A group of Newfoundland nuns concerned about a dispute in North Africa are asking Canadian companies with dealings in the area, including PotashCorp, to have an external review done to ensure local people are being treated fairly.

The Sisters of Mercy of Newfoundland have shares in PotashCorp and submitted a resolution on the issue which was considered at Tuesday's shareholders meeting in Saskatoon.

The resolution didn't pass, but the nuns were not expecting it to be endorsed. They were hoping to bring attention to the issue.

It concerns the occupied territory of Western Sahara, south of Morocco, in which a Moroccan state-owned company is mining and selling phosphate rock to a number of buyers, including Saskatoon-based PotashCorp, which uses the material for its fertilizer business.

The Sisters of Mercy of Newfoundland are concerned for the people of Western Sahara. Nearly half the population fled the area and lives in refugee camps. The region is considered the last colony of Africa, first colonized by Spain before parts of the territory were taken over by Morocco in 1979.

Human rights concerns raised

Sister Elizabeth Davis

Sister Elizabeth Davis, congregational leader of the Sisters of Mercy of Newfoundland, wants fertilizer giants PotashCorp and Agrium to invite independent, public reviews of their operations in Western Sahara. (CBC News)

A United Nations report on the situation has noted that mineral resources in the area should not be extracted without the consent of local people.

'They are the people whose rights are being violated. They are the people who we want to make certain have a voice.' — Sister Elizabeth Davis urges others to think of the people of Western Sahara

In another report, Human Rights Watch raised more general concerns about human rights in Western Sahara. It has accused the authorities of curtailing public gatherings "thought to be organized by opponents of continued Moroccan rule over the disputed territory."

Sister Elizabeth Davis said an independent review would be beneficial.

"One significant piece for us is the engagement of the Sahrawi people, the people of the Western Sahara," Davis said. "They are the people whose rights are being violated. They are the people who we want to make certain have a voice."

Fertilizer companies respond

PotashCorp posted a statement for shareholders on its website saying the company "recognize[s] that the issue is both politically charged and complicated."

Josh Campbell Western Sahara 1

In 2014, Regina documentary maker Josh Campbell (left) interviewed refugees from Western Sahara about mineral extraction from their homeland.

PotashCorp also lists, online, several reports done by other parties that have concluded the mining operations benefit the local people and meet international standards. In 2013, senior managers from PotashCorp also visited Western Sahara and maintain their business dealings contribute to jobs and services.

On Tuesday, just ahead of the shareholders meeting, a spokesman for PotashCorp told CBC News local people benefit from the business operations.

"Eighty per cent of the people hired [by the mine] in the past seven, eight years have been Sahrawi," PotashCorp's Randy Burton said. "So there are local benefits."

Burton noted a study conducted by the auditing firm KPMG that he said was commissioned by several law firms, not PotashCorp, to help assess the legal status of operations in the region.

"Our senior management team visited Morocco, personally, a couple of years ago to satisfy themselves on the ground that the results of that KPMG study are accurate."

Western Sahara potash protest

Protesters demonstrate in the Algerian refugee camp that houses people from Western Sahara who have fled their region, now occupied by Morocco. (Sahrawi Students Union)

He added that PotashCorp has no plans to launch another review, as requested by the nuns.

PotashCorp isn't the only Canadian company buying minerals from the occupying authorities.

The Sisters of Mercy submitted a similar resolution to another fertilizer company, Agrium, in Calgary last week. It was endorsed by 12 per cent of shareholders. Davis was heartened that both the CEO and chairman of Agrium met with her to discuss the issue.

A number of European investors, including pension funds in Norway and Sweden, have sold off shares in companies that source phosphate rock from Western Sahara. The nuns from Newfoundland didn't feel they would make much of an impression by doing the same.

"We think we can actually influence their way going forward, by our very presence, by our very voice, and that would be much more productive than taking our few dollars out," Davis said.

Filmmaker applauds nuns' activism

The efforts of the Sisters of Mercy, the United Church of Canada and OceanRock Investments, all co-sponsors of the resolution, have been applauded by a Regina documentary maker, Josh Campbell, who has spent years researching this issue.

Last fall, he visited refugee camps in Algeria that house Sahrawi people who were forced to flee the disputed territory.

Campbell said his interviews revealed that many local people do not agree with mineral resource extraction or feel they benefit from current trade.

"The Sahrawi people have huge protests and rallies protesting these companies and their work in the region," Campbell said. "Would happy people who are satisfied with what PotashCorp is doing in the region, would they be protesting in the streets? I don't think so."

Campbell obtained video from the Sahrawi Students Union in the refugee camp that shows women holding banners that state, "Dirty Companies: You Are Not Welcome."

"It's a finite resource," Campbell said, referring to phosphate rock. He said many refugees feel the Moroccan company is selling off their resources before the Western Sahara and Sahrawi people achieve sovereignty and self-determination. "These people know this is running out."