Liberia's Seeds of Knowledge

IN THE AFTERMATH OF CIVIL WAR, Liberia's urban and rural peoples alike face a daunting burden of national reconstruction: restarting self-sufficient rural agriculture, providing health care for the war's victims, and restoring the national economy, to name a few (Thomasson 1990). Indigenous knowledge systems can contribute to recovery and maintain and enhance the lives of Liberia's nonurban peoples. In particular, traditional seeds and traditional metallurgy can play vital roles in rebuilding the agricultural sector. But for this recovery to take place, urban Liberians and outsiders must learn to value and respect the intellectual and cultural property of Liberia's precolonial peoples.


Around 400 years ago, Kpelle peoples began moving from the Guinea savanna into Liberia's rain forests. This immigration roughly coincided with Portuguese traders' introduction of a few Asian rice varieties to West Africa. Although many African peoples were familiar with African rices, Asian varieties offered new opportunities for adaptation. The migrants' abrupt physical transition from the savannah grasslands of the interior to the rain forests of Liberia coincided with obtaining new crop varieties and doing the experiments necessary to develop appropriate steel tools and Rainforest swidden technology (which does not seem to predate the Kpelle). These events marked the onset of a Kpelle agricultural revolution as the Kpelle began to master the upland cultivation of rice (Oryza sativa) and other crops in that new ecosystem.

Today, the key to reconstructing post-war Liberia is in rebuilding the country's traditional agriculture sector. In the 1920s, the United States and Firestone Rubber coerced and enticed the Liberian elite into leasing land for the huge Harbel rubber plantation - proclaimed as the world's largest. Before this land was commandeered, the rural sector in Liberia had been self-sufficient in rice production. Later, the ruling elite diverted more and more land to meet personal and international lenders' demands for an export economy and cash crops. At all this activity caused rural peoples to retreat further back from the encroaching highways. As a result, they had to cut down more of the remaining primary forest to make room for farms, or else decrease the years of fallow between cuttings of recovered primary or secondary forest. So began yet another vicious cycle of making bigger farms in a fixed amount of land, resulting in shorter fallows, producing reduced yields, and so on. Typically, urban revenue policies (hut and head taxes) exacerbated the problem. Today, the war has cost an additional enormous short-term loss in agricultural production. Even more important but less noticed is the virtually irreversible loss of biodiversity, not in indigenous rain-forest species of flora and fauna but through the loss of an internationally ignored woman-created and - maintained agri-biodiversity.

There is virtually no time to debate the priority of preserving the diversity of the indigenous agricultural gene pool. No crops have been sown or harvested in some areas since 1989, when entire villages were driven from their lands by the war. Since no crops were sown in many areas in 1990, and people facing starvation have eaten seed rice that soldiers did not confiscate or burn, many rural areas face worse than short-term starvation. Irreplaceable agricultural resources upon which self-sufficiency depends, including a highly diversified genetic pool of ecologically adapted staple crop varieties that are often unique to each village, will be lost within the coming year unless immediate efforts are made to save them.

In one of many villages where I studied, women had maintained more than 112 varieties of rice. On one uphill traverse of one field grew 14 varieties of rice, each planted to return optimal yields. To a newcomer, the field looked as uniform as swidden cultivation can be; in fact, it was a complex jigsaw puzzle in which each piece varied from others in the type of seed used, which was matched to the degree of slope, amount of insulation, type of soil, and so on. This was not an exceptional case in Liberia; each village had its own carefully adapted or selected crop varieties.

Here is a typical example of how far Western-trained (usually male) agronomists are from understanding the rich potential of Liberian agriculture. In 1982 I took the seed varieties shown in the photo below to CARI (the Liberian Central Agricultural Research Institute, or Government Farms), hoping to sensitize certain workers there to the research potentials of "country" rice. I had barely spread the stalks of rice on a table and told them of how these varieties had been collected when one person grabbed a stalk (shown in the top right in the photo) and said, "This is what we should have people plant." All he saw was high yield. It was virtually impossible to convince him that the seed he held would yield nothing if sown even a few meters away from where it had been planted, above a rock outcropping on a slope. At that location, slit and ash would be deposited as rains washing down the hillside became slowed by the obstruction. Around the sides of the outcropping the soil was thinner and other varieties were planted, and yet another variety was found on the downhill side of the rock, where water sheeting off the rock depleted the soil most. The variety shown in the lower right of the photo was planted there - a small plant which, nevertheless, gave some yield from these nutrient-depleted and, for other varieties, least optimal conditions (see Richards 1985).

