Phosphate Mining and the Paradox of Abundance

This is the eighth piece in a series on the Plantationocene—a proposed alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.

Like many elements of the periodic table, phosphorus has explosive origins; it is a byproduct of supernovae, formed during the end-of-life explosion of massive stars many times the size of our sun and ejected into the cosmos. Meteorites, astronomers have theorized, bring the element to earth. Phosphorus is also one of the most essential resources on this planet. One out of only six elements that is needed to produce and sustain life in any form, phosphorus is required by all life on earth—every living cell. It is essential to cell structure and energy production and makes possible the mineralization of bones.

Feeding the Planet with Phosphate

Phosphorus, a primary nutrient in fertilizer, also feeds the world. The invention of agriculture at the dawn of the Holocene 11,500 years ago sparked a revolution in the relationship between soil phosphorus and human productivity. Some geologists have suggested that this revolution marks the beginning of the Anthropocene.

Hills of sand are surrounded by dust and large mining machinery.

The phosphate mining operation in Taiba, Senegal, pictured above, and the village at Gad Gomène are practically neighbors, separated by a single road. Photo by Christian Danielewitz, 2019.

Neolithic peoples used fertilizers, but the first fertilizer produced by chemical processes was ordinary superphosphate, made early in the 19th century by treating bones with sulfuric acid. A century ago, as the environmental reporter Fred Pearce points out, much of the world’s internationally traded phosphate, a compound of phosphorus and oxygen, actually came from bones as well as guano excavated from Pacific islands where birds had been defecating phosphate for millions of years.

Bones aren’t traded much anymore, and most of the guano islands have been exhausted. But that didn’t spell the end of phosphate; in the mid-19th century the British began mining phosphate rock, and in the following decades it took over as the primary source to produce fertilizer. Today, phosphate is the key ingredient in modern agriculture. Indeed, it could be argued that phosphates make modern plantation systems possible.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the global food supply’s increasing dependence on fertilizer has turned phosphate into a critical resource. But in the 21st century it is running low. The depletion rates of phosphate rock in contemporary mining zones in North Africa, the Middle East, the U.S., and China is raising concerns about the future of element P.

If the term Plantationocene is a diagnosis, then the mining of phosphate rock is its source and symptom.

Some researchers have calculated that peak phosphorus will occur around the year 2030 and estimate that reserves will be depleted in 50–100 years. In developing countries such as China and India, the emerging middle classes are consuming more meat, causing the market for fertilizer to expand drastically as livestock is less phosphorus-efficient than plants. “Phosphorus,” Zachary Caple and Gregory T. Cushman write, “has become a fetish of the capitalist sciences: how to find it, mine, and refine it; how to ship it, mix it, spread it; how to price it; how to market it; and—lest we forget—how to flush it.”

Given the fact that more than 85 percent of mined phosphate is used to produce fertilizer to feed the world’s soaring population, there is serious reason to worry. Indeed, biologist James Elser has stated that “phosphorus is the biggest problem you’ve never heard of.” And while unease regarding the future availability of the resource is warranted, it should not overshadow the toxic spoils of the mineral’s production cycle. Similar to other products of the plantation, widespread use of phosphate is accompanied by environmental destruction. Phosphate strip mines produce around 150 million tons of toxic spoil a year, and the ravaged exterior edges of key mining zones—marked by massive draglines, huge slurry pipes, and heaps of waste—are visible for tens of miles.

Phosphate Mining in Gad Gomène

The authors of “Plantation Legacies” argue that the plantation invites a powerful and necessary critique of the Anthropocene because of its ability to center “histories of colonialism, capitalism, and racism” in order to “make visible the power relations and economic, environmental, and social inequalities that have made ways of being in a world undergoing rapid climate change, accelerated species extinction, and growing wealth disparity more precarious for some human and nonhuman beings than others.” While this work is crucial, it seems that the Plantationocene is not yet able to account for the extractive industry that makes the plantation possible in the first place: phosphate mining. If the term Plantationocene is taken as a diagnosis of the unevenness of anthropogenic climate and environmental change, then the mining of phosphate rock should be regarded as both source and symptom.

In June 2018, I came across an environmental report that revealed the horrific extent of toxic pollution in villages situated near the open-pit phosphate mines at Taiba, in the Thiès region of western Senegal. The report made mention of a particular village called Gad Gomène.

Since my arrival in the country a month earlier, I had been sending emails and letters to mining companies, asking for official permission to visit their sites of extraction, but to no avail. The location of Gad, a village of around 200 people, landlocked in the middle of an extraction and manufacturing zone, offered a different approach. For more than a decade the residents have been involved in a legal battle with Chemical Industry of Senegal (ICS) over rights to be compensated and relocated. They can no longer cultivate their fields of mango and acacia trees, which are either land-grabbed by the mining company, or destroyed by toxic elements in the groundwater and in the air.

A black and white photo of hands holding small and withered acacia flowers.

Séni, the son of the village chief in Gad Gomène, demonstrates the impact the phosphate mine has had on Gad’s staple crops. Here, he holds withered acacia flowers. Photo by Christian Danielewitz, 2019.

In 2014, a major leak of sulfuric acid contaminated the entire village. The villagers suffered for weeks from visual disturbances, persistent chest pains and chronic headaches, as well as miscarriages and neonatal deaths in the accident’s aftermath. But the slow disaster unfolding in Gad never made headlines.

