Fertilizers produced in Brazil contain phosphate stolen from Western Sahara

The North African territory is occupied by Morocco, in violation of a UN resolution for extracting natural resources

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Phosphate extraction by the OCP corporation, which is controlled by the King of Morroco - Fadel Senna / AFP

Brazil received three vessels with phosphates illegally extracted from Western Sahara in the last ten months, totaling about 110 thousand tons and consolidating itself among the four largest importers of ore in the world.

The information was obtained by Brasil de Fato from organizations that monitor the natural resources trade within that territory, which is given no compensation by the Kingdom of Morocco.

According to the Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW, the destination of the cargo is the agricultural fertilizer industry.

The information gathered by activists who followed the ships' route to the Brazilian coast then tracked carrier trucks on national soil, led to two companies in the city of Cubatão, located in the state of São Paulo: Cesari Fertilizantes (Cefértil), which belongs to the Cesari Group, and Copebras, linked to the Chinese group China Molybdenum (CMOC).

The Cesari Group told our reporters that it does not import or use Saharawi phosphate in products manufactured by Cefértil [see their response at the end of this article]. Copebras did not respond to Brasil de Fato's questions until now.

Phosphate fertilizers are products that come from the extraction, grinding and treatment of rocks that have a significant concentration of phosphorus. Their application allows plants to intake a higher volume of nutrients than soil provides, thus enhancing crop yields.

Annually, an average of 53 million tons of phosphate fertilizers are used on the planet, processed from 270 million tons of phosphate rocks. Brazil is the world's fourth largest consumer of phosphorus used in agricultural fertilizers.

Morocco and the illegally occupied territory of Western Sahara are home to the largest phosphorus reserves in the world.


According to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization, Western Sahara is the last African colony. Spain, a colonial power until 1976, abandoned the territory without decolonizing it, establishing an illegal tripartite agreement with Morocco (neighbor to the north) and Mauritania (neighbor to the south), splitting up the area and guaranteeing a percentage of its natural resources exports.

Devoid of expansionist pretensions, Mauritania immediately retreated and left the territory in the care of Moroccan forces. The promise of a plebiscite mediated by the United Nations (UN), to ensure the self-determination of the Saharawi people was never fulfilled.

"Morocco occupies Western Sahara due to its great mineral wealth," says Jadiyetu El Mohtar, delegate of the Polisario Front, a Saharawi liberation movement founded in 1973.

“Sahara is rich in diverse metals, natural gas, iron, copper, uranium and tellurium. There are also oil reserves, not yet explored, sand for the production of cement and for the extension of beaches, in addition to one of the most abundant fishing zones in Africa”, he emphasizes.

The occupation of the country and the exploitation of Saharawi phosphate by Morocco violates United Nations Resolution 1514, according to which a population can, for their own purposes, utilize their wealth and natural resources based on the principles of mutual benefit and International rights.

"All armed action and repression directed against colonized peoples will be put an end, to allow them to exercise their right to complete independence, peacefully and freely, and assure that the integrity of their national territory will be respected", the resolution states.

In other words, no government is authorized to extract and commercialize the resources of other territories amid the process of decolonization. This is the case of Western Sahara and 16 other territories considered "non-autonomous" by the UN.

"Immediate measures will be taken in territories under tutelage, non-autonomous territories and all other territories that have not yet achieved independence, by transferring all power to the people of those territories", completes the United Nations resolution. "Any attempt to totally or partially destroy a country's national unity and territorial integrity is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter."

Different decisions by the European Union Court of Justice, handed down between 2016 and 2019, reaffirmed that Morocco and Western Sahara are distinct territories and that the extraction and commercialization of resources without the consent of the Saharawi people is illegal.

There is no document, in any court or international organization, that allows Morocco to exploit the resources of that region, as it still does today.

The population of Western Sahara is estimated at 650,000 people, divided into four groups. In addition to those living in exile and in occupied territories, about 170,000 Saharawis live in refugee camps and in neighboring Algeria.

