surge in the pastoral country’s agricultural productivity, particularly with the advent of aerial topdressing after World War II.

New Zealand’s economy relies heavily on agriculture and is the world’s second largest importer of phosphate from Western Sahara, which the indigenous Sahrawi tribe claims as its own.

The Algeria-backed independence movement is trying to take advantage of a European court ruling last year that said the existing trade agreement between Morocco and the European Union should not cover the former Spanish colony.

The United Nations considers the Polisario Front and the SADR to be legitimate representatives of the 570,000 Sahrawi tribesmen of mixed Arab, Moor, Berber and Taureg heritage who, the UN asserts, have a right to self-determination.

South Africa is among 44 states that support Polisario’s claims of sovereignty, while another 43 – including New Zealand — say the Sahrawis, many living in refugee camps along the Algerian border, should be allowed to vote on their future.

Western Sahara-Polisario-Tanks-2012-Wikimedia Commons
Polisario Front tanks in a 2012 file photo. Wikimedia Commons

Given their historic colonial parallels, relations have been especially strong over the years between Polisario and East Timor’s Fretilin resistance before — and after — the annexed Portuguese colony voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999. (The new nation is now known as Timor Leste.)

The NM Cherry Blossom bulk carrier in question in the South African suit was carrying phosphate from the port of Laayoune in Morocca-controlled territory and would normally have set a course around South America’s Cape Horn on its way to New Zealand.

Earlier in November, a Panama court dismissed a similar case involving a phosphate shipment passing through the Panama Canal, saying there was no evidence Polisario owned the cargo the vessel was carrying to Canada, which remains the biggest importer of the fertilizer.

Panama recognizes the SADR, along with six other South and Central American states, 22 from the African continent but only four countries in Asia, namely North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Timor Leste.

The Moroccan government claims South Africa’s move violates international law, which holds that a cargo can only be seized if it constitutes a threat to national security, good order or the environment.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not been asked to intervene in the case. Nor, says a ministry spokesman, has the Polisario Front directly approached the New Zealand government with any diplomatic request to stop West Saharan phosphate shipments.

Phosphate plant in Morocco.
A phosphate factory in Morocco. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Founded in 1920, Morocco’s state-owned OCP Group is the world’s largest exporter of phosphate rock, controlling 30% of the world market share, and is a major producer of phosphoric acid, earning annual revenues of more than US$5 billion.

While China also supplies India – along with Japan, Vietnam and much of the East Asian market – the subcontinent is still OCP’s largest Asian customer, importing 1.1 million tons of West Saharan phosphate a year and recently entering into a joint venture to build a fertilizer plant in Andhra Pradesh.

Morocco and the 270,000-square-kilometer Western Sahara are home to 50 billion of the world’s 65 billion tons of reserves, trailed by China (3.7 billion) neighboring Algeria (2.2 billion) and Syria (1.8 billion).

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

Western Sahara Resource Watch says bulk carriers ship more than two million tons of rock phosphate from the occupied region each year, aided by a 90-kilometer conveyer belt stretching from Bou Craa to Laayoune on the Atlantic coast.

Row of beautiful grape yard before sunset with mountain in Blenheim, New Zealand
A grape yard in Blenheim, New Zealand. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Ballance and Ravensdown import 450,000 tons of Western Sahara phosphate a year, worth more than US$40 million. They could go elsewhere, as West Australian firm Wesfarmers Ltd has done, but in Ballance’s case the product fits with the company’s superphosphate recipe.

“Both companies have been open with their shareholders on the issues,” said a spokesperson for the New Zealand Fertiliser Association, a trade group. “Their shareholders recognize that stopping the trade in phosphate would deny our farmers a source of high-quality fertilizer and would impact on the livelihoods of many people in Western Sahara.”

The spokesperson said the firms take their social responsibilities seriously and have been to the region to verify their supply chains and to look at projects on the ground, adding that it is only the UN Security Council that can find a lasting resolution to the political situation.

Australian conglomerate Wesfarmers stopped shipments from the region in 2012 after its shareholders raised “ethical concerns,” prompted by the Australia West Sahara Association which sent lobbyists to the firm’s annual general meetings between 2008 and 2012.

Although fertilizer is only a fraction of its business, the publicly listed Wesfarmers is a favorite of investment and superannuation funds and clearly feared being blacklisted. It also invested in a US$4 million regenerative thermal oxidizer to allow it to diversify its supply options.

Two Canadian firms – Saskatchewan’s Potash Corporation and Calgary-based Agrium — continue to import as much as 920,000 tons a year from the contested African region.