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Liberia has yet another peace agreement that could end decades of warfare

The most developed part of Liberia is the narrow coastal strip that extends around 50 kilometres inland. Behind this rises a belt of low hills and plateaux, and beyond this is the densely forested mountainous interior.

Liberia's 15 or more ethnic groups were left relatively undisturbed by the colonial powers until freed American slaves arrived in the mid-19th century and established the Republic of Liberia. Nowadays, the Americo-Liberians make up only around 3% of the population but until the early 1980s they dominated political life. The wars have partly been a struggle between this élite group and the rest of the population, as well as between other ethnic groups.

The wars are thought to have killed around 200,000 people, and displaced around 700,000, though most of these have now returned home, Even before the wars, this was one of Africa's most urbanized countries, but the fighting and the flows of refugees have driven many people permanently from the rural areas.

Levels of human development have fallen steeply over the past few years. Infant mortality is high and the health system has lost many of its staff. The education system too collapsed in many parts of the country as more than 40,000 children were recruited into the different militias. In the past agriculture has provided work to around three-quarters of the workforce—the staple foods being rice and cassava. But the fighting drove many subsistence farmers from the land, and the population remains heavily dependent on food imports.

Many small farmers were also responsible for the country's major cash crop, rubber. One-third of this was produced by smallholders and the rest on large plantations now owned by the Japanese Bridgestone Company. The rubber industry now needs to be rebuilt—with investment not just in plantations but also in roads and in employee housing, much of which was destroyed in the war.

Logging has also been an important source of income. About 50% of Liberia is covered with trees and there are an estimated 3.8 million hectares of productive forests. Now that trade sanctions have been lifted, exports should revive.

One billion tons of high-grade iron ore

Liberia is well endowed with minerals, including iron ore, gold, and diamonds. Indeed much of the fighting involved struggles for control over these resources. Iron ore was the most significant in terms of export income. Production had already fallen in the mid-1980s as a result of a global slump in the demand for steel. But the war brought the industry to a rapid halt. Again, heavy investment will be needed to replace the damaged equipment. But with proven reserves of over one billion tons of high-grade ore this should be profitable.

Gold and diamond production will revive more quickly, since these are small-scale operations with about five thousand mining and dealing operations. But since much of the output is smuggled out of the country these make a limited contribution to the national economy.

The seeds for Liberia's civil war were sown in 1980 when a military coup led by Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe ended 150 years of domination by the Americo-Liberians. His regime promoted the interests of his own ethnic group, the Kahn, and rapidly degenerated into ruthless repression. After a rigged election in 1985 and attempted coup by the Gio group, full-scale civil war erupted in 1989 when Charles Taylor (an Americo-Liberian) invaded with rebel forces.


Subjects: History

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