Congo's mineral wealth is the mainstay of the economy, but the development of the mining industry has occurred at the expense of commercial agriculture. The economy's growth spurted under Belgian control in the 1950s, slowed considerably during the country's postindependence troubles in the early 1960s, accelerated again in the late 1960s when political stability returned, and then generally declined beginning in the 1970s, when the nationalization of major industries resulted in a reduction of private investment. For a decade beginning in the early 1990s much of the economy was in a state of collapse, but with the end of most of civil warfare that devastated Congo, economic stability improved in the early 2000s and foreign investment is again occurring.
Although only 3% of the nation's land area is arable, a substantial part of the labor force is engaged as subsistence farmers. The principal food crops are cassava, bananas, root crops, corn, and fruits. Coffee, sugarcane, palm oil, rubber, tea, quinine, and cotton are produced commercially, primarily for export. Although agricultural production satisfied domestic demands before independence, Congo has become dependent on food imports. Goats, sheep, and cattle are raised.
Mining is centered in Katanga province; products include copper, cobalt, zinc, manganese, uranium, cassiterite (tin ore), coal, gold, and silver. Diamonds are mined in Kasai. There are major deposits of petroleum offshore near the mouth of the Congo River. About 75% of Congo is covered with forest containing ebony and teak as well as less valuable woods.
Kinshasa and Lubumbashi are the country's most important industrial centers. Industries produce processed copper, zinc, and cassiterite; refined petroleum; processed foods and beverages; and basic consumer goods such as clothing and footwear. The numerous rivers of Congo give it an immense potential for producing hydroelectricity, a small but significant percentage of which has been realized. The chief hydroelectric facilities are situated in Katanga and produce power for the mining industry; another major project is located at Inga, on the Congo River near Kinshasa.
Rivers form the backbone of the country's transportation network; unnavigable parts of the Congo River (e.g., Kinshasa-Matadi and Kisangani-Ubundi) are bridged by rail lines, but the rail and road network in Congo is both very limited for a nation of it's size and in disrepair as a result of the civil war. Matadi, Boma, and Banana can handle oceangoing vessels. E Congo is linked (via Lake Tanganyika) by rail with the seaport of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.
The country's export earnings come almost entirely from sales of primary products, which are vulnerable to sharp changes in world prices. Since 1994 diamonds have become the country's leading export as a result of a decline in the production of copper (once the leading mineral product in terms of value). Petroleum also accounts for a substantial portion of export earnings. Other important exports are coffee, cobalt, palm products, and rubber. The leading imports are foodstuffs, machinery, transport equipment, fuels, and consumer goods. The country's principal trade partners are Belgium, the United States, South Africa, and France.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.