Agriculture has always played a commanding role in the daily life of the people and in 1962 was by far the main element in the country's economy. Although somewhat less than one-tenth of the entire land area was estimated to be under cultivation, about nine-tenths of the population made a living from the soil, and agriculture and animal husbandry accounted for about three-quarters of the country's total production. Leading the production as moneymakers were coffee, cocoa and bananas, raised for export (see ch. 17, Character and Structure of the Economy).
Because the country lies wholly within a rather narrow belt near the equator, the variety of agricultural products that can be raised successfully is limited. Within these limits, however, a somewhat meager natural endowment has been enlarged by the selection and introduction of improved new species for which the environment was favorable (see ch. 3, Geography and Population). As a consequence, the range of agricultural products has progressively widened and in 1962 included most of the tropical products of importance in the world.
Before the French came agricultural activity was almost entirely aimed at satisfying the immediate food requirements of the small family groups that formed the basic social units. Methods were crude and wasteful by modern standards; the people were acquainted with only the most primitive farm implements; and soil conservation was limited to shifting cultivation, which in the long run did more harm than good. Except for a few wild forest products, such as kola nuts and palm oil, that could be taken from the trees and traded with the people of the far north or with Europeans from coastal vessels at the beaches, agriculture for commerce was unknown.
Under French rule the efforts of colonial administrators were directed toward exploiting the country's agricultural possibilities and the timber in its forests as sources of raw materials for export (see ch. 19, Industry). Not content with merely improving the yield of long- established crops, the French introduced new plants and trees upon which to base expanded export production. These measures entailed fundamental changes in agricultural aims and practices which, although far from complete in 1962, had already profoundly affected the attitudes and institutions of the entire country.
Agriculture is no longer wholly concerned with local subsistence, as