... precisely in the territory that the highest Court of the European Union considers "distinct and separate" from Morocco.
A new agricultural zone of a staggering 5000 hectares - that is what the Moroccan Minister for Agriculture Aziz Akhannouch announced in Dakhla, in late September 2017. Akhannouch' declaration was made at the second edition of the international agricultural forum, organised by the Dakhla Chamber of Commerce to attract investors.
The lands destined for the project have already been identified, according to Moroccan newspaper L'Economiste. Two types of operators can apply for a plot: industrial producers, notably those focusing on greenhouse production destined for export; and local, small-scale farmers.
At present, just under 1000 ha of land near the Dakhla peninsula are used by large-scale agro-industry, as in line with the goal of the Moroccan Green Plan to reach 1000 ha by 2020.
Tomatoes and melons are the main crops in the area, though cherry tomatoes - yielding between 80 and 120 tonnes per hectare - take up the lion's share of production, destined for export. Today, four big agro-operators cultivate the Dakhla plantations; Rosaflor, Soprofel, Azura and Les Domaines Agricoles - the latter being owned by the Moroccan monarchy.
Dakhla is located in the south of the territory that is treated by the UN as the last unresolved colonial question in Africa, and under partial illegal occupation by one of the EU's important trading partners: Morocco.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the production from Dakhla in recent years ended up in Europe, as WSRW documented in its 2012 report "Label and Liability". The report was taken into consideration by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which in December 2016 ruled that no trade or association agreement with Morocco could be applied to Western Sahara, without the express consent of the people of the territory: the Saharawis. One of the direct implications for this ruling is the end of preferential access to the EU market for goods coming from occupied Western Sahara (although the exact implementation of this legally binding obligation remains unclear).
The judgment angered the Moroccan government. On 6 February 2017, Morocco's Minister for Agriculture released a statement warning that any obstacles to his country’s agriculture and fishing exports to Europe could renew the “migration flows” that Rabat has “managed and maintained” with “sustained effort.”
Yet in spite of the CJEU judgment, potentially costing Morocco its main export market for the Dakhla crops, the Moroccan government is eager to press on agricultural development in the occupied territory. An additional 5000 ha added to the cited operational 1000 ha would equal an increase of 500%.
The European Commission, in blatant disrespect of the EU Court's judgment, is at present engaged in talks with Rabat to secure its imports from Western Sahara within the framework of the EU-Morocco trade deal.
The previous growth phase of Dakhla's agricultural infrastructure came at the time when Morocco and the EU were negotiating the contentious bilateral trade agreement, suggesting that the Moroccan government and the Moroccan/French companies involved had expected the trade agreement to go through with the inclusion of occupied Western Sahara.
To equip that gigantic agricultural zone, the Moroccan Ministry for Agriculture has launched two international tenders;
1. Co-financing, conception, construction, exploitation and maintenance of irrigation infrastructure for a period of 22 years.
2. Co-financing, conception, construction, exploitation and maintenance of a so-called green park, consisting of a desalination station, a wind park and water station for a period of 22 years.
The tender closes on 1 February 2018.
"Companies applying should be made well aware that doing business in and with Western Sahara carries serious legal, moral and financial risks. The ongoing and polemical trade negotiations between the EU Commission and Morocco over Western Sahara will add additional spotlight of such questionable corporate behaviour", says Davide Contini of WSRW.
The agricultural activity near Dakhla often appears as a veritable fata morgana: to grow crops in this desert land, the industry uses the underground water reserves. That the Moroccan government now seeks to move towards desalinated sea water, indicates that the water reserves are past their heyday.
Growing fruit and vegetables in the desert destroys the non-renewable water reservoirs and employ thousands of settlers from neighbouring Morocco.
Morocco’s tomato export season starts today. But some of the ‘Moroccan’ tomatoes you’ll soon find in your shop have been grown illegally in a territory under military occupation. Have you spotted dirty tomatoes? Help us to identify them in your local store!
Who benefits from the booming agricultural industry in occupied Western Sahara? Surely not the Saharawis.