The Liberian economy still runs on palm oil and rubber, but signs point to a future less dependent on sprawling plantations operated by foreign companies.

Two years after the Ebola crisis brought the economy to a standstill, attention from government and international agencies to infrastructure, small farmers and land use is paying off. The economy will grow at about 2.5 percent this year — after zero percent growth in 2015 — just as the worldwide crash in commodities prices forces foreign companies like Firestone to lay off hundreds of Liberian employees.

A worldwide drop in commodity prices hit Liberia hard in recent years. Exports of rubber and iron have dropped by 50 percent costing $250 million to the world’s fifth-poorest country. “Concession companies are no longer sustainable,” Daniel Boakye, the chief economist for the World Bank in Liberia, said in September.

Agriculture accounts for about a third of the Liberian economy, according to the CIA World Factbook. But about 70 percent of Liberia’s workforce of 1.6 million people depends on farming to make a living. Good roads, modern farming techniques and local control of land could unlock their potential in the underperforming $2 billion Liberian economy.

Small farmers like a farmer outside the northern city of Ganta can have a big impact once they receive training in how to better plant, fertilize and manage their crops, Inguna Dobraja, former head of the World Bank in Liberia, said in an interview. The farmer in Ganta received such training and she now yields more than 600 kilograms of cocoa per acre from a farm that once only produced a sixth of that amount three years before. A nearby cooperative has achieved similar results, Dobraja said.

“These are both good examples of diversifying the agriculture sector.  We have to find ways of gradually moving away from the economy that is largely concessions based,” she said.

Iron, rubber and palm oil once powered what was once one of West Africa’s most prosperous and stable countries. Exports fueled growth that saw the economy grow ten-fold between 1960 and 1990, according to World Bank data before collapsing following the outbreak of civil war in 1989. Peace in 2003 led to an economic boom funded by international aid that contributed about half of the country’s GDP in the following years.

The rise of the Chinese economy during these years helped prop up the Liberian mining and rubber sectors but such demand has cooled in recent years just as Liberia’s economy was getting ready to heat up, according to a World Bank report.

Liberians should not expect that demand from China will rescue them from a long term slump in demand for the products of large foreign-owned concessions, the reports adds.

“The slowing of China’s economic growth and its potential adverse impact on the global economy are likely to keep already low commodity prices depressed. This remains a major downside risk for Liberia, given its dependence on the exports of rubber, iron ore and oil palm for growth, employment and fiscal revenues,” reads the report.

There is also the challenge of getting products to market, she added. New highways have created links between the capital city and the countryside, but transportation remains a problem. A national transportation plan envisions a modern highway system connecting all of the cities in a country the size of New York State. Tens of millions of dollars count within a national budget of a half-billion dollars, according to former Minister of Transport Angela Bush.

“There are a lot of roads on the way, but there may be constraints at times in their finances,” she said in an interview.

The recent completion of a 250-kilometer highway from Monrovia to the Guinea border benefits people more than drivers. It also links farmers in the fertile upcountry with the outside world. This $250 million stretch of asphalt will help the national economy retain about $200 million annually by making the country self-sufficient in its dietary staple in the coming years, according to Dobraja.

Perhaps the greatest unknown isn’t whether asphalt highways will replace mud-rutted road allowing Liberian farmers to cash in on their sunny climate and abundant water. The future of the land remains uncertain.

Four international palm oil companies have gained concessions since 2009 over 1.5 million acres. The 90-year-old Firestone plantation controls 200 square miles and foreign interests continue to own land that contains the country’s richest timber, iron and gold deposits.

“Without proper oversight, the country’s vast forests could be cut down and replaced by oil palm plantations, destroying critical natural resources and the benefits they provide for the communities who depend on them,” said Liam Walsh of Conservation International in an October statement.

A bribery scandal involving a British mining company and officials throughout the Liberian government is making it politically unviable to encourage additional giveaways. A grassroots effort meanwhile is encouraging local control of the same lands.

 

  1. Mark Brown of the National Council of Elders recalls a time in the recent past when the “yellow machines” would enter villages in the countryside. They would head straight for the forests, cuts the trees and intimidate any villager who tried to stop them.

 

He said in an interview that a new bill before the Liberian Congress gives him hope in a wider effort to empower local land management. It would crack down on illegal mining and timber harvesting and require local consent to future economic activities and concessions. But Brown added that he will wait and see whether the Liberian government will back up such promises with real law enforcement.

 

“We are looking at transparency. If transparency is there from the grassroots all the way up I think then we will have justice for ourselves,” he said.

 

That will likely be a problem in a country where bribery and corruption are rampant. But if the economy continues to grow on the backs of ordinary Liberians, politicians may reconsider where their bread gets buttered.

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