Recently, a harmless enough bulk carrier called the Christine O steamed up the Derwent to unload in Hobart.
It was a surprise to be told that its phosphatic rock cargo came not from the "usual" island sources close to Australia. It came all the way around Africa from the Atlantic coast of the Western Sahara.
About 284,000 tonnes of North African phosphate landed in Australian ports in 2008-9, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE). The contents of one mine, the Phosbucraa open cut in El Ayoun, has been poured onto Australian paddocks more than any other in recent years.
There is something really incomprehensible about that. Sure, we import oil from the Middle East. But soil fertiliser? Doesn't the Sahara need that more than we do?
No, according to market forces, and scientists too. Our soils are said to be among the world's most phosphorous-deficient. Yet our major agriculture exports: beef, wheat and sheep, need piles of it.
One problem is that known phosphate reserves are running down.
The UN has been calling since 1966 for de-colonisation of the Western Sahara, and maintains a peacekeeping mission there called MINURSO. The ACTU rails against the UN's failure to deliver, but the Department of Foreign Affairs takes a neutral approach.
Its advice is that given the status of the Western Sahara as a non-self governing territory, there are "international law considerations" to do with imports. "We recommend that companies seek legal advice before importing such material," it says.
The Australian Fertiliser Services Association says the Western Sahara is now this country's most important source of high quality rock, with reserves on Nauru and Christmas Island having unacceptably high cadmium levels.
"Each company has separately sought advice, and on balance, what they are doing is legal," said association chairman Nick Drew.
So out of Africa and into Hobart, Geelong, Portland and Kwinana, the phosphate comes.
Andrew Darby is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald Hobart correspondent.
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