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The Social Life of Phosphate on the Two Shores of the Mediterranean: Ecology, Work and Migration

Middle East & North Africa

It is no exaggeration to say that phosphate has shaped modernity as much as any other natural and non-renewable resource. Constitutive, alongside nitrogen and potash, of the chemical fertilisers which were behind agriculture’s Green Revolution[1], the mineral is, after all, essential to how most the world has fed itself for the better part of a century.[2] Nor is phosphate’s importance now set to decline: Upon China’s development of a new battery technology known as LFP—which mixes lithium, iron and phosphate—phosphate has been made fundamental not only to the future of food, but to the energy transition.

The largest producers of phosphate in the world in recent years have been China, Morocco and the United States, though that may change soon: Last year, Norway announced the discovery of deposits of at least seventy billion tonnes, a staggering amount that was equivalent to all known reserves at the time.[3] Once mining commences, the resulting increase in global phosphate supply will likely stave off the exhaustion of exploitable deposits and mitigate competition between the food and transport industries. What it will not do, however, is resolve the thorny environmental problems that are linked to what has been called the “devil’s element”[4]: Supply boost or not, the industrialisation of phosphate has already disrupted the phosphorus cycle, overshot the mineral’s “planetary boundary”, and thereby endangered the sustainable reproduction of life on Earth.[5] The causal mechanisms at play in these regards are multiple. Fertiliser leakages into the water cause algae proliferation and eutrophication, resulting in the expansion of “dead zones”: oxygen-poor areas in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans where aquatic life cannot be adequately supported.[6] As it is weakly radioactive, the waste generated by phosphate extraction and processing, known as phosphogypsum, also creates headaches of increasing intensity. How to store ever-growing masses of toxic waste and protect the workers, communities, and ecosystems directly exposed is a challenge not easily resolved.[7]

A literature examining the social and environmental impacts of the American phosphate industry—and its acute effects on Florida—has gracefully come into being in recent years.[8] This marks a contrast with the state of knowledge on the social life of phosphate within the greater Mediterranean, where explorations of present-day dynamics are, despite a handful of notable exceptions, few and far between.[9] To help close the gap in the science, this article focuses in on the extraction, travel, and processing of phosphate, tracing the commodities’ movements from Khouribga in Morocco to Porto Marghera in Italy. For decades, these two sites have been silently connected in what historian Simon Jackson calls the Phosphate Archipelago: a network of extractive and industrial spaces on the two shores of the Mediterranean, spaces once managed by the French empire.[10] In what follows, the nature of their relation—bound, as ever, by phosphate—is subjected to inquiry.

Khouribga: Mining town and migration hub

For at least a century, phosphate has represented Morocco’s most important natural resource. The world’s top exporter of the mineral through the present day, phosphate has long underlain the Kingdom’s social relations, mediated its integration into the global economy, and helped delineate its political geography.

Moroccan phosphate is extracted from two main reserves: Ouald-Abdoun in the northwest province of Khouribga and Gantour in the central-west province of Youssoufia. Both reserves are managed by the Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP), a state-owned enterprise of unsurpassed economic and political influence. OCP’s clout is especially apparent in Khouribga.[11] Established in the 1920s (during the French protectorate) to host OCP’s administrative offices and house its workforce, what were once lands patrolled by the nomadic tribes of the Béni Mellal-Khénifra region quickly grew into a company town par excellence. As mining took off, migratory wave after migratory wave would follow. Khourigba first received a large influx from Morocco’s rural south. After World War II, a significant flow of immigrants from Algeria and the northern shore of the Mediterranean, France predominantly, arrived to animate scaled-up production. Upon the colonial era’s close and the gradual departure of the Europeans in the 1960s, finally, new groups from across Morocco’s vast geography came into the town. Due to the dual nature of the economy that consolidated around mineral extraction, however—an economy which furnished secure jobs for some with positions into the OCP and profound precarity for those without strong footing in the firm—note that it was not as if Khourigba was only on the receiving end of population movements during the years in question. Throughout, the town’s population evinced a high propensity to emigrate, both nationally and internationally.[12]

