Once a Spanish colony, Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1976, and roiled by regional power politics and an independence movement that waged a guerrilla war until a cease-fire in 1991. With Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara unrecognized by the UN, many in the international community argue that Morocco is violating international law by exploiting the territory's resources – and that global companies should not be party to that.
Yet the phosphate mining by a Moroccan company goes on, and foreign companies like PotashCorp continue to buy. In 2008, prices for phosphate rock spiked, raising the incentive to ignore international law and continue exploiting Western Sahara's phosphate. Prices have since dropped, but have still increased by more than 300 percent since 2007. At current prices, the load in the hold of the Double Rejoice would be worth nearly $14 million.
"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.
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.