Monthly Archives: June 2016

North African Phosphate, Global Food Regimes and the Legacies of Empire

This week’s post is re-blogged from from the French newspaper Libération and its Africa blog, by kind permission.

Entrée d’une galerie de la mine de Khouribga. Photographie tirée d’une publicité de l’Office Chérifien des Phosphates de 1952. FR ANOM. Aix-en-Provence : BIB AOM //4911 Office chérifien des phosphates. – Les realisations de l’Office en faveur de son personnel journalier, Rabat : Maroc-Matin, 1952.

Why did you decide to study the history of North African phosphates?

North African phosphates are important mainly because they contain phosphorous. Along with nitrogen and potassium, phosphorous is an element vital to plant growth and soil fertility. Without fertilizer made partly from phosphate-derived phosphorous, the expanded food production achieved in the twentieth century and the global food system we have today would be essentially impossible. As Dana Cordell and others have pointed out, where once local manure and imported guano provided alternatives, humans now depend completely on phosphorous extracted from phosphate rock to feed the world’s population. Moreover, supplies of rock phosphate are neither unlimited nor renewable. Like oil, rock phosphate is a finite resource and reserves are likely to last another 50-100 years only. The vast majority of remaining phosphate rock reserves are in North Africa, mainly in Morocco, which alone controls almost 6 billion of the remaining 15 billion tons.

So the history of this powdery rock is intimately related to the food eaten every day around the world – not for nothing does the Moroccan state phosphate company (OCP), prominently feature ticking world population and arable land counters on its website. With few exceptions, historians and social scientists have neglected phosphate mining in North Africa, especially by contrast with the better known cases of Pacific islands like Nauru and Banaba. Increasing attention has been given to hydrocarbons like oil and coal, and to commodities more generally, without studying the extractive processes that underpin the world’s food production system.

I was also interested by the fact that phosphate mining came into being in the last decades of European colonial empire in North Africa, between 1900 and 1960. The creation of the industry in the colonial situation left behind important legacies for the independent states of North Africa. Tunisia, Algeria and especially Morocco all came to independence endowed with substantial, and inter-connected phosphate mining infrastructure: mines, railways, engineers, miners and whole towns focused on phosphate. The phosphate mining companies themselves became important actors in the shaping of North African countries after independence, especially in Morocco, where the OCP provided significant revenue and geo-political clout to the state. So I chose to study the ways in which phosphate mining as a system shaped both the global food regime but also the transition from a world of colonial empire to one of national states.

What are the origins of phosphate mining in North Africa?

The first discoveries took place in the 1890s in the Tunisian mining basin around Gafsa. By 1900 mining in Gafsa was established, as guano production fell away worldwide. From its inception the industry was marked by intense political and legal combat, both between French and settler colonial capitalists, and locally in terms of the use of common land for mining or in terms of local farmers’ opposition to mine work. The Gafsa mines rapidly drew in miners from across the Maghreb, especially from the Moroccan Atlas, but also from Sicily and from Algeria. As Hamza Meddeb has shown, for many years local farmers around Gafsa, as across much of the Maghreb, combined mine work with seasonal agricultural work, to the dismay of the mining companies. The details of geology and geography also proved decisive to the history of each site: at Metlaouï (Al-Mitlawi) in Tunisia the phosphate rock was massive and solid, but just across the border at Tbessa in Algeria it was crumbly, requiring different methods and expertise to mitigate the risk of collapse. Disasters nevertheless occurred and it is telling that in one case, a mine collapse at Metlaouï in October 1900, the French colonial archive dedicates more attention to the suicide of the French chief engineer than to the 32 “Arab and Sicilian” dead. The mining companies also fought for access to railways to control transport costs, and in some cases, such as that of the Compagnie des Phosphates et du Chemin de Fer de Sfax-Gafsa(CPG), they built and owned their own lines, shaping the wider landscape.

The Gafsa mines provided a paradigm and a resource for phosphate mining across the colonial Maghreb: I describe this as an ‘archipelago’ of ‘Phosphatevilles’ across North Africa. The major discoveries made in Morocco at the close of World War One were influenced by settlers, miners, engineers and political-economic lessons learned in Tunisia and Algeria before 1914. For example the French Resident-General, Hubert Lyautey, deliberately shaped the OCP after 1918 as a quasi-public institution to avoid the power that private mining interests had acquired in Tunisia and Algeria. Khouribga, in the El Borouj region of Morocco, on the Oulad Abdoun plateau some 120 km south-east of Casablanca, quickly became the most potent phosphate mine in North Africa. Indeed after independence the OCP, building on its late colonial status, came to dominate African phosphate production. By 1962 it had therefore acquired significant investments in Togolese, Beninois, and Algerian phosphate companies, re-formulating the inter-connected phosphate archipelago of the colonial period. In time Morocco also became the country that controlled the largest global reserves, including at Bu-Craa in Western Sahara.

What characterized mining work in the period you study?

Mobility and migration, for instance from the Atlas to Khouribga, or across the Maghreb to Tunisia, or even to the coal mines of the Nord-Pas de Calais, was a key characteristic. Another, of course, was the dangers and difficulties of mining, both from collapses and also from health risks and disease, for example lung illnesses like silicosis. Another danger came from corporate and colonial health strategies such as the use of DDT spraying of miners, even as the increased use of power shovels and open cast mining reduced overall personnel underground.

Second, miners constantly resisted and subverted a labour regime organized around colonial racial hierarchy and the distinction between settler and indigenous, citizen and subject. For example they sold on corporate identity documents to other workers in order to control their own mobility and work seasons.

