Since independence, Mauritania's main exports have been iron ore and fish. Between 1963 and 1980, iron ore exports were clearly most important, averaging 80 percent of the value of total exports. By the mid-1980s, however, fish exports had outstripped iron ore exports. Between 1980 and 1986, the value of fish exports rose to 59 percent of total exports; in 1983 fishing replaced iron ore as the major foreign exchange earner. During the same period, iron ore exports fell to around 40 percent of total exports. This circumstance did not reflect a significant decline in iron ore production, but rather a change in the way fish catches were recorded.
Mauritania's economy is sharply divided between a traditional agricultural sector and a modern mining industry that was developed in the 1960s. About half of the country's workers depend on either raising crops or pasturing livestock for their livelihood and are unaffected by the mining industry. The principal agricultural products, produced chiefly near the Senegal River and in scattered oases, are dates, millet, sorghum, rice, and corn. In times of drought food production levels can drop dangerously low. Cattle, sheep, goats, and camels are raised. There is an important fishing industry based in the Atlantic and on the Senegal River. Since 1980, all foreign commercial fishing in Mauitanian territorial waters must be carried out jointly with Mauritania; this policy has increased export earnings, but overfishing now threatens this source of revenue.
A large deposit of high-grade iron ore was discovered in N Mauritania in the late 1950s, and production for export began in 1963. Foreign sales of iron ore account for about 40% of the country's export earnings. Gypsum, gold, copper, and salt are also mined. The difficult mining conditions with respect to the country's large copper ore reserves and low world commodity prices at times lead to occasional mine closures. There are also offshore oil deposits, which the country began exploiting in 2006. Fish processing is also important, and there is light manufacturing. The Trans-Mauritania highway connects the capital with the southeast regions. There is a deepwater port at Nouakchott.
The chief exports, in addition to iron ore, are fish and fish products, gold, and cattle (the latter sent mainly to Senegal); the leading imports are machinery and equipment, petroleum products, capital and consumer goods, and food. The principal trade partners are France, Belgium, Japan, and Spain. Mauritania has a large foreign debt.
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