Coloniality of Infrastructure - Samia Henni - Oil, Gas, Dust: From the Sahara to Europe

Oil, Gas, Dust: From the Sahara to Europe

Samia Henni

Image via NASA Earth Observatory, February 18, 2021.

Coloniality of Infrastructure
October 2021

Since the 1950s, various petroleum and gas wells have been dug in African Saharan soils. Thousands of kilometers of pipelines have been built on African and European soils and under their waters to transport extracted resources from African to European countries. These resources from the Sahara contributed to the establishment of a new world (dis)order in the aftermath of the Second World War. It all started in in 1956, in January, about fifteen months after the outbreak of the Algerian Revolution, or the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), when oil spouted for the first time in Edejeleh, in the In Amenas District, in the Algerian Sahara, under French colonial rule, near the border with Libya.1 In July of that same year, a major oil field was uncovered in Hassi Messaoud, in Ouargla Province, in eastern colonized Algeria, about 895 kilometers southeast of the city of Ouargla. And then, in November, the French colonial regime found what was one of the largest gas fields in the world in Hassi R’Mel, in Laghouat Province, about 400 kilometers south of Algiers and sixty kilometers northwest of Ghardaïa.2 The extraction of natural gas began in 1961, and in 1964 the newly-independent Algeria became the first country to export liquefied natural gas. Today, extracted natural gas supplies onshore and offshore pipelines, including the Maghreb-Europe Gas (MEG) Pipeline (via Morocco to Spain, where it is connected with Spanish and Portuguese gas grids); the Trans-Mediterranean (TransMed) Pipeline (via Tunisia to Sicily and then to Italy and Slovenia), and Medgaz (through the Mediterranean Sea to Spain).3

France’s colonial search for natural resources in the Sahara dates back to 1945, with the establishment of the Bureau de recherches du pétrole (BRP, or Petroleum Research Office), followed by the creation of the Société nationale de recherche et d’exploitation des pétroles en Algérie (SN Repal, or National Company for the Research and Exploitation of Petroleum in Algeria). At the time of these explorations, Algeria’s Sahara was known as the Territoires du Sud Algérien (Algeria’s Southern Territories), which had been annexed to the French empire in 1902.4 These territories had an autonomous budget and were under a military administration. Over the course of the colonization of the Sahara, French colonial administrators and officers conducted violent military operations called the pénétration au Sahara (“Saharan penetration”), pacification du Sahara (“Saharan pacification”), or pénétration pacifique (“peaceful penetration”), to collect data about the geography, geology, meteorology, botany, zoology, resources, buildings, and ethnography of the region. These operations sought to create a territorial connection between France’s colonized territories in northern, central, and western Africa in order to enlarge its empire and impede British endeavors to link their colonized territories, including Egypt, Sudan, and Nigeria.5

The year 1956 marked not only France’s detection of oil and gas in the colonized Algerian Sahara, but also negotiations for the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC), which began at the Château of Val-Duchesse in Brussels. In March of the following year, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and West Germany signed both the Treaty of Rome, which established the EEC (which has evolved into what is now the European Union), and the Euratom Treaty, which established the European Atomic Energy Community. At this time, Algeria’s territory was an integral part of France, and therefore colonized Algeria—France’s Overseas Territory—likewise became part of the EEC.6 This colonial condition offered Europe, specifically France, the opportunity to develop and advocate for European oil and gas companies and industries geographically close to Europe. It also reset the geopolitical landscape and cartography of hydrocarbon capitals and businesses, which were then concentrated in the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and North and South America.

While the six European leaders were preparing the establishment of the EEC, the brutal Battle of Algiers was unfolding. Conducted by one of the most violent French military commanders, the battle sought to eliminate the Algerian liberation fighters who had carried out a campaign of urban warfare between September 1956 and September 1957. The French army used torture, forced disappearances, and illegal executions, as was featured in the famous 1966 Algerian-Italian movie The Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. The French officers secretly transferred these methods to North and South America during the 1960s.7 Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States and other governments and armies have overtly expressed their interest in the French military practices deployed in the Battle of Algiers, and in the ways the French army created, learned from, integrated, and enforced counterrevolutionary measures.8 France’s determination to use any means necessary to keep Algeria under colonial rule is intrinsically associated with the detection of large reserves of hydrocarbons in the Algerian Sahara and with its desire to keep those resources in the EEC.

Map of the OCRS. Source: Archives du Service historique de l’armée de terre, SHAT 1 H 1148.

In order to oversee and exploit its various resources, the French government attempted to separate the Sahara from the rest of Algeria. To do this, the French colonial authorities approved the creation of the Organisation commune des régions sahariennes (OCRS) in January 1957.9 The objectives of the OCRS involved “the development, the economic expansion, and the social promotion of the Saharan zones of the French Republic, and in the management of which Algeria, Sudan [today Mali], Niger, and Chad participate.”10 This entailed tasking a French trans-Saharan organization with the development of oil and gas industries and the construction of necessary infrastructure, including extraction facilities, research centers, and transportation systems. With the promise of new employment opportunities, the French colonial OCRS redrew the map of the French empire, further dividing already divided territories and populations. In so doing, the French colonial regime established an “autonomous” African Saharan enclosure, separated—politically and juridically—from the rest of the African continent and directly attached to France, and thereby to the EEC.

