Agriculture has long been proclaimed by successive Liberian governments as the bedrock of the nation’s economy. For hundreds of years, this part of the West African littoral was called the Grain Coast.
It was given this name because of the very large quantities of rice that slave trading ships used to purchase from local people to feed slave captives on high seas while enroute to the Americas.
Liberia had for the most part been self-sufficient in rice production until the national government began an official policy of forced recruitment of farm hands/laborers to work in cocoa plantations in Fernando Po, now Equatorial Guinea.
A similar disruption of local agricultural activities occurred with the coming of Firestone to Liberia, its signing of a 99-year lease agreement with the government of Liberia and its establishment of a large rubber plantation to produce rubber for export.
Thanks to a national policy of forced recruitment of labor, thousands of farm hands were forcibly removed from their fields and transported to the Firestone Plantations to work for starvation wages under conditions akin to slavery.
For a period, each recruit for the plantation was required to bring along his own supply of rice for his feeding. But with so many farm hands deployed as rubber tappers and thousands more shipped abroad, the supply of rice reduced to a trickle, which compelled Firestone to import large quantities of foreign produced rice to feed its workers.
Each worker was allotted 30 cups of imported rice. It was from this that the word /expression Pusawa was coined from the Kpelle language and gradually filtered into regular and common usage. Pusawa refers to clean parboiled and polished long grain rice.
All in all, Firestone’s forced labor recruitment policy, coupled with the export of forced labor to work on plantations owned by Spanish cocoa farmers in Fernando Po, had a disastrous impact on the cultivation and production of rice in Liberia.
It is not clear the percentage of total rice consumption that came from domestic production prior to the outbreak of the civil war. But the 14-year war disrupted local rice production, reducing it to abysmal levels.
According to the TRC final report, Forced Displacement accounted for the highest number of total violations committed against the people of Liberia by the various armed factions.
Entire farming communities were forcibly uprooted and displaced internally while thousands more fled into exile in neighboring countries due to rife insecurity. Although peace was finally restored in 2003, the return of farmers to resettle in their original locales was a slow process.
Most of those farmers were engaged in subsistence rice production. According to Reliefweb, rice production in Liberia in 1996 — during the middle of the civil war — “estimated at about 95,000 tons (paddy weight) or roughly 30 percent of the pre-war production level.” This puts pre-civil war domestic rice production at well over 316,600 tonnes. However, since the restoration of peace and stability some twenty-nine (29) years ago, subsistence rice production has still not attained pre-war levels.
Previous governments, while preaching and calling for a return to the soil, have instead placed emphasis on the production of tree crops for export rather than on food production. Thus, for example, while exports of cocoa, coffee, rubber, palm kernels, palm oil, etc were on the increase, domestic rice production was however declining.
Under the government of President Sirleaf, for example, the drive for self-sufficiency in domestic rice production was greatly undermined by abysmally low funding in the national budget for Agriculture.
Extension services to local farmers, which should constitute a key required element for increased production, were either scanty or virtually non-existent. To make matters worse, the Ellen Sirleaf government pursued a policy of awarding very large tracts of agricultural land to foreign concessionaires.
The lopsided terms of these concessions forced thousands of people away from their ancestral farmlands including the destruction of sacred burial sites, religious groves, etc.
Moreover, despite the lofty pronouncements about having agriculture as the driver of the economy, the facts showed that under her rule, budgetary allocation to agriculture was a mere 6 percent of total allocation.
By the time she left office in 2017 at least 40 percent of the country’s total arable land were under foreign concessions from which the Liberian people derived little or no tangible benefits.
Perhaps the low emphasis placed on domestic rice production can be attributed to the rise and growth of a powerful rice import cartel in which government officials were reportedly taking a cut on each dollar spent on subsidizing rice importation.
Further, official corruption has and continues to militate against the officially proclaimed goal of self-sufficiency in rice production.
The US$30 million Foya Rice Project for example, which, according to official accounts, was sponsored by the government of Libya then under the leadership of Colonel Muammar Gadhafi, was grossly mismanaged and the funds squandered with impunity during the Sirleaf administration.
Currently, the Agriculture Minister has come under fire from local farmers for not delivering to them agricultural equipment promised under the COVID-19 emergency funds.
According to the president of the Liberian farmers union the Ministry has been remiss in providing a full package to beneficiaries including transportation of materials and the installation of equipment provided under the scheme.
Meanwhile, informed sources alleged that the program is plagued with corruption and that the current Minister of Agriculture, herself a player in the business, is unfairly benefitting through her private farming outfit.
It can be recalled that in recent official audit reports, the Agriculture Minister was accused and recommended for prosecution on charges of corruption. But the Minister has not budged nor has President Weah taken any disciplinary action against her.
On her appointment as Minister of Agriculture, there were indeed very high hopes that she would have made a huge impact, given her long stint of experience working with humanitarian relief assistance programs at the international level.
Sadly she has not made the desired impact as had been expected. Agriculture in Liberia is indeed in a perilous state. Rather than being the key driver of the economy, agriculture has become, instead, the virtual “carboy” of the economy.