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In remote Western Sahara, prized phosphate drives controversial investments

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"It's a huge ethical dilemma. And the companies – PotashCorp – simply look away from that dilemma. They choose to look away," says Erik Hagen, head of Western Sahara Resource Watch, which tracks the companies that buy resources from the disputed territory.

Why the mine draws fire

The output of the mine in Western Sahara, called Boucraa, is about 2.5 million tons per year. That's only a small percentage of the 27 million tons that Morocco, the world's largest phosphate exporter, produces every year. Yet it is draws fire because International law prohibits occupying powers from exploiting the natural resources of the territories they control unless they do so in the interest of, and according to, the wishes of the local population. Morocco says it meets these conditions because it invests heavily in Western Sahara, local and regional governmental bodies are headed by Saharawis, and representatives from the region have a say in development and resource extraction. 

The Moroccan government has spent millions of dollars developing fishing ports in Western Sahara, which has a population of about 500,000. It says it is spending millions more on development projects in Laayoune and elsewhere, including plans for urban public spaces, public transportation, the second-largest public library in Morocco-controlled territory, and Western Sahara's first university. The government has also attracted thousands of Moroccans to the territory with incentives like land, subsidized food, and lower taxes, changing the demographics of Western Sahara so that Saharawis are now believed to be a minority. 

But Saharawi activists say that Saharawis don't reap the benefits from exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources. They complain of government neglect and discrimination against Saharawis in Western Sahara.Hospitals are so poor that many people try to go elsewhere for treatment, they say, while pointing out that there is yet no university in the territory.

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