The traditional division of agricultural labor between the sexes is Kpelle culture has been almost equal. Over the centuries women have been responsible for, among other things, breeding, selecting, diversifying, and maintaining an enormously sophisticated gene pool of rice seed (Gay 1980). This was a very self-conscious process and included multiple educational mechanisms to sustain itself. The variety of seeds maintained and expanded over time were matched carefully to the diverse range of micro-environments in the village ecosystem. Each type of seed was known to optimize production in response to particular ecological constraints, and no two villages' seed stock were necessarily identical. One older woman indicated it was no secret that young girls spent considerable time memorizing information about the various plant varieties and for what conditions each variety was best suited.

Liberians must decide for themselves their priorities for recovery and reconstruction; with that said, I would recommend that any indigenous rice varieties that survive be planted this year in war-devastated areas be regarded as precious, national treasures, to be guarded as if they were gold. Women need the security of imported rice supplies to support their families so they can work to protect any seed rice that survives and go out into past years' fallow fields to search for and protect any "volunteers" (that is, seeds that were missed in a previous year's harvest and somehow replanted themselves) - such hardy seedlings could provide the basis for rebuilding their agriculture. If these seed stocks, the products of centuries of self-conscious breeding and selection, are lost, many areas of rural Liberia will for all intents and purposes cease to exist, and so will many of Liberia's indigenous cultures.

But Liberia cannot survive without its traditional rural sector. This must be the first priority. Traditional fences must be erected where the last few grains gleaned - even kernel by kernel from beneath the remains of a destroyed or abandoned "rice kitchen" (granary) - are sown. "Small boys" with "flippers" (slings and slingshots) should be sent to watch and protect the plants throughout the growing season. Every grain recovered or seedling found of a traditional variety must be nurtured. If any fertilizer is available, women could learn careful application, this one time, of nutrients; even in recently fallowed fields, then, the seeds can flourish and mature rather than die. In the event of drought, plants will need to be watered by hand.

This is an enormous amount of labor. To sustain it, rural Liberia needs massive international aid. It needs immediate food shipments into all rural areas where traditional agriculture has been interrupted by the fighting, along with efforts to return refugee populations to their villages. Virtually every devastated village upcountry needs huge amounts of imported parboiled rice. Women know the value of traditional varieties; but people must be fed - now - if surviving traditional seed stock is to be restored to anything like its previous diversity.

If this genetic pool of indigenous rice varieties is lost, agricultural productivity will be cut by as much as 50 percent. Imported rice varieties will have to be substituted, as only a few Liberian varieties have been collected and saved elsewhere. There has never been a village-by-village survey in Liberia on the scale of that which collected more than 40,000 varieties of rice seed in upland Burma (Hodgson 1984). Imported generic strains, such as those in UNICEF's "Life or Death Seed Catalog" (1990), are better than most seeds because they are not petrochemical-dependent (fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide).

But even UNICEF's seeds are like experiment station varieties (e.g., Liberia's LAC 23 and Suakoko 8); they are ecological compromises, selected to give some yield independent of the very micro-ecological factors that promote optimal yields with traditional seed stock. Experiment station and/or "green revolution" seeds are least desirable for Liberia: they promise high yields despite ecological variations only with petrochemical inputs. "Green revolution" varieties impose the unsustainable long-range cost of depending on substantial amounts of high-priced petrochemical inputs - a cost Liberia could not afford even in the best of times.

Even if thousands of outside rice varieties are brought in, and these prove resistant to local pathogens and are germ free themselves, they could only be matched to existing micro-environments, village by village, after many decades of experimentation. This experimentation is something women know how to do; but it would take too long and would produce insufficient food to feed rural populations in the meantime. The other alternatives - Liberia becoming completely dependent upon imported rice to feed its rural and urban populations, or converting to petrochemical-dependent, expensive "green revolution" varieties - are simply irrational. Converting from upland or swidden rain-fed rice to "swamp" or paddy rice is even more impractical!

