The civil warfare that raged from 1990 to 1997 and from 2001 to 2003 had a disastrous effect on the Liberian economy, with many business people fleeing the country as rebels gained control of vast quantities of gold, diamonds, natural rubber, and tropical hardwoods. Until the 1950s, Liberia's economy was almost totally dependent upon subsistence farming and the production of rubber. The American-owned Firestone plantation was the country's largest employer and held a concession on some one million acres (404,700 hectares) of land. With the discovery of high-grade iron ore, first at Bomi Hills, and then at Bong and Nimba, the production and export of minerals became the country's major cash-earning economic activity. Gold, diamonds, barite, and kyanite are also mined. Mineral processing plants are located near Buchanan and Bong.
About 70% of the population work in the agricultural sector, which produces rubber, coffee, cocoa, rice, cassava, palm oil, sugarcane, and bananas. Sheep and goats are raised, and there is lumbering. Much rice, the main staple, is imported, but efforts have been made to develop intensive rice production and to establish fish farms. Much of the country's industry is concentrated around Monrovia, where civil war disruption was highest, and is directed toward mineral, rubber, and palm oil processing. The lack of skilled and technical labor has slowed the growth of the manufacturing sector.
The government derives a sizable income from registering ships; low fees and lack of control over shipping operations have made the Liberian merchant marine one of the world's largest. Internal communications are poor, with few paved roads and only a few short, freight-carrying rail lines. Rubber, timber, iron ore, diamonds, cocoa, and coffee provide the bulk of the export earnings; fuels, chemicals, machinery, transportation equipment, manufactured goods, and foodstuffs are the principal imports. In general, the value of imports greatly exceeds that of exports, and the country has accumulated massive international debts. Liberia's main trading partners are Belgium, South Korea, and Japan.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.