Stolen Wealth: How Africa feeds Australia

In early November I attended the Wesfarmers AGM at the Perth Convention Centre. Yes that Wesfarmers, the one that owns Coles, Bunnings, Officeworks, coal mines and plenty more. Not my usual sort of haunt, but I was there holding proxy votes for members of the Australia Western Sahara Association.

Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975 when Morocco invaded the country before a vote of self-determination could be held. This occupation is not recognised by the UN or international law. Yet Morocco has been aided and abetted by Spain, the USA and particularly France ever since. It's much like the bi-partisan support for the Indonesian occupation of East Timor by our government for nearly twenty-five years.

So what's the Wesfarmers connection? Each year over a quarter of a million tonnes of North African phosphate becomes the fertiliser spread over our farmland. The rock from Western Sahara is our most important source of high quality phosphate and Wesfarmers subsidiary CSBP Fertilisers is one of the main importers. They have a plant down at Kwinana.

I reminded company chairman Bob Every that this phosphate was supplied by companies that are profiting from the illegal and violent occupation of Western Sahara and asked whether the company would end its importation of these stolen goods. He replied that the company's advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is that they are not breaking the law.

The mining and sale of this phosphate does not have the consent of the Sahrawi people and Morocco's occupation is in breach of international law. However the importation of it is not illegal under Australian law, and the reason our government hasn't banned it is precisely because outfits like CSBP want the stuff. Human rights don't get a look in.

Phosphate is more valuable than ever. Just like oil, we're using it up quicker than nature can produce it. "Peak Phosphorous" is approaching, maybe only thirty years away. The Wesfarmers Managing Director Richard Goyder trumpeted the company's campaign against the Rudd mining tax. They've got plenty of muscle, so it's hard to imagine the senior bureaucrats in DFAT doing anything other than dropping to their knees when they get a call from companies like this.

Of course I mentioned the fourteen year-old boy, the resident of a 20,000 strong tent city, shot dead by Moroccan soldiers in October. A whole people made refugees in their own land. The human rights activists being held without charge in Morocco itself, and much more. Would this sway the suits up on the stage? I must have been dreaming.

A shareholder naively asked if the company might drop its coal mines in favour of clean energy. Mr Every confidently asserted that coal would remain a key part of energy supply for another thirty years. There's something a whole lot more frightening than climate change deniers; it's the rich and powerful who know it’s happening but just don't give a shit. After all, they can build themselves heavily fortified climate controlled bunkers supplied by desalination plants and "sink the boats" when their victims come calling.

If the prospect of whole ecosystems in collapse and tens millions of climate refugees on the move doesn't worry you, then a few hundred thousand Sahrawis are just another bug on the corporate windscreen. I made for the foyer determined to down as much of the complimentary beer and snacks as possible. Small revenge for the Sahrawis in the refugee camps whose stolen natural wealth was helping pay for my sixth spring roll, that and my many Sundays spent in the aisles of Bunnings!

Because Wesfarmers has its origins in a farmers' cooperative, "Mum and Dad" shareholders from the country were the majority of real humans in attendance, but only a minority of the actual votes. A number engaged me in sympathetic conversation, while reminding me that my morning bowl of Weet-Bix wouldn't have been possible without phosphate.

So why is our agricultural system built on ripping resources out of the earth firstly from small Pacific Islands and now Western Sahara? A question for another day. As I left a security guard approached. Shit I hadn't broken any laws, had I? "I liked what you said. Good on you." Give me the company of ordinary workers over "corporate leaders" any day.

On February 27 Fremantle joined a number of other councils around the country flying the flag of Western Sahara. It's a small symbolic recognition of the right of the Sahrawi people to a referendum on their future. Meanwhile our federal government supports a trade that lines the pockets of the very regime that is defying the UN and blocking the referendum. How much longer will we let them get away with it?

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