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Phosphate: Morocco's White Gold


In May 2009 a petite brunette from Paris wearing black heels scrambled up a pile of mine tailings on the outskirts of the Moroccan town of Khouribga. From up there, Béatrice Montagnier, a hotel specialist with the hospitality consulting firm Horwath, took in the view: parched plains scoured by bulldozers; an old warehouse baking in the sun; a jumble of two-story concrete block homes with a rectangular minaret beyond them. She spun around 360 degrees snapping photos with her pink cell phone and imagining the future: a planned 800-acre resort project that would attract visitors from around the world. How many hotel rooms would they need? she wondered. Should it be three stars or four? And where would the museum be going? There was one issue—project funding—about which Montagnier had no questions. The estimated $1 billion needed to build the resort would come from the ground beneath her feet.

Miners have been working in Khouribga for almost a century, but only now is the area poised to become central to the global economy. Back in the 1920s pioneers started tunneling through the earth here, digging through layers of sediment formed under an ancient sea, looking for phosphate-rich rock and occasionally plucking out the tooth of a 30-million-year-old shark. The phosphate extracted from the rock, used in fertilizer, detergent, food additives, and more recently lithium-ion batteries, sold for decades in its raw state for less than $40 per metric ton. Those days are gone. It's currently trading at about $130.

This is good news for King Mohammed VI, 47, who owns more than half the world's phosphate reserves. James Prokopanko, chief executive officer of Plymouth (Minn.)-based fertilizer giant Mosaic (MOS), has called Morocco the Saudi Arabia of phosphate, with all that implies about the King's power to influence prices and economies. Mohammed's strategy, by most accounts, is to drive the commodity's price higher yet—which means the cost of making everything from corn syrup to iPads will be going up as well.

Mohammed VI is the unofficial overseer of the state-owned phosphate monopoly, Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP), Morocco's largest industrial company. He is also the power behind Montagnier's visit to Khouribga, which lies on the Plateau des Phosphates, halfway between the modern city of Casablanca and the salmon-colored souks of Marrakech. Today it is a scrappy mining town of 160,000 that doesn't even merit a mention in Fodor's. That's about to change, says Montagnier, repeating the words of her client: "It's time to give back to Khouribga what the earth gave to us."

The project will be called the Mine Verte, or "green mine," and it will be a fantasyland glorifying the country's mineral inheritance. The plans are grand, in the Dubai style. As is the fashion these days in Arab monarchies, the Mine Verte will be environmentally sustainable, thus the "green." Fossils hidden in OCP warehouses will be displayed in a sparkling museum powered by wind and sun. A depleted mine will be transformed into gardens, performance spaces, and housing for OCP employees and other visitors, all designed by top French and Moroccan architects working with London-based environmental consultants BDSP. Plans for a "mega-amusement park" on the premises include an equestrian center, a cable car, and an indoor ski slope on a pile of mine waste. Even bungee jumping made the list; the King is a thrill-seeker, fond of jet-skis and sports cars, who once flew his Aston Martin DB7 to London for repair. In all, the Mine Verte will be a glittering monument to geologic good fortune.

Phosphate, when used as fertilizer, is the irreplaceable engine powering modern agriculture, and its reserves are in decline almost everywhere except Morocco. Most phosphate mines, including those in the U.S., which produces 17 percent of the global supply, have been in a downward spiral for the last decade, running out of quality rock and hindered by environmental regulation. That has forced companies to look farther afield for additional supplies. Earlier this year, Mosaic spent $385 million for a 35 percent stake in a Peruvian mine to supply rock to its phosphate operations in the U.S. and South America. Meanwhile, Australia's mining giant BHP Billiton (BHP) has been threatening to take over Canada's PotashCorp (POT), a major supplier of both potash and phosphate.

Even a temporary phosphate shortage could affect a range of U.S. industries. Phosphate fertilizer is used on just about every crop, though most in the U.S. goes to the 13 billion bushels of corn grown each year to make everything from corn syrup to cattle feed to ethanol. When prices climbed tenfold in 2007 and 2008, retailers and farmers scrambled to build local fertilizer warehouses as a buffer. Now, according to Dirk Lohry, owner of Nutra-Flo, a crop and animal nutrient manufacturer in Sioux City, Iowa, many of those warehouses stand empty as supplies are being used too quickly to build inventory. The prospect of a shortage has become serious enough that the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Energy Dept. recently assigned an analyst to study the issue; she was not permitted to speak publicly because of "geopolitical sensitivities."

One could look at the 2007-08 food crisis for clues to how a shortage might play out. At that time, rising food prices led to riots across Africa and Asia—the Pakistani Army even stepped in to defend warehouses and farms. Before the crisis was over, China had levied a 135 percent export tariff on its phosphate to protect its domestic food supply; phosphate there is still taxed at 110 percent at the height of the buying season.

