Agriculture in Liberia

Agriculture in Liberia is a major sector of the country’s economy worth 38.8% of GDP, employing more than 70% of the population and providing a valuable export for one of the world’s least developed countries (as defined by the UN).[1][2][3][4]Liberia has a climate favourable to farming, vast forests, and an abundance of water, yet low yields mean that over half of foodstuffs are imported, with net agricultural trade at -$73.12 million in 2010.[5] This was dismissed as a “misconception” by Liberia’s Minister of Agriculture.[6]

Young boy grinding sugar cane near Flumpa, Nimba County, 1968.

The major crops are natural rubber, rice, cassava, bananas and palm oil.[7]Timber is also a major export at $100 million annually, although much of this is the product of unsustainable habitat destruction, with Asian corporations criticised for their role.[3] Although agricultural activity occurs in most rural locations, it is particularly concentrated in coastal plains (subsistence crops) and tropical forest (cash crops). The sector is very important for women as they are widely employed in it in comparison to the economy as a whole.[8]

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Deys, Bassa, Kru, and the West Atlantic Gola and Kissi, are likely to be the first inhabitants of the region of present-day Liberia. Their migration was caused by the decline of the Malian Empire in 1375 and Songhay in 1591. Favourable arable land in comparison to their homelands also brought them in the area. Alongside their social and cultural customs, these immigrants also took with them rice, tuber and cotton cultivation. Evidence for this comes from early European merchants, such as Pedro de Cintra, who arrived in 1461.[9]

When the first American slaves were repatriated to Liberia in 1822, they met hostile tribes. The people and their farming was little-changed from centuries previously. However, settlers developed commercial agriculture, growing most of the crops the country now grows today. The industry was still noted as inefficient and primitive in the 1850s, but had considerable potential for trade in produce: “If the land was cleared, it would be excellent land for corn, eddoes, cassada, cane, and rice”.[10] However, in the 1870s the agricultural sector witnessed a prolonged crisis due to falling prices of cocoa and sugar as well as coffee being introduced to Brazil. In the first half of the 20th century, the nation received loans from the United States, who created it, developing its economy and agriculture. In World War II, due to south east Asia’s rubber’s control by Japan, the United States invested heavily in Liberia, especially in agricultural infrastructure.[11]

In the 1990s the government was criticised for selling rights for deforestation to foreign companies, who exploited the bio-diverse hardwood rainforest. This resulted in many reforestation programmes, although woodland is still destroyed for other uses, such as iron ore mining. Indeed, 98% of the population rely on firewood for fuel, and trees are still cut down for export to Europe and to grow plants. Liberia also lost 70% of its rare mangrove forest at the coast by the mid-1980s.[11] Only a quarter of the original evergreen rainforest is left and almost all the remainder of the land is a mosaic of crops, shrubs and planted trees, in contrast to the Great Plains of its founding country.[12]

Much of the industry was devastated by two civil wars (’89-’96 and ’99-’03), with rice production falling by 76% between 1987 and 2005. However, the fighting completely destroyed almost all other sectors of the economy, causing agriculture’s share of GDP to rise from 40% in 1990 to 95% in 1996.[12]Chronic malnutrition was (and still is) widespread, caused by a lack of infrastructure, poverty due to unemployment and low use of fertilisers and pesticides (below 1%).

Nevertheless, recent investment from foreign companies has resulted in cash crop production rising since 2006 with the percentage of households producing them doubling from 28% in 2006 to 46% in 2009 and 55% in 2012.[4] The main cash crops are rubber, coffee, and cocoa. This followed a successful election in 2005, which allowed a democratic government to rebuild infrastructure.

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