My proposed project examines the development of the Moroccan phosphate industry during the later decades of the French Protectorate (roughly 1930– 1950’s), focusing on the co-production of colonial land policy and labor policy as it was informed by European fantasies of the Maghreb environment, especially the Sahara desert. My analysis comes from a history of science background and perspective. My research will be based on French and Arabic language documents from the Archives du Maroc, including geological and land surveys, mining legislation, measurements of toxicity, radiation exposure and waste, and medical records (and possibly from other Moroccan archives as well, pending summer travel plans). Drawing from methods in environmental history, science technology studies, and racial capitalism, and economic history, my project seeks to show how geological and chemical sciences under the French protectorate constituted a racialized system of knowledge for the extraction and control of both labor and natural resources from the Maghreb. Through analysis of scientific knowledge production, my project also contributes to a critical analysis of postcolonial national economies and neo-colonial extractive infrastructure. Moroccan phosphate mines were nationalized in 1921, far before independence, under the Office Cherifen des Phosphates (OCP) in order to maintain the Protectorate’s “open-door” trade policy while at the simultaneously ensuring French precedence in phosphate trade. As such, they provide a view into the continuity of colonial economic and environmental policy under the guise of both national autonomy and scientific expertise.
The history of phosphate extraction is a critically understudied topic that has increasing contemporary relevance. As Morocco holds more than 70 percent of the world’s phosphate, its mines were sites of primary importance to the French empire, as well as to international investors from the colonial period to today. Access to phosphate is also central to Morocco’s unyielding hold on the Western Sahara, where several major mines are located. Phosphate, as a critical component of fertilizer, is necessary for global food security and important for agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa. On a broad level, my project seeks to position decolonization and African development at the heart of environmental justice and to contribute to the contemporary discourse around the climate crisis which too often reiterates colonial ideas of environmental stewardship.