The Conveyor Belt to Nowhere: Memory and Resistance at a Western Saharan Phosphate Mine, 1973-1976

Sarah Gilkerson, University of California, Davis

The Western Sahara is a terrain marked by two hundred years of contested claims. Beginning in 1884, the Spanish Empire implemented a colonial administration, forcing the nomadic Sahrawi population into sedentarization. Just as decolonization movements were spreading throughout the Maghreb in the 1950s, Spanish company geologists discovered the largest phosphate deposit in the world near the town Bucraa. During the political transition years of 1973, Sahrawi miners extracted the largest amount of phosphates from Fosbucráa while the Sahrawi separatists—called the Frente POLISARIO—began to campaign for independence. Their hopes were destroyed in 1975 when Spain signed the Madrid Agreements, granting the Kingdom of Morocco authority over the Sahrawi and their natural resources. As this agreement was in direct violation of the 1975 International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) advisory opinion in favor of the Sahrawi, war broke out between Morocco and the newly formed Sahrawi government forcing Saharwis to flee to refugee camps in Algeria in 1976. Thus, the aim of this research is to describe the ways in which the phosphate Fosbucráa mines became a memorialized symbol of oppression and resistance for the Sahrawi during this process of forced migration. This article uses Sahrawi acts of sabotage at the mines, in the context of Spanish and Moroccan colonization, to explain how the POLISARIO gained support and began to construct independent Sahrawi history even while displaced in a refugee camp. This project is organized from 1973-1976, bookended with the two largest acts of sabotage the Sahrawi promulgated against Spain and then Morocco. The centrality of the mines responds to a lack of legal and historical research addressing the connections between the power dynamics of the colonial administrations, resistance, and natural resources, which continues to impact the landscapes and psychologies of the Sahrawi people in their forty first year of exile.