ICS is the largest industrial complex in Senegal and the largest producer of phosphate fertilizer in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2014, two months before the acid leak in Gad, the majority of the company’s shares were acquired by Indorama Corporation, an Indian multinational behemoth with chemical enterprises across Africa and Southeast Asia. One of Indorama’s stated goals is to bring about a green revolution in the developing world, achieved by the use of artificial fertilizers. But the Green Revolution has, since the term was coined in the early 1950s, proven to have a catastrophic flip side, and it is nowhere more evident than in Gad.

While plantations and farms flourish across the globe with the use of fertilizers, the means of production of these same fertilizers are destroying dozens of villages (and their component smallholder farms) in phosphate mining areas. In Gad, the toxic atmosphere and lack of irrigation—as most of the water resources are consumed by phosphate extraction—have transformed what was once a thriving farmland into a highly polluted divide between the village and the mine. Abdoul Aziz Diop, coordinator of the Regional Agreement of the Coalition of Organizations of Civil Society, has said that the residents of Gad are “living the paradox of abundance.” The villagers are left in extreme poverty, while the mining industries make billions. In the global cycle of extraction and production, Gad—and dozens of other villages—is sacrificed in the pursuit of maximum profit, made because of the increasing demand for phosphorus to sustain food production for a soaring world population.

On the Frontlines of Toxic Extraction

On my first visit to Gad, Séni, the village chief’s son, took me on a tour around the neighborhood. As we walked through the arid village farm he told me that ICS had been trying to keep reporters away from the area. The lack of headlines, it seemed, wasn’t for want of trying. In the face of a seemingly irreversible situation, the villagers have demanded that the mining company employs them, but ICS prefers to recruit the majority of labor from India. The future prospect of Gad is bleak, and it doesn’t seem likely that the residents will get any help from the authorities to relocate from the village.

Meanwhile, the toxic atmosphere continues to take a devastating toll on humans, animals, crops, and manufactured materials alike. When we passed by the village mosque in the center of Gad, Séni pointed to the roof made of zinc sheets and in an advanced state of disintegration. He explained that it was due to the sulfuric acid, released from the chemical plants producing fertilizer. The exposure to the toxic elements causes a rapid and severe oxidation of the zinc. On my second visit to Gad, a week later, we dismantled the roof and replaced it with a new one in aluminum. The crumbling zinc sheets were transported to Dakar, the capital, where they would become a part of my exhibition, “PO4 (Blackout).”

Environmental activists in Senegal sit in a circle and listen as Oumar Diallo leads a workshop.

Oumar Diallo, from the non-profit organization Publiez Ce Que Vous Payez, gives a workshop to a group of environmental activists at RAW Material Company–Center for Art, Knowledge and Society. Photo by Christian Danielewitz, 2019.

A few days after I returned to Senegal this summer for the opening of the exhibition, I went back to Gad to meet with Séni. It had only been a year since my first visit, but time itself seems to pass at a different speed in Gad. The aluminum plates on the mosque already looked as if they had been there for decades.

I returned to Gad with the intention of asking Séni to come to Dakar. I wanted him take part in a public talk about the situation in the village and discuss possible solutions with a panel of invited speakers. Séni didn’t seem enthusiastic about the invitation. “It will not change anything,” he said. But two weeks later he travelled to Dakar and spoke about the plight of the village to a full house at RAW Material Company–Center for Art, Knowledge, and Society. The audience, it turned out, was anything but indifferent. Two weeks after his talk, a group of environmental activists visited Gad to learn more.

The violence of the Plantationocene, expressed by Séni’s account, had galvanized the activists, and Gad, it seemed, could become a site of resistance situated on the very frontline of toxic extraction. However, it will take a lot of effort and organization to counter such powerful mining companies as ICS. Corporate corruption is rife and extends far into the inner circles of high-ranking government officials and policymakers in Senegal. Non-profit organizations such as Natural Justice, Forum Civil, and Publiez Ce Que Vous Payez have turned their sights toward Gad, but more attention is needed from dedicated activists, journalists, and independent human rights lawyers.

an acacia tree grows under a tin-roofed ramada with a neon sign in the "PO4 Blackout" exhibition

Part of the author’s exhibition, “PO4 Blackout,” depicts a Faidherbia albida tree growing under the deteriorating zinc roof that previously covered a mosque in Gad Gomène. Photo by Anna Wane, 2019.

Resistance in the Roots

Looking beyond human experience, it’s worth noting that Gad is already a site of resistance. As such, it might provide us with a response to the Plantationocene’s violence and monocultures, its “machines of replication” in Anna Tsing’s formulation. Consider, for a moment, the tree Faidherbia albida. It is regarded as sacred by farmers in West Africa and appears prominently in local creation mythology, as a primeval organism with divine powers. Due to its reverse phenological behavior, it has a unique ability to fix nitrogen in soil. A decade ago, scientists argued at the Second World Congress of Agroforestry that the tree holds a key to sustainable farming. If grown on a sufficient scale, it can limit the use of fertilizer and potentially decelerate climate change.

On one of my visits to Gad, I asked Séni about the tree, and he explained that it is also one of the most resilient organisms when it comes to the suffocating pollution caused by the mine’s chemical plants. It is virtually unaffected, unlike any other organism. He took me to the village’s farm to show me the species. It was a small tree with a thorny appearance that struck me as defiant: a primordial force of nature in an age of unprecedented environmental degradation and toxicity. “This tree,” Séni said and smiled, “can withstand anything.”

Featured image: Séni holds three rotted mangoes, poisoned by the nearby phosphate mining operation. Photo by Christian Danielewitz, 2019.

Christian Danielewitz is an artist MFA, researcher, and writer currently working on a practice-based Ph.D. at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Copenhagen. His work and research revolves around the socio-ecological wreckage caused by industries of mineral extraction and the global division of toxic labor and waste. Website. Contact.