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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