The violence against Saharawis in the occupied territories is detailed in the UN’s Human Rights Commission and involves, for example, reports of torture and arbitrary arrests, as well as restrictions on freedom of expression.

Five left

Morocco controls almost 70% of the total phosphate reserves in the world, which is equivalent to about 50 billion tons. Most of the production comes from the Bou Craa mine in Western Sahara.

When trading phosphates for fertilizer production around the world, Morocco makes no distinction between the resources that come from its territories and those taken from Saharawi reserves.

It is up to the importers themselves, with the help of human rights organizations and activists, to monitor the origin and route of the cargo.

In the last decade, companies in developed countries have been halting these imports to distance themselves from the violence and illegalities that have occurred in the region.

When the WSRW started monitoring the cargo’s path in 2011, there were 12 buyer countries. Today, there are only five: India, New Zealand, Brazil, China and Japan.

"There has been a significant change in the export profile over the past two years," says Erik Hagen, a researcher at WSRW. To give you an idea, by 2019, half of the phosphate extracted in Western Sahara was destined for the United States and Canada.

"The company that purchased 50% of the phosphates that arrived in North America was the Canadian based Nutrien, which has factories in Canada and the USA," recalls Hagen.

“A year ago, they stopped buying, since the European Union and countries like Australia, Colombia and Venezuela had done the same. It is in this context that the first shipments arrive in Brazil ", he points out.

One of the companies suspected of receiving Saharawi phosphate in Brazil, Cefértil is a partner of Mosaic Fertilizantes, linked to the US conglomerate The Mosaic Company.

In 2015, the head office reported having suspended purchases of raw materials stolen from North Africa, right after being questioned about violations of the rights of the Saharawi population.

Brasil de Fato wrote to Mosaic Fertilizantes to clarify the nature of their link with Cefértil, as well as actions taken to prevent the purchase of illegally extracted phosphates.

"Mosaic Fertilizantes confirms that the Cesari / Cefértil Group is its partner in industrial and warehousing activities, but not as a supplier of raw materials", says a press release sent to our reporters. "The company reinforces that it does not agree with the use of raw materials from illegal extraction and [...] is in compliance with all health and safety standards, requiring the same compliance from all its business partners".

According to the press release, Mosaic Fertilizantes "is not responsible for purchasing any of the products from the Western Sahara region that were destined to Cesari last year."


From the Sahara to Brazil

The flow of Saharawi-laden phosphate vessels bound for Brazil has increased significantly over the past two years, according to WSRW.

In 2019, two vessels that docked in Brazilian ports were tracked. Last year, three ships bound for Brazil left directly from El Aaiún - the largest city in Western Sahara, claimed as the capital of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD) - bound for the port of Santos (SP).

The trip from North Africa to Brazil usually takes about two weeks.

The first vessel identified in 2020 was called Golden Bonnie. With a capacity to store 32.2 thousand tons of phosphate rock, the ship left El Aaiún on March 31st and docked in the Brazilian port city of Santos on April 14th.

The second vessel, Lalis D, carries up to 55,600 tons. The vessel left El Aaiún on June 6th and arrived in Brazil on June 20th.

The third shipment arrived on December 27th. The cargo ship was called the Regius, with a hauling of approximately 33,400 tonnes. It left Western Sahara loaded with phosphate on December 14th.

The above data was obtained by Brasil de Fato from the cross referencing of information provided by WSRW and by Anselmo Fariña, a member of the Sáhara Acciones collective.

The estimation of the amount of raw material that each ship carries, is based on the draft measurement – the distance from the water depth to the ship's keel -, which varies according to the amount of cargo being transported.

Previous relationships

On June 2nd, 2017, Anselmo Fariña says that he detected a likely delivery of Saharawi phosphate to Brazil. In that instance, a ship called Neptune left El Aaiún for the port of Paranaguá, located in the state of Paraná, having first made a stop at the Moroccan port of Jorf Lasfar.

