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April 06, 2008

Liberia to devote 15,000 hectares to rice production

Liberia signed over 15,000 hectares of land for commercial rice production at the weekend under an aid agreement intended to increase local production and help offset soaring import costs as world food prices surge.

The $30 million concession deal with Swiss-backed aid group African Development Aid (ADA) is one of the first large-scale attempts to boost mechanised food farming since 14 years of on-off civil war that destroyed Liberia's economy ended in 2003.

Agriculture Minister Christopher Toe said developing commercial rice production was a key objective of the government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Food farming in Liberia, as across much of west and central Africa, is largely done on a subsistence basis by families living on smallholdings who sell any crops they have left over after they have fed themselves.

"The agreement is a huge step towards making Liberia self-sufficient in food production," Wendell McIntosh, ADA's chief executive, told reporters after signing the deal with Toe and other government officials on April 5.

"ADA Commercial will embark upon mechanized rice production in order to minimize Liberia's dependence on food imports, especially rice," he said.

The 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres), located in northern Liberia, was signed over to ADA for 20 years.

Rice is the staple of most of Liberia's 3 million people. But despite a lush, fertile territory which once boasted the world's biggest rubber plantation, Liberia imports virtually all its rice, mainly from big Asian producers.

Import costs have shot up in recent months as unpredictable weather, increased demand from Asia, and the use of crops and land for biofuels has pushed world food prices higher.

Speculation by cash-rich investment funds has helped increase price volatility on futures markets, where U.S. rice futures surged to record highs last week.

Some rice exporters such as big growers Vietnam and India have restricted exports in order to keep more rice at home, pushing up international prices and threatening supplies to countries like Liberia which depend on imports.

Liberia's near-neighbours Burkina Faso and Mauritania have suspended import duty on food shipments after violent protests against rising food prices, and other countries have been forced to take similar measures to shield poor masses from price hikes.

Liberia was founded as Africa's first republic in 1847 by black slaves freed from America, and with strong U.S. backing the small country built up an impressive economy based on mining and rubber plantations before the 1989-2003 civil war ruined it.

Rising rice prices helped speed Liberia's fall into chaos, sparking riots in 1979 and a political crisis that led the next year to President William Tolbert being stabbed to death.


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