Path dependencies set in motion over the course of the 20th century are abundantly apparent in present-day Khouribga. Phosphate extraction remains the city’s dominant industry, and shows no sign of slowing down: Home to one of the world’s largest deposits of the mineral, it is with reason that major Chinese multinationals are presently considering setting up battery plants there.[13] The inequalities which were observable as far back as the postwar era endure as well: Despite the dynamism of urbanisation and socio-economic development, poverty dominates in several areas of the Béni Mellal-Khénifra region, particularly the rural peripheries.[14] And the ecological disruption and destruction hinted at by the enormous “gypstacks” (artificial hills made of phosphogypsum) which began accumulating around Khouribga’s “phosphate plateau” many years ago very much persist.

Elements of the socio-spatial reconfigurations set in motion by the phosphate industry in Khouribga have been subjected to inquiry by social scientists. A number of great studies, for instance, interrogate how the city’s wider geography, its agricultural lands in particular, are affected by solid, liquid, and gaseous discharges released as part of extractive process.[15] There is nevertheless a relative absence when it comes to examinations of phosphate extraction’s less proximate impacts: its downstream effects on public health, environment, politics, and the social fabric.

The absence is relative because one recent report published by SWISSAID offers a major appraisal of phosphate fertiliser production’s wider environmental and human rights record.[16] Per the report’s authors, “the production of phosphate fertilisers in Morocco violates the right to health of its workers and that of the local communities, and has a negative impact on the environment. Many workers suffer from respiratory diseases and cancers after lengthy exposure to pollutants and fine dust. Many workers are reported to have died. Local communities also suffer from pollution, contracting respiratory diseases and dental fluorosis”.[17] Concerning the last of these charges, high incidence rates of dental fluorosis among the human population in Khouribga as well as in other phosphate-producing areas is at this stage well-established.[18] What is novel in the SWISSAID report is the documenting of dental fluorosis among livestock, donkeys and sheep, especially. While the disease begins with brown stains on the teeth, with time it results in the animals’ teeth falling out, at which stage they cannot eat and are therefore bound for premature deaths. Through the causal pathway of dental disease, phosphate extraction is thereby implicated in the impoverishment of Moroccan farmers. In an official response, the OCP “categorically rejects” the findings of SWISSAID’s research.[19] Regardless, the balance of evidence shows the firm’s capital accumulation to be tied to the dispossession of others.

In zooming out, then, it becomes apparent that the wealth produced through phosphate mining in Khouribga is tied to the generation of substantial environmental and social costs. These costs, moreover, may only grow in the years ahead: With phosphate extraction moving further south to the Fquih Ben Salah plain, fewer and fewer people in Khouribga will be able to secure gainful employment from the OCP, which has been employing a decreasing share of the town’s population for some time now. Without major investments in economic diversification, the future looks to be one marred by job loss and environmental degradation.

Porto Marghera in the Phosphate Archipelago

The creation of the industrial area of Porto Marghera in the environs of Venice began in 1917. From its foundation, the project would be inextricably bound to, and swayed by, the competition of European powers: Amidst the race for industrial supremacy and scramble for colonies—the latter of which were needed to secure the raw materials without which industrial development was a non-starter—Porto Marghera emerged as a key site within the Italian bid for empire. As history would prove, it also became an irreplaceable link in the chain that ultimately led to fascism. As historian Cesco Chinello has argued, Porto Marghera was “the basis for a new level of class power by big capital, which will result in the instauration of fascism”.[20]

Given the concerns of this paper, it is perhaps unsurprising that one of Porto Marghera’s first factories was Montecatini Fertilizzanti. Built between 1922 and 1924, the Donegani family-owned facility operated in the line of fertilizer production.[21] Through the deployment of its output (namely, fertilizer), Montecatini Fertilizzanti integrated Porto Marghera within the Veneto region’s agricultural circuits of capital accumulation. Upstream, through the sourcing of its inputs, the factory integrated Porto Marghera into the Phosphate Archipelago.

