Liberians Are Hungry: Why and What Must Be Done?

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For several years now this newspaper, the Daily Observer, has been calling  the attention of the Agriculture Ministry, the Liberian government and people to the poor state of agriculture in this country so rich in fertile land and rainfall.

But the more we have written, the more not only we, but the problem itself, have been ignored.

The person chiefly responsible for making sure that the nation’s farmers are working successfully and their farms doing well is Agriculture Minister Dr. Florence Chenoweth.  But the more we have written, the more she has been in denial.  She has even dismissed the Daily Observer as nothing more than a “tabloid,” which she says she no longer reads.  But despite her dismissive and unconcerned attitude, we have remained undeterred and have persistently reported that Liberia continues to import most of what we eat, including not only our staple, rice, but even such basic items as pepper, tomato, bitter balls, peanuts and even fruits, most of which are regularly brought in from Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire.

Now the global organization chiefly concerned with food, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has added its voice to this disturbing,  grave and urgent national crisis.

The FAO Country Representative to Liberia, Jean-Alexandre Scaglia, bluntly stated last week that Liberia is hungry, and that she faces a very serious problem of FOOD INSECURITY.

Deliberately shunning diplomacy, he backed his statement with a series of grim statistics, which showed that people in all the counties are hungry.  These include the people of LOFA County, historically the nation’s breadbasket.

Lofa is food insecure to the extent of a whopping 61.3%! Bong County, the nation’s second breadbasket, is even worse, 64.6%; while Sinoe, like other southeastern counties, is even harder hit, 65.1%.  Grand Bassa’s is 60.8%, while Agriculture Minister Chenoweth’s own home, Grand Cape Mount County, is a staggering 78.8% food insecure!

Montserrado County, where the  Agriculture Ministry sits, stands at 67%. Nimba, another important food producer, stands at 41.5% insecure and Margibi at 63.2%.

We have constantly complained of the absence of agricultural extension agents in most parts of the country.  But here again Agriculture Minister has been in denial.

Clearly, the President of Liberia herself seems to have played a deaf ear to the Daily Observer’s consistent and unrelenting reports on the crisis in the nation’s agriculture. 

Yes, she fired Dr. Chris Toe years ago when it appeared that the rubber sector, especially two of the major plantations, Guthrie in Bomi and Cavalla in Maryland, was being mishandled.  But Dr. Toe’s  successor, Dr. Chenoweth, has been in office for nearly seven or more years and the agriculture sector has continued to flounder.

It is simply amazing that people who have been trained at the highest level in agriculture have failed to help their own country in this most critical and vital sector.  WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

There was another PhD Agriculture Minister during the Taylor years–Dr. Roland Massaquoi.  And what did he accomplish?

Last week President Sirleaf blamed the Finance Ministry and the Central Bank of Liberia for the decline in the value of the Liberian dollar compared to the United States dollar. 

Unfortunately, she did not mention the woeful lack of productivity in the agriculture sector. Upon what does a  country depend for foreign exchange?  It seems to us that the primary reason for the Liberian dollar’s decline is the US$300 million we spend annually importing rice alone, and even more money on almost all of the other foods we eat, including fruits, meat and vegetables.  And what do we produce on the farm for export?

Nothing, especially since the world rubber price has drastically dropped.

As we recently suggested editorially, we need to   reinvigorate the Liberia Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC) and empower it to work directly with the farmers toward increasing agricultural production. Ambassador Charles A. Minor and Vice President Joseph Boakai, who both ran LPMC, are around to advise on this.

The President must pay very serious attention to   agriculture and determine what must be done to improve the sector.  Her people are hungry and this should be to her a matter of extreme urgency.  The GOL, including the Central Agricultural Research Institute, must also empower the agricultural cooperatives to work with farmers to grow more food.

The President must do some drastic to arrest the nation’s agricultural decline, which threatens not only food security but security in general.   Remember April 14?  Florence Chenoweth most certainly does.

She was Agriculture Minister then, too.

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