The dirty sand of Canary Islands’ beaches

For decades, the Canary Islands have been importing sand from the occupied territory of Western Sahara. Although the imports went down during the financial crisis, the import has increased considerably during the last 10 years. Read the history of a theft which is hardly ever mentioned.
Published: 05.10 - 2011 22:22Printer version    
The ‘Dura Bulk’ unloading sand from occupied Western Sahara on 25 May 2011. Such practices go against the UN Resolutions on exports of raw materials from territories pending decolonisation.
Sand, after water the second most used mater by mankind, is abundant in Western Sahara, a territory largely occupied by Morocco since 1975.

It's an irreplaceable material for construction, being the basic element for making concrete, mortar and prefab materials. It’s used for asphalt, railroad tracks, and also for building breakwaters. The exploitation of sand is the most important non-energetic mining sub-sector in terms of production and generated value. It even tops phosphates.

Background to the sand-trafficking from Western Sahara to Canary Islands

The first documented cargo of Western Saharan sand to the Canary Islands dates back to 1955 (download the Spanish press kit). Since then, the best known import-case is that of the “Las Teresitas” beach project. Black, volcanic sand was used for the first layers of “Las Teresitas” breakwater, currently the biggest artificial beach in the world. But volcanic sand was also quite scarce and therefore expensive. The City Council of Santa Cruz de Tenerife quickly realised it was cheaper to import sand from Western Sahara.

In 1971, the Council loaned 50 million pesetas to buy sand originating in Western Sahara, a Spanish colony at the time. A year later, about 141.647 m³ of sand (approximately 70.000 tonnes) arrived at “Las Teresitas”.

Op 15 June 1973, the beach of “Las Teresitas” was declared open for the general public. 25 years later, in 1998, the beach needed another 140.000 m³, this time at a cost of around 400 million pesetas financed through the Canary Islands’ coastal-agreement signed that same year. In November 1998, the beach was levelled with Saharawi sand.

Screen shot of the webpage of the Port Authority showing the sand's origins.

Ironically, for many Saharawi refugee children participating in the “holidays in peace” program on the islands, their first trip to the sea was one to a beach made of sand from their occupied homeland.

Scope of the plunder

There is no evidence on spoliation of sand between 1975 and 1991 - the period when Spain illegally abandoned the Sahara, allowing Morocco and Mauritania to invade the territory, up until the UN brokered a cease-fire agreement between Polisario and the government of Hassan II.

This graphic represents just a small fraction of this silent exploitation. The data was collected by Plataforma por un Trabajo digno sin expoliar África on the webpage
In 2008, Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) began monitoring the debarkation of sand from the occupied territories. The sand was stored in silos in Tenerife (PROYECTO DOVER S.L.) and in Las Palmas (GRANINTRA S.A.), before being processed into mortar or cement. WSRW noted that the origin of the sand was never specified in the production chain.

“... The mortar marketed by MOESCAN on the Island of Fuerteventura, under a license of Special Cements of the Islands as “MORTERE ESPECIAL ENLUCIDOS”, is a mortar that is composed of cement type CEM IV/A (P) 32,5 N UNE-EN 197-1:2000; and yellow sand from Africa obtained via the company PROYECTO DOVER S.L. Both elements are included in the list of the European Community market, and therefore meet the tests described below and the requirements of the UNE-EN 13139 Norm. Therefore, we consider them suitable for the manufacturing of mortars...

This a concrete example of the camouflaging techniques used by the importers involved in sand trafficking from occupied Western Sahara. Impunity is granted by the Canary Islands government, which does not impose traceability checks on the imports of raw materials coming from a territory pending decolonisation. The Port Authorities of Las Palmas and Tenerife (State Ports, Ministry of Development, Government of Spain) does not publish the data. The harbour administration of Tenerife explained WSRW that this was due to their computer systems' update.

sococimex_380.jpgDue to the building crisis in Spain, the level of cement consumption has dropped to that of 1989,  rendering the debarkations of 2010 paralysed. Though cement utilization has slowly been increasing throughout 2011, stolen sand from Western Sahara is still being imported for the construction of big tourist compounds in Cape Verde and Madeira. Meanwhile, Morocco’s strategic financing has resulted in the construction of a cement factory in El Aaiún, capital city of occupied Western Sahara, which imports cement clinker and produces cement locally. The illegal exploitation of Saharawi sand continues and remains a lucrative business.



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Morocco occupies the major part of its neighbouring country, Western Sahara. Entering into business deals with Moroccan companies or authorities in the occupied territories gives an impression of political legitimacy to the occupation. It also gives job opportunities to Moroccan settlers and income to the Moroccan government. Western Sahara Resource Watch demands foreign companies leave Western Sahara until a solution to the conflict is found.
EU Court cases on Western Sahara for dummies


It's not easy keeping up with all the different legal proceedings relating to Western Sahara. For the sake of clarity, here's an overview of the five different cases at the Court of Justice of the European Union.
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