Before Khouribga surged to dominate the supply of raw product in the latter part of the 20th century, the sinews of this archipelago saw to it that phosphate arrived in Porto Marghera from the Tunisian desertic area of Gafsa. This mining basin, active since the late 19th century, was the first large phosphate extraction hub in the Mediterranean area. The miners toiling there were both Arab (Tunisians, but also Moroccans and Algerians) and Italian, the latter generally hailing from Sardinia.[22] In the “red biennium” following World War I (1919-20), the Arab and Italian miners went on strike together in a dispute that marked the dawn of Tunisian trade unionism.[23] The mining basin then became a focal point of the Tunisian armed struggle for national liberation—and a pillar of the country’s labour movement after independence.[24] Nor did its penchant for militancy end there. Decades down the road, neoliberal restructuring of the phosphate industry combined with a generalised marginalisation of the region to provoke the 2008 Gafsa Revolt, an essential prelude to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution.[25] To this day, the region endures a fulcrum of social and political activism. In the 2010s, the port city of Gabes—where a large phosphate-processing chemical complex discharges phosphogypsum directly into the sea—witnessed the emergence of a social movement for health and environmental protection, as is deftly traced in Habib Ayeb’s documentary Gabes Labes.

Turning the clock back to the 1920s, state and capital in Italy regarded dependence on phosphate imports from Gafsa, then under the control of the French imperium, as a point of vulnerability. Indeed, this dependence possibly played a role in the country’s imperial ventures in Libya. Central to these ventures was Giuseppe Volpi, a much-celebrated businessman who just so happened to have coronated his success by founding Porto Marghera. While Governor of Tripolitania between 1921 and 1925, Volpi—critical of the “softy” colonial administrations that preceded him—directed the bloody “pacification” of Libya’s western-most province. In so doing, he completed Italy’s colonisation project and was awarded with the title of Count of Misrata in return.[26]

Much to Volpi’s disappointment, however, unchallenged dominion over Libya did not yield phosphate discoveries. By consequence, the industrialists coalescing around Italy’s fascists turned envious eyes to Tunisia. As the antifascist diaspora journal L’italiano di Tunisi noted in 1938 in an article on the “fascist shark Giulio Donegani[27]”, “Montecatini urgently needs phosphate for its chemical products, and these are to be found precisely in Tunisia! […] A small number of shark families (Mussolini, Ciano, Orlando, Donegani, Volpi, etc.) […], unsatisfied with the slaughter of Italians in Ethiopia and Spain, want to throw the Italian people against France to exploit the Kef and Gafsa mines”. Shortly after the publication of L’Italiono di Tunisi’s piece, of course, World War II broke out.

Fascism’s utility to capitalist exploitation being what it is, working conditions at Porto Marghera’s Montecatini Fertilizzanti proved extremely harsh during the years when Volpi et al were endeavouring to establish greater control over the supply of phosphate. The workforce mostly came from peasant backgrounds and laboured under precarious arrangements. Per Valerio Belotti, recruitment at the factory spiked “at the beginning of the seasonal packaging drives, or when massive phosphate loads arrived by boat from Morocco: in one or two days, over one hundred new labourers entered the place only to be unavoidably dismissed as soon as unloading was over”.[28] Nor was job security these workers’ only trouble: Labour at the factory was also highly noxious. Indeed, Montecatini Fertilizzanti was described as the “nastiest” factory in Porto Marghera due to toxic substance exposure, the heavy physical workload, and the fast pace of work.[29] In the words of a man who toiled there at the time: “I’ve been killed off by those acids. […] We used to work with a neckerchief on the mouth and the jacket collar pulled up, to be protected somewhat. […] If the powder comes in [the clothes], it eats away the flesh and then it’s worse because you can’t work anymore… Many people died that way… paralysed… the acid burns the blood”.[30]

Things only meaningfully improved for the workers at Montecatini Fertilizzanti with the struggles for workplace health and safety during Italy’s Long 1968, a mobilisation spearheaded in north-eastern Italy by the wage labourers of Porto Marghera.[31] Alas, victory was short-lived. This is because, in 1984, environmentalist groups launched a campaign against the phosphogypsum discharge that Porto Marghera’s phosphate industry was releasing into the Adriatic Sea.[32] The campaign would endure for years, and include spectacular episodes such as nocturnal pursuits of phosphogypsum-loaded ships by packs of environmentalists aboard small boats. With time, it took its political toll. Combined with the strains of international competition, the activists’ interventions won the shuttering of Montecatini Fertilizzanti in 1990.