The establishment of the OCRS was followed by the creation of the French Minister of the Sahara in June 1957. In his report “L’infrastructure de départ du Sahara et de l’Organisation Commune des Régions Sahariennes (O.C.R.S.)” (“The Initial Infrastructure of the Sahara and the Common Organization of the Saharan Regions (O.C.R.S.)”) that same year, Yvan du Jonchay—a French naval officer, economist, and geographer, who led one of the economic missions of the French city of Lyon in the Algerian Sahara—stated that: “the management of the O.C.R.S. is still rather unclear, since the very name of economic organization excludes, in principle at least, a political action.”11 In other words, the absence of terms such as “French,” “European,” “Algerian,” “African,” or “Economic” from the very appellation of the OCRS (Common Organization of the Saharan Regions) was strategic. This allowed the French authorities to create a pseudo-autonomous colonized territory, that is, a French enclave, within Saharan regions, without announcing it. One could also suggest that the presence of the term “common” epitomized that obscurity and begs wonder if these regions—their resources and populations—are to be deemed as “common” to Africans, French people, Europeans, or to other nations or businesses. Are the OCRS “common” to people and companies in Algeria, Chad, France, Mali, and Niger, or for the “common” good and interests of all?

France was reluctant to make Saharan investments, capitals, and profits “common” and to share them with its European counterparts—not to mention with its colonized territories and departments. Jean-Michel de Lattre, a French lawyer and Delegate General of the Association eurafricaine minière et industrielle (Euro-African Mining and Industrial Association), commented on the question of the participation of “foreign companies” (i.e. non-French stakeholders) in the search for and exploitation of hydrocarbons in the Sahara. He argued in 1957 that:

some circles, voluntarily or involuntarily, wanted to make people believe that there was a maneuver of a potential seizure of the wealth of the Saharan subsoil by foreign companies. In the name of a “vigilant and enlightened nationalism” they wanted to advocate a policy, that of “France alone.” This is yet another of those “false problems” that pave the way for the development of the Sahara.12

Citing the 1956 Suez Crisis and political pressures from the United Nations, the Soviet Union, and the United States for France, Israel, and the United Kingdom to withdraw their military troops from the Suez Canal, de Lattre claimed that: “In the current state of the international balance of power, France cannot claim to exploit world-class deposits on its own without provoking dangerous reactions for its foreign policy or its financial freedom.”13 Until the dissolution of the OCRS in May 1963, about a year after Algeria gained its independence from France, France did its best to prevent the involvement of African, European, and other players in the exploitation of Saharan resources.

Over the six years of its existence, the OCRS built various new extractive settlements, airports, hospitals, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure that are still in use today. Along with the construction of extractive infrastructure and transportation systems, two nuclear research and firing centers were built: the Centre saharien d’expérimentations militaires (CSEM, or Saharan Center for Military Experiments) in Reggane, approximately 1,150 kilometers south of Algiers, and the Centre d’expérimentations militaires des oasis (CEMO, or the Center of Military Tests of Oases) in In Ecker, about 600 kilometers south-east of Reggane.14 In the early morning hours of February 13, 1960, France’s first atomic bomb was successfully detonated in Reggane, in the Sahara Desert of Tanezrouft, in southern Algeria. From February 1960—about five years after the outbreak of the Algerian Revolution and four years after the first exploitation of Algerian oil—to February 1966—about four years after Algeria’s independence—France detonated seventeen nuclear bombs in the Algerian Sahara and tested other nuclear technologies and weapons as well.

The nuclear centers built in the Sahara included housing units, warehouses, barracks, camps, offices, laboratories, workshops, a hospital, sports facilities, a swimming pool, water towers, an aerodrome, detection and decontamination centers, material storage, ammunition and fuel depots, and technical premises.15 When the French colonial civil and military authorities left Reggane and In Ecker in 1966 to continue their nuclear program in the Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in the Pacific, they dug immense holes and buried contaminated engines, equipment, objects, and materials in the Sahara, covering them with contaminated soil and sands. Over the years, the winds and populations of the Sahara have uncovered and unearthed these toxic remains and debris.16 France’s toxicity—which severely damaged and contaminated human, animal, vegetal, and mineral lives, as well as their surrounding environments—was put on display.

In February 2021, social media and European newspapers published photographs of the “soft milky-yellow light” and “the beautiful yellow ochre skies of Europe.” This “beautiful” color of parts of southern and central Europe was caused by sand particles and dust from the Sahara. According to weather services, the wind conditions in the Saharan regions of Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania forced sand two to five kilometers up into the sky before it was blown towards Europe via southerly winds. As a Euronews article from March 1, 2021, titled “Irony as Saharan Dust Returns Radiation from French Nuclear Tests in 1960s,” claims: “Dust from the Sahara Desert blown north by strong winds to France did not only bring stunning light and sunsets. It also carried abnormal levels of radiation.”17 The specters of France’s colonial toxification of the desert are now haunting Europe, while colonial pipelines and other extractive infrastructures continue to supply consumers in Europe and elsewhere.


