Sonntagzeitung: Glencore up against resistance

The Swiss commodities giant wants to engage in controversial oil drilling in the occupied territory of Western Sahara. Article published in Sonntagzeitung, Switzerland, 26 October 2014
Published: 29.10 - 2014 12:19Printer version    
[The story below,“Glencore stösst auf Widerstand”, was published in Sonntagzeitung, Switzerland, 26 October 2014. Translation into English by Australia Western Sahara Association.]

Glencore up against resistance

The Swiss commodities giant wants to carry out controversial explorations for oil in the occupied territory of Western Sahara.

Berne.  The Atwood Achiever is an enormous ship : a floating island with a helicopter landing pad, as big as two football pitches, constructed for drilling for oil to depths up to 12 km.

tn_glencore.jpgIt is with this type of gigantic ship that several big companies want to start test drilling in one of the most politically controversial zones in Africa : Western Sahara. The Atwood Achiever will begin in December, other ships will follow. A Swiss business will join the party. As has been recently learnt, Glencore has plans for oil exploration in this zone. Recently, the group based in Zoug acquired a share in two licences for offshore zones of exploration.

The first explorations are due to begin soon, according to a spokesperson.

Multinational companies are obstructing the UN peace process.

These explorations are strongly contested politically. Companies which envisage exploring with these ships are violating international law according to the non-governmental organisation, Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW). The problem according to WSRW : Morocco occupies most of Western Sahara and awards licences in this territory without the consent of the indigenous population, the Saharawis. It is however, according to a UN legal opinion, a prerequisite for the exploitation of mineral resources in a foreign country – and that applies to the exploratory drilling, such as that undertaken by Atwood Achiever and as planned by Glencore. WSRW in its report speaks of a plunder of Western Sahara.  

The spokesperson of Glencore, for his part, claims that the oil licences are consistent with the UN advice already quoted, especially as at this stage it is only exploratory test drilling. According to him, the document stipulates that exploration activities are not illegal, “so long as they are not in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara”. According to WSRW however, the Saharawis do not agree with projects of plans for exploitation of raw materials.

Morocco occupies Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, since the 1970s. No country has ever recognised this annexation. For their part, the Saharawi army, the Polisario Front, controls only a third of the area of the original territory and a tiny part of the coast. The Moroccans defend the occupied territory with a wall of sand 2000 kilometres long. Over 100,000 Saharawis fled the Moroccan invasion and the majority of whom are still living in refugee camps in Algeria to this day.  

The UN has been trying for years to find a solution to the conflict. A referendum which could bring independence to Western Sahara founders because of the repeated refusal of Morocco.

It’s these efforts which could be once again hindered by businesses such as Glencore. The Swiss representative of WSRW, Emmanuel Martinoli fears that “oil drilling will further delay the peace process of the UN. The prospect of the financial impact of oil exploitation will strengthen Morocco’s opposition to independence for the Western Sahara” he says. The commodities expert from the Berne Declaration, Oliver Classen, adds: “So long as Morocco, the occupying power, can benefit from the resources of Western Sahara through this kind of transaction, it has no interest in genuine negotiations.”

The National Councillor, Louis Schelbert, Greens-Lucerne, a member of the Western Sahara parliamentary group, says he is annoyed, “Glencore is constantly on a public relations tour with us parliamentarians and always insists on the legality of its activities.” But this affair shows once again that the context has apparently little interest for these commodity giants, “when it’s a question of business”. Schelbert’s colleague, the councillor of States, Senator Liliane Maury Pasquiet, PS -Geneva, wants to get involved politically and to lodge a question in the next session of Parliament.

Half a million dollars a day for the drill ship
Even abroad the companies which are active in oil exploration in Western Sahara face numerous critics.

The Norwegian pension fund, KLP removed shares in the French company, Total, from its portfolio. Ethical considerations were the decisive factor, according to the fund’s officials, which manages investments for a total of nearly 50 billion Swiss francs. Norway is itself a major producer country of oil.

Glencore is not impressed. In a statement the group maintains: “As a company we are committed to transparent and ethical conduct, in keeping with the relevant law.”

Meanwhile, the drill ship Atwood Achiever is progressing along the coast of South Africa in a northerly direction. In December it will sink for the first time its drills into the sea bed., It is not likely that the companies will review their controversial projects in Western Sahara. They have already invested a lot of money. The Atwood Achiever alone costs half a million dollars a day.

Dominik Balmer




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.
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