Of course, the story does not really end when the lights went off at the factory. On the one hand, the radioactive phosphogypsum that was not dumped into the Adriatic Sea is still entombed in the surrounding land. On the other, precisely when the Porto Marghera fertiliser factories were closing, restructurings in the Khouribga and Gafsa mines of North Africa were throwing significant shares of the local populations into varying states of under-employment. As those once bustling cities became filled with surplus workers, mining hubs once specialised in the export of minerals would diversify into the export of humans. The legacies of these times are still with us today. In 2022, about 4,600 Moroccans and 800 Tunisians resided in the Venice province. Few of this number likely know that in this exact place there once operated one of the main phosphorus fertiliser plants in Italy—a plant that processed phosphate sourced not so far from where they or their parents once lived. Contrarily, these same persons would be well aware of just how little their elders benefited from the export of phosphate all those years ago.


Simon Jackson’s concept of the Phosphate Archipelago connects productive processes from different spaces and times, following the thread from the extraction of a mineral to its usage and half-life later down the road. More generally, this analytical method also provides a means for fruitfully exploring linkages between work and ecology, as structured in a hierarchical international division of labour.[33]

Drawing from Jackson, extractivism can be seen as a multi-sited phenomenon that does not impact extractive sites only: Rather, extractivism’s effects reverberate across sites of processing and refinement, the circuits where the commodity is traded and valorised, the places where its waste products are disposed, and across the vast human geography that is delineated through a resource’s production and consumption. To paraphrase Arjun Appadurai, there is a “social life of commodities”[34], one inevitably undergirded by dispossession, exploitation and contamination, one inevitably constitutive of the “commodified life of people”.

As the cases of Khouribga and Porto Marghera show, extractivism often endows an “imperial debris” as well.[35] Accumulating in the old metropoles and colonies alike, this debris is visible in the trajectories of environment, employment and migration, and in the hopes, opportunities and possibilities that are unevenly available to people in different haunts of the world.

Research into these complex interconnections is just at the beginning. In the years to come, new causalities binding humans, non-humans and phosphate will surely come to light, particularly in the context of current ecological transition attempts. For the moment, it is worthwhile to emphasise the continuity, in space and time, of the power and meaning relations originated in the colonisation of lands in the Mediterranean space. Such continuities are reproduced in different forms across places and generations. In each instance, however, they are shaped by the capitalist transformation of landscapes and its ebbs and flows of exploitation and abandonment.

In contributing to this article, Lorenzo Feltrin was supported by Leverhulme Trust (ECF-2020-004).

[1] Marion W. Dixon, “Chemical fertilizer in transformations in world agriculture and the state system, 1870 to interwar period”, Journal of agrarian change, 18, 2018, pp. 768-786.

[2] Jim Elser and Phil Haygarth, Phosphorus: Past and future, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

[3] Gavin D. J. Harper, “Huge phosphate discovery in Norway could fully charge the electric vehicle industry”, The conversation, 2023.

[4] Dan Egan, The devil’s element: Phosphorus and a world out of balance, New York (NY): W. W. Norton & Company, 2023.

[5] Katherine Richardson, et al., “Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries”, Science advances, 9, 2023, p. 2458.

[6] David L. Kirchman, Dead zones: The loss of oxygen from rivers, lakes, seas, and the ocean, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021

[7] Gary O. Pittman, Phosphate fluorides toxic torts, self-published, 2011.

[8] E.g. Ted Ehmann, Boom & bust in Bone Valley: Florida’s phosphate mining history 1886-2021 and the looming ecological crisis, Columbia (SC): Shotwell, 2021.

[9] E.g. Rebecca Gruskin, “The value within multiform commodities: North African phosphates and global markets in the interwar period”, Journal of Global History, 16(3), 2021, pp. 315-335.