France’s colonization of Algeria began in 1830 with war and dispossession.


Jacques Frémeaux, La France et le Sahara, 1830–1962 (Saint-Cloud: SOTECA, 2010), 233.


The Greenstream Pipeline departs from Libya and arrives in Italy. It is part of the Western Libyan Gas Project. In addition, there is a planned natural plan pipeline from Algeria to Sardinia and then further to northern Italy, named GALSI (Gasdotto Algeria Sardegna Italia). On the impact of North Africa on Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, see, for example, North Africa and the Making of Europe: Governance, Institutions and Culture, eds. Muriam Haleh Davis and Thomas Serres (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).


The three northern departments of Algiers, Constantine, and Oran were proclaimed as an integral part of France in 1848. France’s expansion into the Sahara Desert started in 1844 with the arrival of French soldiers in Biskra, a town located in the Ziban region at the edge of the desert.


On France’s colonization of the Sahara, see, for example, André Bourgeot, “La conquête coloniale au Sahara central ou L’utopie transsaharien,” L’histoire du Sahara et des relations transsahariennes entre le Maghreb et l’Ouest africain du Moyen Age à la fin de l’époque coloniale: actes du IVème colloque euro-africain (tenu) à Erfoud 20–25 octobre 1985, 1986; Benjamin Claude Brower, A Desert Named Peace: The Violence of France’s Empire in the Algerian Sahara, 1844–1902 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Frémeaux, La France et le Sahara; Daniel Grévoz, Sahara 1830–1881: Les mirages français et la tragédie des Flatters (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 1989); Paul Pandolfi, La conquête du Sahara, 1885–1905 (Paris: Karthala, 2018); Douglas Porch, The Conquest of the Sahara (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).


On Algeria, France, Europe, and the Treaty of Rome, see, for example, Megan Brown, “Drawing Algeria into Europe: Shifting French Policy and the Treaty of Rome (1951–1964),” Modern & Contemporary France 25, no. 2 (2017): 191–208; Megan Brown, “A Eurafrican Future: France, Algeria, and the Treaty of Rome (1951–1975)” (PhD diss., City University of New York, 2017).


Marie-Monique Robin, Escadrons de la mort: l’école française (Paris: La Découverte, 2004).


Samia Henni, Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Northern Algeria (Zurich: gta Verlag, 2017), 51–78.


The premises behind this French colonial institutional project had existed since 1952. Frémeaux, La France et le Sahara, 236.


Law 57-27, Journal officiel de la République française: Lois et décrets, January 11, 1957. Translation by author.


Yvan du Jonchay, “L’infrastructure de départ du Sahara et de l’Organisation Commune des Régions Sahariennes (O.C.R.S.),” Géocarrefour 32, no. 4 (1957): 278. Translation by author.


Jean-Michel de Lattre, “Sahara, clé de voûte de l’ensemble eurafricain français,” Politique étrangère 22, no. 4 (1957): 351. Translation by author.


Ibid. Translation by author.


Samia Henni, “Toxic Imprints of Bleu, Blanc, Rouge: France’s Nuclear Bombs in the Algerian Sahara,” The Funambulist 14 (2017): 28–33.


“Rapport sur les essais nucléaires français 1960–1996, tome 1: La genèse de l’organisation et les expérimentations au Sahara CSEM et CEMO,” n.d., 65–68.


Bruno Barrillot, Les irradiés de la république: les victimes des essais nucléaires français prennent la parole (Brussels: Editions GRIP, 2003), 43–44.


Rafael Cereceda, “Irony as Saharan Dust Returns Radiation from French Nuclear Tests in 1960s,” Euronews, March 1, 2021, .

Coloniality of Infrastructure is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture, Critical Urbanisms at the University of Basel, and the African Centre for Cities of the University of Cape Town.

Colonialism & Imperialism, Land & territory
Africa, Extractivism, Pollution & Toxicity, Dispossession
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Samia Henni is a historian of built, destroyed, and imagined environments. She is the author of the multi-award-winning Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Northern Algeria (EN, 2017; FR, 2019) and Colonial Toxicity: Rehearsing French Radioactive Architecture and Landscape in the Sahara (2024); the editor of Deserts Are Not Empty (2022) and War Zones (2018); and the maker of exhibitions such as Performing Colonial Toxicity (2023–24), Discreet Violence: Architecture and the French War in Algeria (2017–22), Archives: Secret-Défense? (2021), and Housing Pharmacology (2020). She has taught at Princeton university, Geneva University of Art and Design, and Cornell University among other places. Currently, she is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, ETH Zurich, and the co-chair of the University Seminar “Beyond France” at Columbia University. In the fall of 2024, Henni will join the faculty of McGill University’s Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture in Montreal.


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