The draft measurement reported by those responsible for the vessel indicated that the phosphate would have been loaded onto the ship in Morocco, thus the extraction and export would be considered legal.

The ship's passage through El Aaiún aroused Fariña's suspicion. According to him, tampering with the declared draft measurement in order to hide the Saharawi origin of phosphates is common.

"One thing is the phosphates that Morocco itself has in its own territory, another is phosphate stolen from the Saharawi people", says the activist.

"The latter allows Morocco to determine the price of this raw material on the international market, since they control between 70% to 80% of the global phosphate trade," he explains.

Moroccan state-owned Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP), controlled by Mohammed VI, the king of Morocco, has had offices in Brazil since 2010.

In North Africa, the company controls four rock phosphate extraction centers - three in Morocco and one in Western Sahara. The latter is close to the Bou Craa mine, which has an estimated phosphate deposit of 1.7 billion tonnes and is located 115 km southeast of El Aaiún.

In 2008, OCP created a joint venture with the Dutch multinational Bunge, Brazil's largest agribusiness exporter, to build a phosphate refining plant in Jorf Lasfar. Five years later, Fariña points out that OCP bought 50% of Bunge, becoming the sole owner of that plant.

What is at stake

On November 13th, 2020, Morocco broke a 29-year-old ceasefire and attacked a group of Saharawis protesting in a region known as the “Guerguerat rift” - one of the routes through which resources extracted from Western Sahara are transported. In the same week, the Polisario Front movement declared the resumption of war.

Researcher Erik Hagen, from WSRW, calls attention to the seriousness of illegal extraction, sponsored by Brazilian agribusiness companies.

“These companies are buying phosphates from the wrong entity. The people of Western Sahara own these resources. With these minerals, the Saharawi people could build an independent country. So, it's deeply unethical", he explains.

"Morocco is violating international laws occupying by another country, and these companies are facilitating this process, which is one of the worst types of aggression committed by a state after the Second World War", adds Hagen.

Jadiyetu El Mohtar recalls that the right to armed struggle for peoples under colonial domination is guaranteed by the United Nations. In parallel to the war, the Polisario Front delegate says that the movement will continue to challenge Moroccan actions in court.

“We cannot allow, in any part of the world, the violation of peoples' rights, international legality, the trampling of human rights. If we allow it in one place, even if it seems distant, we are assuming that it can happen to us too, at any time”, warns the Saharawi activist.

Morocco, which now controls two-thirds of Western Sahara, does not recognize the resumption of war against the Polisario Front and calls itself the legitimate ruler of the region.

The Association of Solidarity and Self-Determination of the Saaráui People (Asaaraui) promised to denounce the stance of Brazilian companies.

"By legitimizing the delivery of phosphate from Western Sahara stolen by Morocco, Brazil is legitimizing actions that reinforce this illegal occupation through market forces", says former congresswoman Maria José Conceição, president of Asaaraui.

"We activists will systematically denounce these situations every time we are made aware of them", she points out.

The other side

The Cesari Group, owner of Cefértil, responded to Brasil de Fato, saying that it has a 300,000 m² logistics terminal next to the fertilizer factory in the city of Cubatão, but “receives only nationalized cargo, which has already been vetted by oversight agencies”.

The press release sent to our newsroom, states that Cefértil does not use Saharawi phosphate in its processes. "In addition to this, our industrialization and storage contracts contain specific clauses in which the contractor is responsible for the origin of the product", says the text.

The conglomerate also said that none of its companies act as importers. "Finally, the Cesari Group was not aware of the illegal extraction of phosphate in the region known as Western Sahara, and understands that any action to curb the use of the product must be taken by the appropriate federal agencies", they add.

Brasil de Fato contacted the Secretariat for International Economic Affairs of the Special Secretariat for Foreign Trade and International Affairs of the Ministry of Economy. Our reporting asked whether the agency considers importing phosphate from Western Sahara problematic, or has any position or action on the subject. There has been no response so far.



Edited by: Leandro Melito