[10] Simon Jackson, “The Phosphate Archipelago: Imperial mining and global agriculture in French North Africa”, Jahrbuch für wirtschaftsgeschichte, 57(1), 2016, 187-214.

[11] Jean-François Troin (ed.), Maroc : Région, pays, territoire, Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 2002.

[12] Francesco Vacchiano, Antropologia della dignità: Aspirazioni, moralità e ricerca del benessere nel Marocco contemporaneo, Verona: Ombre Corte, 2022.

[13] Harry Dempsey, “Chinese battery groups invest in Morocco to serve western markets”, Financial times, 2023.

[14] Mustapha Azaitraoui, et al., Les espaces ruraux au Maroc : Dynamiques et mutations, Rabat: Ayoris, 2020.

[15] Abdelaziz Adidi, “Khouribga : La problématique de développement d’une ville minière marocaine”, 2000; Abdelaziz Adidi, Mécanismes et formes de croissance urbaine des agglomérations phosphatières marocaines, PhD Thesis, Mohamed V University, Rabat, 2006 ; Mohammed Sahsah, Naissance et développement d’une ville minière marocaine : Khouribga, PhD Thesis, Saint-Étienne University, 1996.

[16] SWISSAID, Engrais dangereux : Négociants suisses et violations de droits humains au Maroc, 2019.

[17] SWISSAID, “Dangerous fertilisers: Swiss traders and human rights violations in Morocco” (English summary), 2019.

[18] Rachid El Jaoudi, et al., “Determination of fluoride in tap water in Morocco using a direct electrochemical method”, Bulletin of environmental contamination and toxicology, 89(2), 2012, pp. 390-394.

[19] OCP, “Texte de réponse du groupe OCP (OCP SA)”, 2019.

[20] Cesco Chinello, Porto Marghera 1902-1926: Alle origini del “problema di Venezia”, Venice: Marsilio, 1979, p. 181.

[21] Mario Perugini, Il farsi di una grande impresa: La Montecatini fra le due guerre mondiali, Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2014.

[22] Simon Jackson, “The Phosphate Archipelago”, 2016, p. 195.

[23] Rebecca Gruskin, “The value within multiform commodities”, 2021.

[24] Salah Hamzaoui, Conditions et genèse de la conscience ouvrière en milieu rural : Cas des mineurs du Sud de la Tunisie, PhD Thesis, Paris VI, 1970.

[25] Larbi Chouikha and Vincent Geisser, “Retour sur la révolte du bassin minier : Les cinq leçons politiques d’un conflit social inédit”, L’année du Maghreb, VI, 2010, pp. 415-426.

[26] Angelo Del Boca, Gli italiani in Libia: Dal fascismo a Gheddafi, Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1988.

[27] At the time, Donegani was Montecatini’s president and an MP with the National Fascist Party

[28] Valerio Belotti, “Il complesso chimico Fertilizzanti-Ceneri del gruppo Montecatini (1924-1943)”, in I primi operai di Marghera: Mercato, reclutamento, occupazione, 1917-1940 edited by Francesco Piva and Giuseppe Tattara, Venice: Marsilio, 1883, pp. 230-264, p. 250.

[29] Francesco Piva, Contadini in fabbrica: Il caso Marghera, 1920-1945, Rome: Edizioni Lavoro, 1991.

[30] Ivi, pp. 209-210.

[31] Lorenzo Feltrin and Devi Sacchetto, “The work-technology nexus and working-class environmentalism: Workerism versus capitalist noxiousness in Italy’s Long 1968”, Theory and society, 50(5), 2021, pp. 815-835. 

[32] Michele Boato, Eppure soffia: Spifferi e tempeste ecologiche in Veneto, Venice: Ecoistituto del Veneto, 2013, p. 74.

[33] Lorenzo Feltrin and Gabriela Julio Medel, “Noxious deindustrialisation and extractivism: Quintero-Puchuncaví in the international division of labour and noxiousness”, New political economy, 2023..

[34] Arjun Appadurai, The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[35] Ann Laura Stoler (ed.), Imperial debris: On ruins and ruination, Durham (NC): Duke University Press, 2013.