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The Challenges Facing Liberian Agriculture

The last leg of our Indiana Ag Leadership class was to Liberia, West Africa. What we saw was dramatically different than the highly structured and sophisticated agricultural systems of Northern Europe. Liberian agriculture struggles in every area where EU agriculture thrives. The root causes are many. After a week traveling across the country, I am no expert in Liberian agriculture, but I hope these observations are enlightening to those who may never get to travel to Liberia or similar places. My analysis below means no disrespect to the Liberian people, most of whom work hard each day just to obtain food and water. The people I met were very friendly and welcomed US visitors with open arms.

Liberia's scars from war are deep. Liberia suffered through about two decades of internal warfare and political instability prior to the establishment of peaceful resolution in 2003. The scars are permanent on its people who survived, but there are other costs as well. Many buildings that housed government agencies are still bombed out shells ten years later. And the human capital cost was enormous. People--farmers, doctors, business owners--fled the country to avoid warfare. Most never returned. The country has an enormous void of professionals. For example, the entire country of 3.8 million people are served by only 25 trained medical doctors.

Years of instability killed Liberia's rice farming. Much lowland in Liberia is suitable for rice cultivation, but years of warfare caused farmers to flee and rice paddies to revert to jungle. USAID, the US's foreign agricultural service working Liberia, is doing much to restore these rice paddies to cultivation. But without mechanization or use of draft animals, nearly all work accomplished by hand. In my entire week across Liberia I saw four tractors, only two of which I would describe as in working condition. The process to restore rice cultivation will take years. In the meantime, Liberia is dependent on foreign supplies to feed its people.

Poor land ownership records deter farming. Imagine a country that had poor land ownership record keeping which then saw dramatic population shifts due to warfare. That is the situation that confronts Liberia. People who left their land to avoid war returned to find new landowners in their place. Without the ability to prove land ownership, these people found themselves with nothing.

The Liberian government will not allow foreign ownership of land. This policy prevents agriculture and other business development in the country, as locals mostly lack the resources to develop land for cultivation. One exception is Firestone, which has brokered a deal to farm rubber trees in huge swaths of central Liberia.

Liberia's poor infrastructure restricts movement of goods. Liberian roads are horrible. We traveled 161 miles from the capital city of Monrovia inland to the town of Ganta. The trip took nearly eight hours and required a sturdy vehicle capable of going off road. Much of the road was dirt. Paved sections were, for the most part, so potholed laden that vehicles could rarely exceed 50 miles per hour before having to slow down for a series of car-swallowing potholes. Gas stations are a rare sight. Even if a farmer wanted to raise avocados or pineapples in Liberia for export, I doubt any produce could survive the truck ride to port. The roads are that rough.

There were also various checkpoints on the road to Ganta. To me, they appeared random and unnecessary. I can only imagine the frustration of being a business owner trying to move goods through the country, never knowing if you would get stopped at a checkpoint or not.

Roads are not the only problem with Liberia's infrastructure. In a country of 3.8 million, only about 5,000 people are connected to (an unreliable) electric grid. Electricity is a luxury. For most people, it comes from personal generators. Sewer or septic systems are non-existent. Water, for the most part, is pumped by hand from community wells.

There was little livestock production. I counted about a dozen cattle in Liberia after a week of traveling across the country. That is shame, too, because I could not help but think of the various breeds of cattle that would survive well living on some of the arid scrub land we saw. No livestock also meant no dairy. While staying inland in Ganta, we ate no dairy products as there were none. It would simply be too expensive for most people import dairy products from other countries.

The lack of stable protein sources also means that Liberia lacks the wildlife most people associate with sub-Saharan Africa. We were told by various people that any wildlife that can be caught is eaten. Likewise, national game preserves were all destroyed in the years of warfare. Even chimpanzees are eaten if caught./p>

The inability to create market channels prevents anything other subsistence farming.The factors described above mean that most people are living day by day. Those who catch or raise food feed themselves and if there is extra food, it is sold a roadside stand or market. There is little means for raising or creating goods and selling them to retail brokers. Roads are too poor and transportation costs are too high. Instead, nearly everything is sold locally.

Educational systems are hit or miss. There were a lot of schools in Liberia, mostly run by western church missions. I asked a number of times whether Liberia has its own public educational system, but I never got a straight answer. My conclusion is that if one is not educated by a church or mission school, a Liberian child probably receives no education. We observed both elementary and college schools and I was impressed with the level of education students were receiving in conditions that were not ideal. Programs like FFA and 4-H, staples of American agricultural education, do not exist in Liberia, although we were told they did exist prior to the most recent civil war.

The West African climate makes any agriculture a challenge. While we visited Liberia, the country was in its dry season. And dry it was. The red dust covered everything on the side of the road. Passing cars left a dust cloud so thick one could barely see. Without irrigation, it would be difficult to grow many crops during this part of the year.

In May, the Liberian climate flips from dry to wet. We were told the country averages 200 inches of rain per year, all in the span of few months during the rainy season. It is difficult to imagine farming during the rainy season, as nearly any crop (other than rice) would get flooded if not adequately drained.

Still, certain crops do seem well suited to the harsh Liberian climate. We ate delicious bananas, coconuts, pineapple, avocados and rice. The quality and freshness of these items was superb. Unfortunately, there are no market channels or roads to commercially cultivate these crops, meaning they are for the most part consumed locally or sold for little money at local markets.

Conclusion. There is no one fix for the struggles Liberians face with agriculture. Their problems are vast and deeply rooted. Fortunately, the Liberian people seem to have a positive attitude. The schools we visited were alive with excitement and learning. I got the sense that every day life gets a little bit better, as another stretch of road is paved, another building gets wired for electricity, and another rice paddy is opened for planting.

This article is part 5 in a 6 part series about my travels with the Indiana Ag Leadership program to Northern Europe and Liberia, West Africa.

Read more at Janzen Ag Law Blog by Todd Janzen, Partner, Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP.

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