If the indigenous agricultural seed gene pool is lost, rural productivity will plummet. This in turn will force the cutting of Liberia's little-remaining rain forest and cause successive decreases in the fallow cycle times for secondary forest, further eroding swidden carrying capacity below the sustainable level. As harvests decline, the bulk of the rural population will be forced to move to the city, where unemployment reached 40 percent at best in recent decades and evergreater numbers live in increasingly degraded conditions. Such an exodus will destroy rural cultures, depopulate the countryside, and undermine any chance for urban political stability. Ultimately, increasing urban populations will result in a vicious cycle of political instability and successive coups.


The abrupt physical transition that the Kpelle peoples began 400 years ago in moving from savanna to rain forest marked the necessary beginning not only of a Kpelle agricultural revolution, but a technological one as well. Kpelle technological expertise was a highly adapted and complex indigenous knowledge system (see Chambers 1983, 1985; Institute of Development Studies 1979; Broken-sha et al. 1980; Whyte and Boynton 1983; and Warren et al. 1991).

Kpelle metallurgical technology, as reflected in its material remains and also in interviews with informants, was both sophisticated, quite distinctive, and clearly not derived from neighbors, captives, or slaves obtained by the Kpelle as they settled the Rainforest area. In addition to mining and smelting iron alloys, casting in brass, and forging steel tools, Kpelle smiths did some types of welding and even some gunsmithing. Overall, while utilizing what is often denigrated as "primitive" technology, Kpelle knowledge was very advanced.

Just as the Kpelle had to develop, test, and adapt radically new agronomic knowledge and technology, so too did they have to invent or modify manufacturing skills to fit their new ecological niche. Tools that had worked for farming in the relatively more dry interior were not adequate for clearing the rank vegetation of the jungle floor, let alone the triple tier forest's canopy of tall hardwoods, with their massive trunks and buttress roots. In the same way, if the Kpelle had maintained an "iron" (more properly, steel) manufacturing technology during their westward migrations, they still would have had to modify and adapt to the Liberian land. The charcoal-intensive technology for smelting iron used by the Kpelle could be maintained during migrations only with considerable labor and innovation/research costs. For example, discovering new and diverse types of iron ore while moving through successive mineral environments is not simple.

Unrelated interviewees in distant areas reported that unlike kwii metals, "Kpelle iron" was rust resistant and had higher strength. I examined museum pieces kept without any modern preservation techniques which confirmed these reports, as did my observation of a few pieces seen in the field. Blacksmiths also reported intentionally "mixing" (alloying of) different types of ore (referred to as "rocks of different colors") to produce specific outcomes. To test these claims I was allowed to collect both slag and laterite gravel (plinthite ore) from one Kpelle smelter site.

X-ray fluorescence spectrometry vealed that the slag contained, among other elements, significant residues of manganese, titanium, and chromium. The test was significant because laterite gravel from the furnace site revealed a comparative absence of manganese. Thus, contrary to what has been assumed, laterite could not have been the Kpelle's only ore. It could not account for residues in the slag (Thomasson 1987b). Blacksmiths' reports of alloying ores tend to be confirmed and the reported superiority of "Kpelle iron" among older Kpelle and the historically reported demand for it from traders and neighboring tribes is quite believable.

"Kpelle iron" is not unusual because of its manganese content, but because this was achieved by the conscious alloying of ores to obtain the desired characteristics. The resulting qualities explain the at times high volumes of production reflected in some slag heaps, and iron's place in regional trade.

Despite the strengths of Kpelle steel manufacturing technology, that industry is at best moribund today. I found only a few elderly blacksmiths who knew anything about mining and refining iron ore. The profession of tool making and repair has only a precarious status. Virtually every village still has at least one smith, but smiths are best described as underemployed, even though traditional tools are almost universally preferred by farmers over imported implements because of their functional utility. All the rural Kpelle I interviewed under about 40 years of age who were not blacksmiths had no knowledge of their ancestors' skills in mining and refining iron; the same was true among university students who had attended the Youth of Life Mission School in Palala, where the largest known slag heap in the region is located.

The older generation does not talk about the old iron industry, and some schoolteachers even ridicule blacksmithing as a primitive and backward trade. The reasons for the decline in the industry include noneconomic forces changing patterns of trade, distortion of "market" pricing, and disruption of traditional reciprocal labor relations. If the craft is in fact dead, it was killed by colonialism and monopoly capitalism, not because the product it produced was in any way inferior or overpriced in the marketplace.


