Seized phosphate rock no longer headed for New Zealand

Phosphate from mines like this in Morocco are New Zealand's main source.
Phosphate from mines like this in Morocco are New Zealand's main source. Photo credit: Getty

A shipment of phosphate rock bound for New Zealand that has been held up in a South African port for nearly a year is to be sold after a court judgment in South Africa.

The NM Cherry Blossom, carrying 50,000 tonnes of the phosphate used to make fertilizer and bound for Tauranga's Ballance Agri-Nutrients, was stopped at Port Elizabeth in May 2017.

The mineral comes from Laayoune, in the Moroccan-controlled part of Western Sahara, which has been under dispute since 1975 when war broke out between Morocco and the Polisario movement.

The Moroccan phosphate company OCP and Ballance earlier pulled out of defending the case in the High Court of South Africa.

On Saturday the government of the Saharawi Republic (SADR), a state proclaimed by the Polisario movement, said the High Court had decided on February 23 that it was the owner of the cargo.

It was critical of the New Zealand companies importing the phosphate, saying they were taking on legal and reputational risks by engaging in the trade.

The judgment said ownership of the phosphate was never lawfully vested in OCP and Phosphates de Boucraa SA and they were not entitled to sell the phosphate.

"While it remains the policy position of the SADR government to insist upon and endeavour to have returned natural resources plundered from Western Sahara to that territory pending the completion of the Saharawi people's right to exercise self-determination, the fact of Western Sahara being under armed occupation makes such a result impractical," SADR said.

It expects the cargo on the vessel to now be sold.

Emhamed Khadad, a member of the leadership of Polisario, said his organisation would continue to pursue those "who directly plunder Western Sahara's resources, and who are the knowing recipients of pillaged commodities".

OCP had earlier said participating in a trial would give legitimacy to the Polisario movement, which is part of an on-going negotiating process before the United Nations.

Any decision by the South African court would constitute "serious and dangerous interference" in the UN process, OCP said earlier.

OCP considered the seizure to be an act of political piracy under judicial cover.

Ballance had said earlier it was covered by insurance, had organised alternative supplies of phosphate and was comfortable with its ethical position.