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May 17, 2008

Liberia bans all food exports, drops import duties on farm implements

Liberia banned all food exports May 12, saying profiteers have been taking advantage of its cheap rice prices to truck the grain — already in short supply in Liberia — to neighboring countries to sell at higher prices.

It was the latest attempt by some of the region's poorest countries to fight a looming food crisis sparked by a worldwide surge in prices.

The high cost of rice has hit particularly hard in West Africa, where many countries count the grain as a staple even though much of it is imported. In war-recovering Liberia, the price surge has added yet another obstacle to resurrecting a devastated economy.

Liberia, which officials say imports about 70 percent of the rice it consumes annually, does not officially export any rice. But dealers from neighboring countries have been buying up sacks of rice on Liberia's market to resell in countries like Guinea where it is more expensive, Commerce Minister Frances Johnson Morris said.

"If you compare our price of rice with those in the sub-region, we have the lowest," Morris told reporters. He said a 50-kilogram sack of rice costs between $26 and $28 in Liberia, compared with up to $50 a sack in Guinea.

The government also said it is launching a campaign to urge Liberians to adjust their diet toward starches other that rice — which has seen the greatest increase in price. A number of major Asian rice producers have restricted exports to protect their own crops.

"There are other products here — yams, cassava, plantains. Let's eat them," Morris said.

Liberia also dropped all import duties on farming tools to help farmers to increase production. Liberia imported only 30 percent of its rice before descending into fighting in 1989, officials have said.

"If you get fertilizer you want to bring in, bring it in. If you get a power-tiller to prepare the soil, bring it in. You get seeds, bring them in," Agriculture Minister Chris Toe said.

Even if the rice is kept within Liberia's borders, supplies are getting tight. As of May 5, Liberia had 1.7 million sacks of rice in stock, enough to last until the end of August, Commerce Minister Morris said.

She emphasized that the ban applies to commercial foodstuffs, not to a few cups of rice carried across the border by a traveler. Liberian security forces recently stopped a truck carrying about 700 sacks of rice at the Guinea border, she said.

Liberia was ravaged by alternating civil war and coups between 1989 and 2003. The drawn-out conflict left about 200,000 people dead and displaced half the country's population of 3 million. The country — created to settle freed American slaves in 1847 — is still struggling to maintain a fragile peace with the help of U.N. peacekeepers.

AP

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