Throughout this century, the Americo-Liberian-controlled government actually subsidized the coastal merchants (i.e. themselves), eventually destroying the economy, currency, and indigenous industry. Following the initial incursion into Kpelle territory up through the first years of the Doe regime (1980-1990), artificially low ceilings with heavy penalties were placed on the market prices of cutlasses and other implements manufactured by traditional smiths. (Other implements traditional smiths manufactured in substantial quantities included hoes, mattocks, ax-heads, etc.) So traditional implements apparently cost less to buy than the imported tools, and supposedly stayed competitive; but the controlled price (ostensibly a protection for indigenous industry) was always kept lower than what it actually cost for the smiths to manufacture the tools. This made it impossible for the smiths to survive, and guaranteed a profit, first directly to the Americo-Liberian merchants who imported metal tools, and later indirectly to themselves through their Lebanese surrogates of "front-men".

Irrational subsidization and price distortion (accelerating through the Tolbert years [1971-1980] and currently getting worse) also takes place as the government allows merchants to spend costly "foreign exchange" (i.e., US dollars) on the importation of goods that could have been produced locally, to say nothing of the lost economic multiplier effect of domestic production and consumption. In 1982, for instance, from 3.5 up to as many as 100 long tons of Liberia's rapidly vanishing reserves of high-grade iron ore had to be exported to generate the foreign exchange necessary to re-import steel in the form of a single Chinese or Brazilian machete (made from their own ore) that weighs approximately a pound. At that time such an implement cost US$4 in Kpelle country, and was inadequate to the task. In this type of exchange, the bulk of the profit goes to the more than generously licensed multinational mining concessions, and again to the importers, who quickly ship their profits to banks outside Liberia. Neoclassical and monetarist "free-market" theories are more than just irrelevant in solving this kind of problem - they exacerbate it. Only domestic manufacturers could reverse the situation.

Just as Kpelle-speaking villages made up distinct cultural units, so too did their distinctive agronomic knowledge and metallurgical skills represent unique indigenous knowledge systems finely - (though not necessarily optimally) tuned to the ecosystem they inhabited. Other knowledge systems (e.g., preventive and curative medicine, education, etc.; see Thomasson 1987a) hold equal promise as foundations for sustainable rural redevelopment and postwar reconstruction. If, in the aftermath of war, all concerned parties recognize that past "development" programs there, as elsewhere, have done as much damage as good, there is some hope. But the loss of irreplaceable intellectual property such as these indigenous knowledge systems will be a national tragedy. The loss of genetic pools of agricultural seed and the related agronomic knowledge, and the iron smelting technologies here described, which are part of what made Kpelle life in the rain forests of Liberia sustainable, will ultimately mean the loss of ever more power for women, the destruction of those organic patterns we call Kpelle culture, and the depopulation of rural Liberia as a whole.


The US Agency for International Development pushed paddy rice in Liberia for decades under the pretense of compensating for declines in upland rice production. These shortfalls resulted from AID's helping convert farmland to plantation cash crops for export. This was done simultaneously with, and almost oblivious to, a World Health Organization effort to keep people out of Liberia's swamps, where schistosomiasis (bilharzia) is endemic. The health costs are simply unacceptable for paddy rice in Liberia; but, more importantly, there simply are not enough hectares of suitable low-lying land in Liberia that can be converted to irrigated cultivation and support Liberia's rural population, let alone its urban sector. Increasing irrigated land through extensive terracing of the sort found in other parts of the world is labor intensive, takes years to develop, and would require enormous subsidies of food and money to construct. New water treatments for controlling schistosomiasis are prohibitively expensive in the long run, at best problematic as to their safety for prolonged human exposure and consumption, and risk lade for the larger (nonrice) food-producing swamp ecosystem itself. Finally, swamps are already often farmed as an emergency fallback if upland cultivation fails (Bility 1980; Whalen 1983).

The age of the gunsmithing tradition is indeterminate, and may not have preceded European contact. It is noteworthy that information was collected by one scholar on at least two indigenous techniques for manufacturing gunpowder that do not seem to be of either European or Muslim origin (Tham 1972-1974). The chemistry involved obtaining potassium nitrate from tropical plant sources.


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