Oysters Are Served with Politics in the Disputed Western Sahara

Situated knee-deep in the south of Morocco’s disputed Western Sahara region, the desert town of Dakhla defines remote. Amid the UN jeeps and oil prospectors, however, an unlikely crop is growing: oysters.

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Apr 13 2015, 9:13pm

Photos by the author.

Stepping out onto the tarmac of an airport as military jets take off behind the only passenger plane in sight—and, my guess, the only passenger plane that will be in sight all week—isn't you're average end to a trip. So let's start from the beginning.

Situated knee-deep in the south of Morocco's disputed Western Sahara region, the town of Dakhla defines remote. To the east lies an infinite expanse of dunes, which stretch across North Africa to Egypt. To the west, the seemingly endless Atlantic ocean, with this tiny, scarcely visited settlement straddling the two by way of a mirage-like lagoon separating most of the buildings from the sandy nothing.

Given the UN jeep that just passed us by, it's hardly the kind of place you'd expect to find a burgeoning oyster economy that has recently begun exporting to high-end European restaurants. In many ways, it's an unlikely location for any burgeoning economy whatsoever, yet to understand the reasons why you need to first understand the area's checkered history.

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Occupied by Spain from the late 19th century to 1975, when power was relinquished to a joint administration between Morocco and Mauritania, conflict and political unrest have scarred both Dakhla and the Western Sahara for decades until a United Nations-sponsored ceasefire in 1991. Even as recently as 2006, the majority of UN member states refused to recognise Moroccan sovereignty. Nevertheless, Dahi Elkhattat, a local hotelier, is quick to contest that tourists would be put off by the socio-political situation.

"The number of international arrivals is increasing all the time," he explains. "The history of the region is the same as all of Africa—Nigeria, Algeria ... so the history doesn't touch on the tourist industry today. At one point it was very modest, but thanks to kite surfing, wind surfing, and the Festival of Dakhla, it has begun developing an international reputation, so a lot of people have heard of Dakhla now."

One of the biggest challenges is to attract more investment. And oysters are a sensible investment. They give a good image for the town—that we have oysters out here in the desert.

I suspect he might be over-egging things a little. Given the fact that the only way of getting here is trekking across one of the driest places on the planet, or taking a very irregular charter flight from one of the larger cities in the north of Morocco, the idea that many people know this town even exists is rather astounding. (Even if it has cemented its status as one of the best destinations for ultra-specialist water sports.)

So, what about the oysters? Arriving at Talhamar, a tiny cafe that's half-jetty, half-tent-covered terrace, I watch as local farmers lift net after net brimming with shells from the lagoon. Within seconds they are opened, and served with nothing more than a quick squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Immaculate in taste—not a great thing if you're less than keen on pure slime and salt water—these tiny bivalves also lay claim to changing the fortunes of the town as a whole. And for very good reason.

"The oysters are of a very high quality here," says Dahi. "There's no industry in the lagoon, or marine navigation. It's an ecologically protected area, by the state, so there's no fishing, and it's very clean. The practice is traditional, too. Everything here is done by hand—no machinery or equipment other than the nets. Our oysters are basically organic, and that's why they are so good, and why they are bought internationally."

Dahi notes that oyster farmers there can only sell outside Morocco when the market allows them to. "It depends on demand. For example, if the market here in Dakhla needs more oysters, then they will all be sold here in Dakhla. After that, they go to restaurants in Marrakech or Casablanca. Then, if there are enough left, to Europe. But it's an important trade for us. If we can't sell the oysters here, then we need to sell internationally—otherwise they will be wasted."

It's a strange situation to see: a town attempting to establish itself as both a touristic and gastronomic destination, especially when just last year VICE News released a documentary, The Sahara's Forgotten War, which exposed the way in which the indigenous Sahrawi people continue to be oppressed and subjected to human rights abuses.

Tentatively, I attempt to direct the conversation towards politics.

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"No, it's very stable, the whole country," Dahi insists. "There are no political problems."

It's a suspiciously short and seemingly party-line response to my question. Given Dahi's clear interest in preserving the reputation of Dakhla and the Western Sahara in the eyes of foreign visitors, though, I can't say it's particularly surprising.

A key reason for the territorial dispute, along with nationhood and the usual expansionist desires, is the belief that oil reserves lie off the coastline. Given the ecological sensitivity of both the lagoon, which feeds off tidal waters, and the importance of this for the oyster farm itself, I'm inclined to wonder what the industrial plans are for the area as a whole, and how this may impact the accessibility of what's being branded as some of the world's finest seafood.

"Well, the authorities are very sensitive to this," Dahi says. "They don't give licenses to industries like oil in the lagoon. It's a very serious thing here in Dakhla. One of the biggest challenges is to attract more investment. And oysters are a sensible investment. They give a good image for the town—that we have oysters out here in the desert. And it's something we are proud of, and so preserving that is important."

Immaculate in taste—not a great thing if you're less than keen on pure slime and salt water—these tiny bivalves also lay claim to changing the fortunes of the town as a whole. And for very good reason.

Again, the response almost seems too confident. After such widespread unrest, alleged human rights violations on the part of the Moroccan government, and the country's overall status as a developing nation, the thought of major petroleum interests being turned away wholesale for the sake of lifting shells from the seabed doesn't quite sit right.

And consider the fact that earlier this year US firm Kosmos Energy and UK counterpart Cairn Energy began the hunt for black gold in Western Sahara, despite having no permission to do so from the native population—another downside of the whole occupied territory thing.

Whether this is merely the mindset of a skeptical European remains to be seen, of course, but with such inherent beauty in the landscape—albeit of the barren kind—and some truly mouthwatering produce that has to be tasted to be believed, I'm definitely not the only one hoping my worst fears won't eventually come true.