Continuing from the longest escalator system in the world, today’s post is about the longest conveyor belt system in the world. I’ll admit, I did not expect the rabbit hole that I found when researching this topic. The conveyor belt is enveloped in a history of occupation, illegal phosphate trades, war, and the world food supply. This is Bu Craa in Western Sahara.
85% of the world’s phosphate supply is direct from Morocco and it is used for fertilizer. Bu Craa itself has an astonishing 25,000 acres of land being mined for the stuff; 2.5 million tons per year. This isn’t exactly easy to pull off with the mine being over 60 miles away from the sea and in the Sahara desert. Their solution was to build a conveyor belt to the sea.
The belt is actually a covered system of 11 belts that bring up to 2,000 metric tons of soft, phosphate rocks to ships per hour. It is 800 mm (2.625 feet) wide and just over 100 km (60 miles) long! But why could such an engineering feat bring mire and controversy?
It all began with the Berlin Conference in 1884. European nations gathered to lay the ground rules for African “colonization” (Conrad in Heart of Darkness sarcastically named it as, “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs”). During this conference, Spain was given control of some land on the northwestern coast of Africa, including what is now known as Western Sahara.
After World War II, there was a large movement of decolonization by many European nations. Though Spain was slower to start than others. Continual pressure, however, pushed for the eventual hearing at the International Court of Justice in 1975. The verdict made recognized there was history between Morocco, Mauritania, and Western Sahara. But in the end, their conclusion was that the population of Western Sahara had the right of self-determination; the right to decide upon their own governing body.
In 1947, phosphates were discovered at the site of Bu Craa. Though the area was much too far inland to serve any purpose at the time. An inventory was performed in 1962 to find how much could be mined from Bu Craa. The belt was built by the company Fos Bucraa in 1968, and soon after mining began pouring phosphates to the Atlantic. Things wouldn’t move smoothly however.
The International Court of Justice ruling on Western Sahara didn’t sit well with Morocco or Mauritania. Both nations wanted to have control over the land. In a large move of protest, in 1975 Morocco sent about 350,000 citizens and 20,000 troops across the border to Western Sahara in an event called the “Green March”. The Spanish had left and now people were raising banners demanding the “return of the Moroccan Sahara”. This march marked the beginning of a war between Morocco, Mauritania, and the local Sahrawi people.
Using guerrilla warfare tactics, the Polisario Front (the Sahrawi rebel group) fought back hard while still helping refugees flee the area. After a few years of war, Mauritania signed a 1979 peace treaty and formally recognized the sovereignty of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Immediately after the withdrawal of Mauritania, Morocco annexed the rest of Western Sahara, much to the Polisario’s ire. In response, the Polisario continually attempted to attack the biggest symbol of Moroccan control on their land: the Bu Craa conveyor.
From 1979 on, the guerrilla tactics used by the Polisario turned to destruction of the belts. In turn, Morocco began work on the Moroccan Wall. Sand berms and stone walls, stretching thousands of kilometers, surrounded by barbed wire, bunkers, and landmines, now stood between the Polisario and the conveyor. The minefields are so incredibly long, that it is considered to be the longest continuous minefield in the world. Military bases and radar masts scan the perimeter, making attack by surprise very difficult.
In more recent history, there was a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario from 1991 to now. With things becoming extremely tense, the UN began working with the two groups to negotiate an agreement. By 2007, they had reached a total stalemate. Morocco was accepting of the idea of an autonomous Western Sahara, but did not want them entirely independent; the Polisario Front demanded nothing less than independence. By 2010, the Polisario had cut off contact with the UN claiming they had been “… turning into a protector shield of a colonial fact, the occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco”
The conveyor belt continues to run, but with Morocco making the profits. Due to the price of phosphates, the mine failed to actually turn a profit for the first 27 years of operation. Staff and workers had been funded by the government directly to live and work at Bu Craa, and at a loss! It’s this fact that the King uses as proof he is not holding onto the land for profit, but for his people. But because the land is under occupation, it is illegal to exploit its natural resources for trade. 85% of the world’s supply of phosphates come from Morocco, but Morocco does not publish which mines are producing their supply. This means, there is no way to tell if the fertilizer being used anywhere came from Bu Craa.
Bu Craa’s future is uncertain. And the same can be said for the conveyor belt system. The Polisario could attack it again. Morocco doesn’t seem to be giving up either. While it’s a long and complex history, one thing is certain: that is a long conveyor belt.