Phosphates and Lessons from Phosphates

On the recent trip to Morocco, the guide told us that Morocco did not have oil but that it did have the world’s largest reserves of phosphates. Some of those deposits are in Western Sahara, which Morocco claims and on its maps is the southernmost part of the country. Other nations, including Algeria, dispute Morocco’s assertion of sovereignty over this area, which was controlled by Spain until near the end of the twentieth century. This conflict has fueled tensions between Algeria and Morocco, and the long border between the two countries is closed. Various factions have fought in Western Sahara, but a tenuous cease fire has been in place for over a decade. As far as I can tell, the land is one of the most sparsely inhabited places on earth. But, although the amounts are not clear, it does have phosphates, and that apparently means it could be worth fighting over. The Western Sahara phosphates, however, are not the only Moroccan ones. There are also plentiful phosphates deposits in the rest of Morocco.

Phosphates are important to you and me for several reasons, including that they are an essential component of artificial fertilizers that help produce the food we need. I had not given phosphates much thought even when it was mentioned on the trip, but in a minor small-world moment I read a passage about the substance in a novel I started reading soon after returning from Morocco.

In The Gold Bug Variations by Richards Powers, published in 1991, Jan O’Deigh, a main character, is a reference librarian in Brooklyn. Back in the day, these librarians would answer factual questions on all sorts of questions or help patrons find the answer. What was Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average? What is the highest point in Florida? She is asked a question about what countries are more affluent than America. She posts an answer: “Nauru, a Pacific Island whose eight thousand inhabitants are far wealthier per capita than the U.S. population. They make their money on one product, phosphates, which run the industries of Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The Nauruans extract the chemicals from huge deposits of seafowl guano laid down over thousands of years. Such affluence has a price. The island is itself largely a guano deposit, and the more than two million tons of phosphates exported each year eat it away rapidly.”

Nauru—never heard of it. To my mild surprise I found out it was not a made-up place. I sought to learn a bit about it. I did what we now do for a little information. I turned not to a reference librarian, but to the internet. I learned Nauru is a Pacific island only eight miles square with its nearest neighbor, another mere speck in that big ocean, only 190 miles away. But the good news for the Naurans with wanderlust is that the Solomon Islands are only 810 miles away. The republic is geographically smaller than all other countries except Vatican City and Monaco, and its present population of 10,000 is the world’s second or third smallest of the world’s nations.

Nauru’s phosphates were easily strip mined, and around 1980, the time The Gold Bug Variations is set, the GDP per capita was about $50,000, which placed it second in this category behind Saudi Arabia. However, the phosphates were playing out. A trust was set up from the phosphate revenues to support the population once the guano deposits were exhausted. The trust was mismanaged. It once had $1.3 billion, but now the fund is less than a tenth of that. The country has struggled to find other sources of revenue, and the GDP per capita (different estimates are given) may be one-twentieth of what it was in its heyday.

The strip mining not only depleted the phosphates, it caused severe ecological damage to the island. Australia concluded that it had a responsibility because of its role in the devastation and offered to move the population of Nauru to an island off Queensland, where the Nauruans would have become Australian citizens. The populace wanted their own sovereignty, however, rejected the offer, and stayed put. (Staying put seems to a favorite [non]activity on the island. Nauru, I learned, has one of the highest obesity rates in the world.)

I know little about the Moroccan phosphates industry other than I was told that the deposits are vast and can meet the present world’s supply for more than the foreseeable future. I do know, however, that extensive natural resources have not always led to a lasting widespread wealth for a country. Nigeria and Venezuela both have sizeable oil deposits, but both are plagued with poverty, corruption, and civil unrest. Oil has not led to nirvana in either place. Riches from natural resources are often too easily spent instead of being invested in ways that improve the economy beyond the extraction of a valuable substance. Think of Spain and all the gold and silver it once got from the Americas and how that wealth was used. It did not lead to a thriving Iberian economy. And, of course, there is the history of tiny Nauru.

I wondered if the Nauru story held any lessons for Morocco, but I don’t know how the profits of the Moroccan phosphates industry are being used. I don’t even know if the Moroccan phosphates are reached through tunnels with the risk of life and limb or through strip mining, as in Nauru, with the potential for ecological doom. But I did notice that the Nauruan phosphate came from guano deposits—bird droppings. I learned that humans and animals excrete almost every bit of phosphorus they consume, a reason manure was returned to the fields. The excrement fertilized the soils. One report says that there is enough phosphorus in a person’s urine to help grow more than fifty percent of the food a person needs. Not surprisingly, there are scientists and companies working to extract phosphorus from wastewater. Just as the wealth from growing broomcorn used in whisk brooms dissipated with the whoosh of vacuum cleaners, new technological possibilities may mean that someday the demand for phosphates could dramatically decrease.  

I hope Morocco is taking this under consideration.