Since 2002 I’ve been travelling to Western Sahara on a regular basis to carry out archaeological and palaeo-environmental fieldwork. This fieldwork has coalesced into the Western Sahara Project, which I co-direct with my UEA colleague, Dr Joanne Clarke. The aim of the Project is to investigate how the prehistoric peoples of Western Sahara responded and adapted to the drying of the Sahara, a process driven by natural changes in the Earth’s climate, that culminated in the desertification of much of North Africa some 5000 years ago (the precise timing varies with location). This is a long-term undertaking that begins with a comprehensive assessment of the archaeological record and the establishment of environmental and cultural chronologies. You can read more about this work on the Western Sahara Project website. Here you can also read about volunteering to join a season of fieldwork.
You can view images of the archaeology and landscapes of Western Sahara on the Project Flickr site here.
Western Sahara is classified as one of 16 Non-Self-Governing Territories by the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization. Its status is disputed between Morocco, which controls the majority (and the most economically productive parts) of Western Sahara, and the Polisario independence movement, which controls the remainder of the territory. As a result of the conflict with Morocco, some 200,000 Sahrawi refugees (precise numbers are not known) live in camps in nearby Algeria. These camps also house the Polisario government of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The Polisario maintains a significant military presence in the areas it controls, known to the exiled Sahrawi as the “Free Zone”.
It is in the Free Zone that we conduct our work, in cooperation with the Polisario. This makes us extremely unpopular with Morocco, which engages in extensive public relations activities to present its claim to Western Sahara as legitimate, and its control of the territory as unchallenged.
As a result of my work in Western Sahara, and of seeing the plight of the Sahrawi at first hand, I have become very interested in the politics of the conflict, and in particular in Morocco’s obfuscation and its associated propaganda efforts. This prompted me to set up the Sand and Dust blog, on which I post occasional articles about the conflict and its politics, as well as pieces about the intersection between archaeology and politics in Western Sahara.
This foray into politics is distinct from the work of the Western Sahara Project, which is concerned with matters archaeological and scientific alone. Nonetheless, a lot of people (mostly representatives or supporters of Morocco) really don’t like the fact that I have something to say about the politics, and seem unable to differentiate between scientific research and political engagement. But boo to them – I’m not one of those old fashioned folks who believes that scientists should not be permitted to hold or voice opinions on non-scientific matters. Archaeology has nothing to say about which party to the conflict has a “right” to the land in question, and I’m not interested in using archaeology or environmental science to support one claim or the other. However, if our scientific work means that, incidentally, more people get to hear about the injustice of one of the world’s longest-running and most intractable conflicts, and that my Sahrawi friends get a bit more support for self-determination (as enshrined in a number of UN resolutions, and in the terms of the UN-brokered ceasefire in Western Sahara), then so much the better. As one of few English speaking witnesses to their plight, I feel that I have a duty to speak up, even if some old-fashioned people think that doing so somehow makes me a poorer scientist. (And even if it means I can’t go to Morocco on holiday or for work, despite numerous approaches to do climate change consultancy work on projects in Morocco. The well-funded Royal Palace and affiliated businesses in this poor country seem to be increasingly adept at attracting development funding, some of which helps to support Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara. Yes CDM, I’m thinking of you).