The scale of Morocco's phosphate wealth was officially verified in September, when the International Fertilizer Development Center released its long-awaited update on global phosphate resources. Morocco's portion went from the 5.7 billion metric tons still cited in U.S. Geologic Survey reports, to 50 billion metric tons—85 percent of the world's total. Even with 170 million metric tons of concentrated phosphate changing hands each year, the Moroccans likely have at least 300 to 400 years of rock available. Talal Zouaoui, OCP's director of communications, won't agree or disagree with estimates, but says in an e-mail that Morocco has "significant reserves," and notes that reserves denote only those quantities that countries have discovered and deem economically viable to extract.

With a growing world population consuming more grain, more meat, and more biofuels, demand is expected to rise at a rate of 2 to 3 percent per year, according to the International Fertilizer Assn. Some experts, like Dana Cordell, co-founder of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, predict that phosphate production will "peak" within the next 50 years.

Not all phosphate becomes fertilizer: About 15 percent is turned into detergents or food additives, such as the tangy phosphoric acid in Coca-Cola (KO), or the moisture-retaining salts in salami. (As U.S. states try to control the use of phosphates, which promote algae blooms in water bodies, Procter & Gamble (PG) and other detergent makers have been experimenting with phosphate-free products, with mixed results.)

OCP controls 30 percent of global phosphate exports, and plans to increase annual production from 30 million metric tons to 54 million metric tons by 2015, investing $5 billion in the process. By that time, Prayon, a Belgian phosphate processor in which OCP owns a 50 percent stake, believes demand for phosphate as a component of the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles could exceed demand for it in detergent.

Morocco is already testing its power. At September's World Fertilizer Conference in San Francisco, Morocco's ascendancy was the main topic of conversation. Asked about OCP, trader Mark Mangassarian answered with a question: "Oh, you mean the guys who are trying to drive up phosphate prices the most?" In contrast to commodities such as oil and corn, whose prices are set largely on futures exchanges, phosphate prices are still negotiated the old-fashioned way: in closed meetings between buyers and sellers. Many such meetings took place at the San Francisco conference. Mangassarian, who is assistant vice-president for sales at Nitron International in Stamford, Conn., spent three days hopping from suite to suite at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square. Though the industry average for diammonium phosphate fertilizer (DAP) has been hovering at around $500 this summer, the poker-faced executives he sat down with weren't willing to go below $550. A few weeks later, Mangassarian came to see it their way, and is paying $560.

OCP's tough negotiating tactics have irritated many in the industry. "You try to talk to them, and they don't answer. They've always been like that. That's their strategy," says Taoufik Meddeb, who buys sulfur for Groupe Chimique Tunisien, another state-owned company and OCP's biggest competitor in North Africa. Late one afternoon at the conference, Meddeb was slumped on a couch in the hotel's lobby, recounting how much the phosphate world had changed over his 30-year career—everything, he said, except for the Moroccans' secrecy. Indeed, it seems as though everyone wanted to talk about Morocco except for the Moroccans themselves, who mostly deflected questions. "God just put the phosphate there," said Jamal Bensari, a member of OCP's delegation. "It is our only resource, and it is our responsibility."

Earlier this year, Mark Evans, editor of Fertilizer International, sent a reporter to Casablanca, but upon arrival at OCP headquarters for prearranged interviews, he says, OCP denied the reporter access and said the communications director who had dealt with Evans was no longer on staff. Zouaoui, OCP's current communications director, did not arrange interviews for Bloomberg Businessweek following multiple requests in September and October. "It is quasi-impossible right now," he explained. In a separate e-mail, he also noted that OCP is "subject to customary international governance standards for a global corporation, including transparency and accountability."

Opinions differ on the degree to which OCP is run by royal decree. Called the King of the Poor for his efforts to raise Morocco's living standards, Mohammed VI's $2 billion in assets places him seventh on Forbes' list of the richest royals, far behind Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai but well ahead of the Prince of Monaco. Although he is not technically the head of state, he has control of the country as both a secular and religious leader. He appoints the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, and has the power to overrule or dissolve the elected Parliament. His handsome portrait adorns the first page of OCP's annual reports, and his face appears in nearly every home and coffee shop. (The King also holds a controlling stake of the ONA Group, a publicly traded holding company that owns near-monopolies in Moroccan sugar and steel.) The Moroccan Embassy did not respond to requests for interviews with the King.

Although the King is liberal by the standards of Middle Eastern royalty (opponents called the rule of his father, Hassan II, the "years of lead" for its frequent killings and disappearances), he continues to be criticized for crackdowns on the press and for human rights abuses, including the fatal shooting in October of a 14-year-old Sahrawi boy at a checkpoint in Western Sahara.

Western Sahara is a disputed territory. It's also where Morocco's best phosphate lies. The region known to the King as "Moroccan Sahara" begins just south of the fishing village of Tarfaya on the Atlantic coast. The U.N. calls it "the non-self-governing territory of Western Sahara" and deems it "occupied." It's a place where phosphate rumbles to the coast on the world's longest conveyor belt, while tanks and soldiers roam alongside, defending the shipments from Sahrawi separatists.

When Spain withdrew from Morocco in 1975, some 350,000 Moroccans marched into Western Sahara with tents on their backs. The native Sahrawi fought back for 16 years under the leadership of the Algerian-backed Polisario rebels, signing a cease-fire in 1991. The U.N. continues to monitor the agreement with 215 uniformed peacekeepers, but a planned vote on self-determination has been repeatedly delayed. Today, approximately 90,000 Sahrawi live in refugee camps in Algeria, separated from their families in Moroccan-controlled territory by a 1,400-mile-long berm dotted with land mines.