Third, the mines also became centres for labour organization, which by the 1930s was marked by both anti-colonial nationalism and by debates on indigenous labour rights within unions such as the CGT. In the wake of the Vichy regime and the US occupation of North Africa, some mining engineers and managers were fired, with the support of the unions, for collaboration with the Nazis.

Finally, by the 1950s mining sites such as Khouribga and Louis-Gentil (Youssoufia) became showcases in which the French authorities tried to demonstrate the political benevolence and the developmental investments of French power against a backdrop of anti-colonial insurgency across the region. The provision of schools, housing, hospitals and even holiday camps for miners’ children was vaunted in late colonial propaganda as a justification for French rule – even as the ‘Phosphatevilles’ became hotbeds of anti-colonial activity.

Although this project is in its early stages, I hope to develop it in particular by building an archive of interviews and documentation on the experience of phosphate mine labour across the colonial and postcolonial Maghreb, to complement the more imperial and global dimensions of the story and show how the agro-chemical revolution in the world nutritional regime rested on the specific, and often forgotten social and economic history of late-colonial phosphate extraction.

Simon Jackson, University of Birmingham

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Guest Post: Performing a State in Occupied Iraq 2003-2006

Our guest post this week is reposted by kind permission of the author, Dr. Nida Alahmad, who holds Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant No 658988 PS-IRAQ at the Middle East and North Africa Research Group (MENARG) at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University, Belgium. The original post can be found at the ‘Performing a State’ blog here. A more elaborate discussion of the question will appear in Nida Alahmad, “Illuminating a State: Statebuilding and Electricity in Occupied Iraq,” Humanity Journal 8, no. 1 (2017).



The Iraqi state was the focus of a major American engineering project that failed, leading to a civil war in 2006. The US occupied Iraq in May 2003 aiming to radically reshape the country into a liberal democracy. This was to be done mainly through re-engineering state institutions and re-defining their functions in a process that is often designated as “statebuilding.” Over the span of thirteen months the Coalitional Provisional Authority issued sweeping orders and launched projects to implement its radical vision. In August 2003 an insurgency irrupted and spread across the country. Shortly after the transfer of sovereignty from the CPA to an Iraqi interim government in June 2004, Iraq witnessed the first civil war since its establishment in 1920. Many state-building experts declared post-occupation Iraq a fragile or failed state. With the rise of the Islamic State in northern and western Iraq in 2014, Iraq is facing renewed threats of civil war and possible partition, indicating a definite failure of the state-building project.

This failure has prompted criticism from various directions. Scholars have treated the US project and its failure as the outcomes of an imperialist project;or an ambitious implementation of the so-called Liberal Peace paradigm; or as a failure that could have been avoided given better policies. These critiques are important. They help up see the practical and normative problems of intervention. At the same time, they tend to starts from the presupposition that these interventions are external to the political field upon which they act. Treating these interventions as external (either as an imposition or as welcome intervention—both distinctions are mostly normative) reifies their self-representation as a body of expertise that is autonomous from the objects of intervention.

My research project is not interested in asking how the American statebuilding project in Iraq could (or could not) have worked. Instead, it takes as a starting point that once an intervention occurs, it becomes part of the landscape that it attempts to change. In other words, whether or not it succeeds in changing the object of intervention into a particular form, once an intervention takes place it can no longer be treated as an external element. This research project is an inquiry into the performative nature of statebuilding: how is the state (as an object of intervention) conceived, identified, quantified and acted upon in the production of knowledge about intervention and during the intervention itself? How does the act of intervention and the knowledge that informs it become part of the reality such intervention seeks to amend?

There are different ways to approach the investigation of a failed statebuilding project. We could ask, how it could have been better? Or, why did it fail? Or, could it ever have worked? Or, which is what this project is interested in: how did it materialize itself and its object on the ground? Which set of questions we choose to ask depend on what is it that we try to understand, or in some cases, predict.

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Public Lecture: ‘The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London’ (Nile Green, UCLA)

Strangers A5 Flyer AW (WEB) copy
Wednesday 8th June 2016
Barber Institute – Lecture Theatre (R14 on campus map)
In 1815, the first Muslim students ever to study in Europe landed in Great Yarmouth. Over the next four years, they immersed themselves in Jane Austen’s England as part of their mission to understand the industrial revolution taking place beyond the hedgerows of Pemberley. This richly-illustrated lecture is presented by IAS Distinguished Visiting Fellow Professor Nile Green and is based on his book ‘The Love of Strangers’, a New York Times Editors’ Choice.
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Fluctuat nec mergitur

In the context of record water levels and floods in Paris we repost here a piece from a couple of years back.


Sign showing height of floodwaters at rue de Charonne, 1910 Paris flood

I was walking down the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine toward Bastille last night, in the rain, on my last night in Paris, when I spotted this little sign, down near knee height on the corner of the rue de Charonne:

Close-up ‘Flood, January 1910’

A flood that reaches knee height doesn’t sound that impressive, but this corner is about a kilometre away from the Seine. The flood of 1910 was a terrific disaster, the worst in 250 years. On the map of the area below, the pale blue indicates the area where roadways were flooded; the yellow, areas where basements were flooded. A quarter of the city’s buildings were affected.

Map of 1910 Paris floodwaters around Bastille The 1910 flood, and modern-day flood risk, around Bastille

The pink area is where the French utility EDF/GDF reckons there’d be fragilisation of the electricity supply if a flood on the same scale hit the city today. The map* is part of…

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