A poet takes on the phosphate trade

Writing a topical political poem is a crapshoot. Maybe it lands and people share it and you feel you’ve done something meaningful. Maybe it doesn’t resonate and it fades quietly. What a poet doesn’t necessarily expect is threats and de facto censorship.

In late 2020, I published a poem online about Aotearoa New Zealand’s importation of so-called “blood phosphate” from Western Sahara. Our country’s agricultural industry uses phosphate everywhere. We’ve got phosphorus-poor soil, so we’ve always relied on artificial sources to enrich it. Along with Australia, we mined Banaba and Nauru into churned-up wastelands to acquire the stuff, a bit of colonial capitalism that’s still not very well-known.

The big problem with phosphate from Western Sahara is that it comes from occupied territory, and its sale benefits the occupiers, Morocco. The occupation has been going on since 1975. The native Sahrawi people, displaced, have mostly settled in internment camps in Algeria. (The human rights abuses associated with the occupation explain the term “blood phosphate”.) Major corporations have yielded to NGO pressure to cease trading in this phosphate. Not in New Zealand. Agricultural giants Ravensdown and Ballance Agri-Nutrients are the only remaining buyers in the West.

Ravensdown states its position in this way: “We are confident that domestic and international law currently permits importing phosphate rock from Western Sahara.” It adds, “Simply stopping the trade in phosphate would impact on the livelihoods of many people in Western Sahara.” The loss would also be felt in New Zealand. “Without phosphate fertilisers, NZ rural production would fall at least 50 percent which equates to a $10 billion per year hit to the economy.”

But protests continue. In 2020, about 20 people marched on Lyttelton port to protest the arrival of phosphate on the ship Trans Spring. In May last year, protesters from Western Sahara Solidarity Aotearoa and Extinction Rebellion protested outside Ballance’s factory in Tauranga after reports of a shipment of the phosphate arriving at the Port of Tauranga. And just last month, the Rail and Maritime Transport Union handed over a protest letter to Ravensdown staff in Christchurch, when the ship Stony Stream arrived at Lyttelton with phosphate.

The Polisario Front, the Sahrawi liberation movement’s political arm, went to the High Court last year to get a judicial review of the legality of the use of Saharan phosphate on Super Fund farms. They lost.

The online reaction to my poem, called simply Phosphate from Western Sahara, was immediate and unlike anything I had experienced in my career before. There’s a reason why I’m still not mentioning the journal or the editor by name now. I got a message the same day from the editor to say they’d received threats, specifically about my poem. I didn’t press about what the threats said, because if you’re a very online type of person and someone comes to you freaked out about threats they’ve received, you already know more or less what they said.

We had a back-and-forth about what to do. “If it were up to me, and all the possible consequences applied to me alone,” I wrote, “I’d leave the poem up.” But that wasn’t the case. So we agreed to swap out “Phosphate from Western Sahara” for another piece on a totally unrelated subject. I issued a righteous Twitter thread saying that “If you’ve got to threaten people to make your point, maybe your politics aren’t very persuasive”, posted a screenshot of the poem, and then that was it: Phosphate from Western Sahara was essentially an un-poem – published and then un-published through no fault of author, editor, or public. I didn’t bother doing anything else with it until I put it in my new collection, Another Beautiful Day Indoors, and now, with Newsroom’s encouragement, here.

Kamal Fadel is the Australian and New Zealand representative of the Polisario Front. He told me about how the situation I am writing about here is not unique: “Trolling is used by the Moroccan regime widely, and they have devoted significant means to it for many years now. They have keyboard armies devoted to spreading Moroccan propaganda and silencing critics. Trolling is used by the Moroccan autocratic regime to intimidate all those who raise the issue of Western Sahara, be it through art or poetry or any other means. The reason is because the regime has no sound arguments to defend its position.”