In Western Sahara, rarely visited by North Americans, one finds the flip side of the optimism on display at Khouribga. Driving in and out of the principal city of Laayoune, one passes not one but two sets of checkpoints. Police in heavy coats haunt chaotic roundabouts in the desert town, and an attempt to photograph the clay-colored domes of the Catholic church—a reminder of the region's Spanish heritage—is met with a barrage of questions from a barrel-chested Moroccan soldier in green, followed by an order to move on. Laayoune has an official tourist office, unsigned and hidden from the street by a high wall, and a visit by two Americans was surprising to the attendant there. She had no printed materials to offer.

OCP reports that just 2 percent of Morocco's phosphate lies in the Phousboucraa mine at Bou Craa in Western Sahara, and that it accounts for 6 percent of sales. Zouaoui says in an e-mail: "In 27 of the 33 years from 1976 to 2008, Phousboucraa's net contribution to OCP was negative." Yet because the rock there is of the highest quality in the country, the mine produces 11 percent of the country's total output.

The U.S. Census Bureau collects import data on Moroccan phosphate rock coming from the disputed territory, but it suppresses data on some shipments, according to Stephen M. Jasinski, the phosphate specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey. This is done at the request of U.S.-based importers, he says, a phenomenon he has not observed with mineral commodities from other nations. He adds that he has "never been able to get a straight answer" from the Census Bureau about the Western Sahara data. They may be trying to avoid the trouble given companies in Australia and Norway, who have been pressured into promising not to use phosphate mined in Western Sahara. In August, Mosaic told the advocacy group Western Sahara Resource Watch that it has stopped buying rock from the territory and has no plans to renew shipments.

Eddia Sidi Ahmed Moussa is a Sahrawi and former miner turned labor activist who lives in a compound made of concrete block in Laayoune. A slight, 60-year-old man with a frosting of white beard and a perfectly bald head, Moussa sits on the floor in a blue robe, pounding the air and gesturing with his fists as he speaks. He tells of the days of the Spanish empire when the mines employed over 1,000 Sahrawi, and they were paid European salaries. He was a welder and later a firefighter, and the work was good. Today the mine employs fewer than 200 Sahrawis and recruits most new employees from Morocco. Despite the somber topic of conversation, the atmosphere in the house is boisterous as veiled women giggle and banter in Arabic and one of Moussa's relatives displays his palm-reading skills. Every Sahrawi wants independence, Moussa asserts: "We want to live on our own resources."

Morocco, meanwhile, offers subsidies, tax credits, and land grants to settlers, a policy that has drawn comparisons to Israel. For its part, the U.S., in addition to needing the phosphate, sees Morocco as an ally in the war against terrorism. Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed U.S. support for Morocco's plan of "limited autonomy" for the territory, which stops short of the independence demanded by the Polisario.

To his own people, at least, the King is generous, and the planned Mine Verte is but one display of the country's growing wealth. In January, OCP Chief Executive Officer Mostafa Terrab stood with the King and announced another green project in Benguerir, also a mining town on the Plateau des Phosphates. The planned city's buildings will be LEED-certified, and its roads will hum with electric buses and bikes in designated lanes. At its heart will be the new Mohammed VI Polytechnic University.

Béatrice Montagnier finished her Mine Verte consulting contract last year, but her employer, Horwath, has a small office in Rabat and is working on other projects. The King opened the Royal Mansour Marrakech hotel this year, with private riads—the traditional style of home with a courtyard and garden—going for $2,200 per night. For Khouribga, Montagnier has settled on three stars for the hotel, but says the final room tally awaits approval by OCP. Architects put the total price on the Mine Verte at €665 million ($937 million).

Khouribga's active mines begin about 6 miles south of the proposed museum, where powdery ravines pass underneath the bridges of the N11 highway. Out there, Founoun Mohammed, 48, is a subcontractor overseeing the first stages of a pipeline which will deliver phosphate in slurry form from Khouribga to the port of Jorf Lasfar south of Casablanca, 146 miles away. In jeans, an orange safety vest, and a matching helmet, he points out the path trucks loaded with rock take from the mine up to the plant where concentrated phosphate is separated from the rock. In a few years the phosphate will go straight into the pipeline to be processed by coastal fertilizer factories serving Brazil, India, and Pakistan.

Mohammed seems to embody the confidence of a country that finds itself on a gold mine. After work he settles down at the back of a favorite restaurant and talks business over seafood paella. A bottle of Moroccan wine is not to his liking, and he orders a French red for the table. "Khouribga is the world capital of phosphates," he says, "but we want to use tourism to make it something more. People will come from Europe, the United States, everywhere to see Khouribga. It will raise the level of the city." He is in high spirits and pours a glass of wine for the waiter, who tosses it back in a single gulp. Mohammed says he loves his country: He is safe and has a good job, what else can he ask for? "The King," he says, "is a gentleman."


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