Algerian independence and the subsequent departure of French colons and other settlers signaled the collapse of the agricultural sector. Agriculture used to be Algeria's dominant sector. Since the beginning of French colonization until the early 1960s, it satisfied almost all of the country's food requirements. It was critically handicapped, however, by the sudden loss of foreign managers and skilled labor. Perhaps more important was the disruption of a profit-motivated system that was not content with self-sufficiency but that also managed to export some products. Whereas Algeria produced more than 90 percent of its grain needs in 1962, the 1989 rate stood at 25 percent. Before the advent of the oil and gas era, the agricultural sector accounted for 63 percent of export revenues. But the importance of agriculture dwindled steadily as hydrocarbons became the driving force of the economy and the government's development policy favored heavy industries over agriculture-related projects. Similarly, agricultural employment dropped from 40 percent of the total labor force in the 1960s to 24 percent in 1990. The percentage of GDP provided by agriculture in 1990 was estimated to be between 7 and 11 percent; it was clear that agriculture's impact on the economy had declined appreciably since colonial times.
Nevertheless, agriculture remains highly significant. In the early 1990s, at least 22 percent of the population lived in rural areas and depended on agriculture as a means of livelihood. But a number of natural factors beyond the government's control have had a negative impact on Algerian agriculture, among them unreliable rainfall patterns, floods, and drought. The country's arable land is limited to less than 3 percent of its total area-- about 7.5 million hectares. Another 12 percent of Algeria's total area is suitable only for forestry and grazing. Because 40 to 50 percent of the cultivable land is usually left fallow in any one season, only about 1.7 percent of the total area (about 4.2 million hectares) is actually cultivated; more than half of the cultivable area, 2.7 million hectares, is used for grains alone. In addition, only one-tenth of the cultivable land receives adequate rainfall. In 1989 the government, finally recognizing that irrigation projects were essential to allow more intensive cultivation and substitution of higher-yielding vegetables for grains, provided more than 1.8 billion cubic meters of water by irrigation to increase agricultural production.
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