Unemployment is high, and Saharawis say they are often passed over for government jobs or work in the fishing and phosphate industries, with those jobs going to immigrants from Morocco instead. And none of the benefits from mining reach the more than 100,000 Saharawis refugees, displaced by the war, who live in camps across the border in Algeria.
"They always claim they are building infrastructure and offering jobs to mask all this plundering of resources," rights activist Brahim Dahane says of the Moroccan authorities. "This is mere propaganda. It's only a way of legitimizing their plunder of natural resources in Western Sahara." Mr. Dahane claims government harassment forced him to close down his Internet cafe business, and he is now unemployed.
The source of the controversy, the Boucraa mine, is more than an hour's drive from Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara.
The 100-kilometer (about 60-mile) conveyer belt carries phosphate from the mine to the port in Laayoune. It cuts across the sparse desert landscape, which is dotted only by small shrubs and the occasional stand of small trees that shade herds of goats. The mine extends across nearly 25,000 acres, from which rise huge piles of rock excavated from the mine.
During a rare visit by Western journalists, a dragline, a machine the size of a house, was scooping rock out of a pit to expose the phosphate. At the bottom of the 125-foot-deep trench was the vein of phosphate, only around 15-feet deep and a little over 100-feet wide. Workers used front loaders to scoop out the soft rock.