European companies help Morocco maintain control over Western Sahara

Morocco's illegal 1975 occupation of Western Sahara displaced hundreds of thousands of people. [Shutterstock]

Morocco is eagerly promoting its green credentials in its hosting of the COP22 climate change conference in Marrakesh. But a new report discloses that the North African country is consolidating its hold on Western Sahara through European-built energy projects. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Surrounded by a barren desert landscape in south-west Algeria, around 100,000 people inhabit refugee camps, entirely dependent on aid from the international community. About 100 km away, behind a 2,700 km long border fence, is their homeland: Western Sahara.

The territory was illegally occupied in 1975 by Morocco and nearly half of its population fled across the border. While they and their descendants live in makeshift shelters, Morocco is embarking on questionable energy projects.

It’s something that the Moroccan government, which is currently hosting the COP22 conference, is trying to conceal, as its wind farm projects are increasingly relocated into the disputed territory, according to Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW).

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European companies Siemens and Enel are heavily involved in the building of these wind farms, leading critics to claim that they are helping to consolidate the occupation of Western Sahara.

The fact that it is only German giant Siemens and Italian powerhouse Enel to have been granted tenders in Morocco is no coincidence. It is their partnership with energy company Nareva that is responsible, which according to a Le Monde report, completely controlled the country’s green energy sector last year and is owned by Mohammed VI, Morocco’s king.

The three-company consortium won its latest tender for a large energy project in Morocco back in March. None of the companies took into account the consent of the inhabitants of the area in which it is being built.

WSRW warns that the Moroccan monarch’s profiting from green projects in the region should be taken into account in the UN’s peace talks with the Saharawi people. “So long as the Moroccan king himself profits from the illegal presence of the army, the UN’s efforts to resolve the Western Saharan conflict are further undermined,” said WSRW’s Erik Hagen.

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Three years ago, Morocco announced that it expected EU funding from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Germany development bank (KfW) for renewable energy programmes. Currently, the country meets 95% of its energy needs by importing oil, gas and goal. Morocco wants to end this dependence and make its energy mix more climate-friendly. But after widespread criticism, investors spoke out against supporting energy projects in Western Sahara.

But this hasn’t stopped Morocco and it even advertises its controversial green credentials on the COP22 official website. So far, according to WSRW, the UN’s Environment Programme (UNFCCC) has refused to come out against the projects.

However, former UN Under-Secretary-General Hans Corell thinks that Morocco’s approach is unacceptable. Recently, he insisted that Morocco is in violation of international law. Former UN mission commander Kurt Mosgaard said that these projects will only serve to extend the ongoing conflict.

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Siemens has tried to justify its presence in Western Sahara with hard to understand reasoning: Wind energy is fundamentally different from the exploitation of non-renewable energy resources.

However, WSRW pointed out that Moroccan phosphate company OCP, which is the Moroccan government’s main source of income in Western Sahara, satisfies 95% of its energy needs from wind turbines built by Siemens in 2013. Clearly, the political and economic situation are closely entwined.

Saharawi civil society has penned an open letter to the COP22 community, entitled Green does not mean plunder!, explaining how Morocco exploits the environment and the natural resources of Western Sahara. The letter details a thermal power plant and oil spills that have polluted the water and decimated bird and fish populations.

Even though the UN’s Human Rights Committee called on Morocco to seek the prior consent of Saharawis for all development projects and extraction of resources, but a change of attitude is yet to be seen. For now, the bitter realisation that Morocco will go unpunished for breaking the law dominates.

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