That last sentence is, to my mind, the very essence of dirty information warfare: when you’ve got nothing good, fuck the good. It is obvious, perhaps, but it gets reemphasised in all times, amongst all peoples. (Fadel also said: “The best way to deal with Moroccan trolls is to completely ignore them.” That’s probably sound advice, but not always easy to follow.)

Interestingly, none of the really toxic abuse came to me personally. (I just got random, vacuous or incoherent shit on Twitter that I recall ignoring; and I am completely accessible online if anyone had wanted to have a go.) I had an immediate intuition about why that might be, and I still think it’s correct: it’s because the editor was a woman and I’m not. I asked veteran human rights and climate activist Josie Butler, who has organised actions against cargo ships full of Western Saharan phosphate, if I was on to something with my hunch. Butler is tough, not the sort of person to wince at trifles. “Trolling is used as a weapon by the occupiers to intimidate people who speak out, especially women. My personal experience was that I was sent both death threats and rape threats.” After a pause on the message: “Yeah, it was quite intimidating.” Butler also mentioned to me, as further evidence of the gendered nature of this state-organised violence, the very recent case of human rights activist Sultana Khaya, who has been terrorised and abused by Moroccan state security forces in occupied Western Sahara.

The more I write about Western Sahara, and the more I talk to people who know a lot more about the struggle than I do, the angrier and more incredulous I get. If a rich country like Aotearoa New Zealand can’t decide to stop abetting an obvious crime, what’s a foreign office for? Oh, that’s right… it’s about protecting interests. None of this is really about a poet in Aotearoa getting trolled; it’s about real people having their lives and culture uprooted for generations. I am just one artist who happens to say things for an anglophone audience. And the message is simple: stop the trade now.

Sometimes people ask me, “Erik, how did you come to care about Western Sahara in the first place?” It’s a legitimate question. I care about other things, of course, but do I care about everything? Have I ever done enough? No.

I came to Western Sahara via climate activism. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through climate activism, it’s that basically all injustices are interconnected, through human systems or natural feedback systems. Extinction Rebellion has worked with Western Sahara activists because we all want a better world, one where people aren’t moved from their homes for minerals in North Africa, and where Aotearoa isn’t a giant phosphate-enabled, GHG-emitting farm paddock. It has almost been a process of “positive radicalisation” for me: a thirst for climate justice revealed a howling injustice somewhere else, which then led me on to other unpleasant side effects of the world’s various imperialist and capitalist projects.

If you can stay sane while taking in the sheer amount of horror that’s interconnected in the world, then the best activism is intersectional. A certain amount of my life has been spent studying the history of angry people who are right: the history of revolutions, labour movements, literary radicalisms, and so many of our contemporary crises. I have learned from people who are better and stronger and more dedicated than I am.

One thing I’ve certainly learned from these friends, both from the past and the present, is this – at least have the decency to direct your trolling straight to the poet. I will give it the consideration it deserves.

Phosphate from Western Sahara

It travels along the world’s longest conveyor belt

surrounded by the world’s longest minefield.

Each mine says, ‘My field, my field, my field.’

It travels to the land that fertiliser built.

Sorry, Western Sahara, New Zealand needs this.

Phosphate is purveyed like a louche commodity, like a white kiss,

like a lost memory of self-determination.

Two peoples trapped in a laughable half-rhyme: Sahrawis, Kiwis.

It remains our position that we are operating within UN expectations

this is the accounting software justification

of abstracted minds, which apologise and at the same time race

to take what a dying industry makes. Thanks, free marketeers.

‘Peak phosphorus’ in thirty years,

and until then this comedy carnival ride of equivocations and rocks.

You can see the phosphate dust from space,

like a tantrum in a sandbox.

You don’t have to look hard for motives

when someone guards their shame with barrenness and explosives.

The new poetry collection Another Beautiful Day Indoors by Erik Kennedy (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $25), which includes “Phosphate from Western Sahara”, is available in bookstores nationwide.

Erik Kennedy is the author of the books of poems Another Beautiful Day Indoors (2022) and There's No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (2018), both from Te Herenga Waka University Press. He lives in...

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