In 1998, the agricultural sector engaged approximately 81 percent of the Mozambican labor force and contributed 34 percent of GDP. Mozambique's major agricultural products include cotton, cashew nuts, sugarcane, tea, cassava, corn, rice, tropical fruits, beef, and poultry. Agricultural exports include prawns, which are a type of shellfish similar to large shrimp, cashews, cotton, sugar, copra (a coconut product), citrus, coconuts, and timber.
As part of FRELIMO's socialist legacy, all land is owned by the state. The latter, in turn, leases parcels of land to individuals and companies for up to 50 years, with an option to renew. The system is designed to protect the small family farm sector, which provides employment for 90 percent of the agricultural population. According to the IMF Country Report Number 01/25, 98.9 percent of the rural poor in Mozambique own land, with an average of 2.5 hectares per household. Many small holder farmers can only produce enough for subsistence (survival) purposes, while others are able to produce a surplus to sell on the market. Land tenure is a highly politicized issue and it is unlikely that FRELIMO will privatize land ownership any time soon. Estate production is confined mostly to the sugar sector, though there are some large agro firms maintaining commercial operations of cotton, copra, citrus, and maize production.
Though the vast majority of Mozambicans work in the production of cash crops, prawns from the fishing industry have become the country's single most important export (1998 est.). According to the U.S. Department of State FY 2000 Country Commercial Guide , prawns, which comprise 40 percent of all export revenue, have contributed an average of $70 million per year to the economy over the past several years. Commercial fisheries involved in catching and exporting prawns usually boast large-scale operations, many of which are foreign-owned. A small amount of local unlicensed fishers also engages in selling prawns, though the government is seeking to crackdown on such illegal operations.
Until very recently, cashews were Mozambique's most important agricultural export. Indeed, throughout the colonial period, Mozambique was the world's leading cashew producer. Although cashews continue to play an essential role in the economy, with exports increasing, for example, from 33.4 thousand tons in 1994 to 58.7 thousand tons in 1998, the cashew sector has suffered severely from declining prices on the international market. International prices for agricultural products are determined by world supply and demand in a given year, factors over which Mozambican farmers have no control. In January 2001, international prices for cashews plummeted to US$2/lb., their lowest level in over a decade.
Cotton-producing farmers have also been seriously affected by declining international prices in recent years. Cotton, which is currently Mozambique's third most important agricultural export, reached a post-war peak production of 117,000 tons in the 1998 crop season. One of the major factors promoting increased cotton production was the advent of the out-grower scheme, in which large agro-industries provided small farmers with advice and productive inputs and bought their crops. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit's April 2001 Country Report , a sharp fall in international prices in 1999 led to a 52 percent decline in cotton production as many small holder producers exited the market. On the positive side, production in 2001 is estimated to rebound significantly to 80,000 tons or more, though there is no telling how stable production will remain, given the inherent instability of international agricultural pricing.
International pricing is not the only factor that affects the stability of the agricultural sector. Weather conditions are a second, albeit just as important, element determining productive output. In 2000, for example, production of corn—Mozambique's most important crop produced for domestic consumption—fell to 1,019,000 tons from 1,246,000 tons the year before. The productive decline related largely to devastating floods, which lasted from January to March. Conversely, debilitating droughts also frequently afflict the country, and 2 crippling droughts in the post-war period alone led to severe declines in agricultural production. Such weather imbalances lead to oscillating (fluctuating) patterns of production, which, in addition to destabilizing export revenue, severely restrict the country's ability to gain self-sufficiency in food production. Further exacerbating the problem, only 4 percent of all land in Mozambique is arable. As a result of these problems, the country must import large amounts of rice and wheat every year.