Today’s Editorial takes a note from National Orator Samuel Tweah who has called for an end to the reign of imported rice as a political commodity. Successive Liberian governments over the years have usually made high sounding pronouncements about the importance of feeding ourselves as a nation which this country has virtually ceased to do since the introduction of commercial rubber farming in Liberia with the coming of Firestone.
Aside from the exceptionally large tract of ancestral land (99 million acres) awarded the rubber concession, a Liberian government policy of forced recruitment of labor, known to local people as (Plotoh), disrupted subsistence rice production in Liberia as farm hands were forcibly drawn from their land and sent to Firestone to work under slave like conditions.
Rubber Production, being a labor intensive activity, required the input of thousands laborers and to feed the workers, each recruit at the time was compelled to bring with him a personal supply of rice. Over time however, this proved unsustainable and Firestone resorted to importing polished rice from the United States of America which they sold at a subsidized price of ten cups of rice for 3 shillings.
In time the Firestone supplied rice became known as Pusawa, Kpelle meaning “three for ten”. In time, our national elite also developed a taste for imported polished rice rather than the nutritious locally grown rice. Urban migration also played a part as many people left the rural areas for the cities, particularly Monrovia in search of better opportunities unavailable in the respective home areas.
They also had to depend on imported rice to feed themselves and their families. Invariably the volume of rice imports increased as subsistence production declined. At the same time successive governments, paying lip service to self-sufficiency in food, especially rice production spent increasing amounts of scarce foreign exchange importing rice. In some cases government officials or those with close connections to the powers that were became active rice growers and major participants in the rice import business.
But the explosive effect of an increase in the price of rice on the market was and had never been felt before not until President William R. Tolbert, in 1979 announced a proposed increase in the price of rice which he said was intended to stimulate local production and increase income of local rice farmers. The proposal was strongly opposed by a cross section of society particularly social pressure groups such as the student movement, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia and the Movement for Justice in Africa(MOJA).
At the time President Tolbert was not only the largest domestic producer, his brother Daniel was a major rice importer as well and according to those opposing the proposed price increase, the Tolbert brothers stood more to gain from the price increase. At the end of the day, on April 14, 1979 a mass protest demonstration against the proposed increase was put down by force resulting in the deaths of hundreds and the extensive looting and destruction of millions of dollars worth of property. A Government Commission of Inquiry set up to probe causes of the riots placed blame squarely at the feet of government.
In his Independence Day address, national orator, Finance Minister Samuel Tweah alluded to this when he declared “In 1979, William R. Tolbert, Jr. attempted to increase the price on imported rice to protect domestic rice production. Politicians used this to incite demonstration. They accused Tolbert of increasing the price on imported rice so that his domestic rice ventures could profit from the increase.
“Granted this was true, had this been possible, the Liberian economy would have benefited. The capacity to grow rice domestically would have been resident with Liberians and the monies generated from this production would have supported the domestic economy. Instead what has emerged from this April 14 episode is the enthronement of imported rice as some kind of ‘political commodity’ whose importation is largely in the hands of non-Liberians, largely because Governments in the past have tended not to trust Liberian entrepreneurs to import the commodity.”
While this newspaper agrees in part with Minster Tweah, that rice has become a political commodity whose importation is largely in the hands of non-Liberians, we must however draw the Minister’s attention to contrary views put forth in October 2008 by Clarence Tsimpo and Quentin Wodon in World Bank Policy Research Working Paper #4742 entitled: “Rice Prices and Poverty in Liberia”.
They argue: “In Liberia however, at least under the current conditions, the impact of a change in the price of rice is not ambiguous. This is because a large share of the rice that is consumed is imported, while the rice that is locally produced is used mostly for auto-consumption rather than for sale on the market. In such circumstances, an increase in the price of rice, whether imported or locally produced, will tend to result in higher poverty in the country as a whole (even if some local producers will gain from this increase), while a reduction in price will lead to a reduction in poverty. Furthermore, because rice represents such a large share of the food consumption of households, any change in the price of rice is likely to have a rather large effect on poverty measures.”
In the face of all this, the Government of Liberia’s allocation to Agriculture remains dismally low at US$8 million, a mere 1.45 percent of the national budget. Quite clearly, a nation seeking to attain food self-sufficiency will never be able to achieve it with such low priority being placed on agriculture which, for all purposes, should be the bedrock of the national economy. Moreover, as the Minister correctly noted, rice importation remains firmly in the hands of mainly foreign monopolies that control the price.
Is there any reason why the market is not open to anyone with the means to import rice to do so? This newspaper believes that self-sufficiency in domestic rice production cannot be achieved without support to farmers in the form of tools, new rice seed varieties, fertilizers, and advisory services, etc. It must not be forgotten that domestic rice production has still not recovered from the shocks of the prolonged civil war as rice production has yet to return to pre-war levels.
And for those local producers who are attempting to fill the void, the lack of support from government serves to undermine their efforts. Tons of harvested rice produced by a local farmer in Lofa County, for example, was lost because the Government of Liberia virtually refused to assist. The producers of FABRAR Rice also have their stories to tell of Government’s neglect of local farmers.
In the final analysis, “Ending the Reign of Rice as a Political Commodity” as the Minister suggests, requires much more than flowery talk. In the opinion of this newspaper, “Rice” shall continue to remain a political commodity as long as foreign importers maintain a monopoly over imports and as long as the Government of Liberia fails to match talk with action.