In 1984 Liberia's forestry resource remained one of its most important assets. Situated south of the Tropic of Cancer, in the moist belt along the coast of West Africa, more than 75 percent of the country's land area was covered by forest and woodland. Included in this cover were some 3,500 square miles of virgin pro ductile forest. Commercial exploitation of forest areas for logs and timber for export began in a small way in the early 1960s. Early operations were hindered by a lack of access roads in commercial forest areas and by the high cost of new road construction. In 1963 about 4 million board feet of timber were exported. Ten years later the reported total was 105 million board feet. During the 1970s the annual total varied considerably, but in the latter half of the decade exports averaged well over 100 million board feet a year, reaching a high of 166 million board feet in 1980. The increasing importance of the forestry sector was apparent in its growing share of GDP, which rose in constant terms from 1 percent in 1970 to 5.2 percent in 1980. During this period the value of logs gild sawn timber exports in current dollars increased from $5.9 million to $72.5 million, accounting in 1970 and 1980 for 2.5 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of total merchandise export earnings. The situation changed drastically in 1981, however, when earnings declined to a little more than $41 million. A substantial drop in production that occurred that year has been attributed in considerable part to economic uncertainties after the change of government in 1980. But a decline in international prices and the effects of the increasing value of the dollar on market competitiveness were also important factors.
The country's forests consisted of two predominant kinds, which, with the transitional mixed forest between them, accounted for all but a minor part of the total tree vegetation. Evergreen hardwood rain forests, whose trees exhibited no marked seasonal leaf fall, occupied large areas in a wide zone paralleling the coast in which the annual rainfall was over 80 inches and there was no pronounced dry season. Beyond this zone, in the more northerly and northwestern parts of the country, the forest consisted of moist-climate semideciduous species. This vegetation resembled the rain forest in general appearance, but leaves were lost in an annual pattern, although not all species shed their leaves at the same time; thus, trees were bare for varying periods. The remaining tree vegetation included the mangrove forests of the brackish lagoons and the edges of some rivers in the coastal area. The coastal area was also characterized by a strip, roughly 10 miles in average width, consisting mostly of wooded savanna that had arisen as the result of the clearing of the original rain forest by cultivators, subsequent burnings, and deterioration of the soil. In 1984 the vegetation was mainly scattered low trees, oil palms, bush, and occasional patches of remnant rain forest. Similarly, in accompanied by consistent burning had also degraded land that formerly had been covered by semideciduous forest to a savanna of scattered fire-resistant trees and high grasses.
The species of trees in the present-day high forest and other evidence, including ancient burial sites, indicate that a large part of the forest area had at one time been exploited for agriculture. Early in the second millennium A.D., shifting cultivation, in which upland rice was a main crop, spread through the area. Much of the then-virgin forest was cut over by a population that is believed to have been substantially larger in the middle of the millennium than exists in present-day Liberia (see The African Background, ch. 1). From about the sixteenth century, however, this population was greatly reduced by slave trading, disease, and warfare. A large part of the land temporarily in tree fallow reverted to high forest, although the latter was of a secondary character, having trees that differed from those of the original forest.
Under forestry legislation enacted in 1953, areas of national forests were established in various parts of the country. They were largely uninhabited regions, and agriculture-especially of a shifting nature was prohibited in them; some encroachment, however, has been reported. Varying in size from about 17 square miles to 1,985 square miles, they encompassed in the late 1970s over 6,400 square miles, or 17 percent of the land area. About 61 percent was located in the rain forests of southeastern Liberia, another 36 percent consisting of both rain and semideciduous forest was in the northwest, and the remainder was in the northern part of the country. Cutting of trees in the national forests and other high forests was regulated by the government. Exploitation has been effected through a system of leased concessions, the first of which was granted in the 1950s. In the early 1980s about 75 per cent of the high forest was in the hands of such concessionaires, approximately three-quarters of whom were foreigners (in 1982 foreigners held 33 concessions in all). Of the other concessions, 10 percent were Liberian owned, and Liberians held majority interests in another 15 percent.
There were about 235 tree species suitable for timber, but only about 150 of these were found in sufficient volume for economical exploitation. In 1984 fewer than one?third of the latter were generally known in world markets. A handful, including species classified as West African mahogany, redwood, and walnut, had intrinsic values that made them readily marketable, but other exploited species faced strong competition.
The country's large forestry resources have tended to diminish interest in reforestation and tree plantation development. Some experimental plantings of exotic species were begun in the early 1960s by the Forestry Experiment Station of the University of Liberia. In the early 1970s concessionaires under leasing agreements began some reforestation, and during the decade the government initiated a program with foreign aid. A main objective of the program has been the establishment of industrial plantations. In the early 1980s reforested and plantation areas totaled about 16,000 acres (25 square miles), according to the Forestry Development Authority, an agency set up under 1976 legislation to administer forestry matters.
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