Firestone rubber tapper
in the 1970s

Will this familiar view return?

Firestone Deal could mark return of private investors
DATE: 22 February 2005


Liberia's transitional government has extended the land concession granted to Firestone, the country's biggest rubber producer, for a further 36 years as part of its efforts to revive the economy after 14 years of civil war. But not everyone is happy.

If ratified by parliament, the deal could trigger the first significant private investment into Liberia since the civil war ended in August 2003.

"We have a plan to invest more than US$100 million in the rubber industry," said Firestone General Manager Charles Stuart.

"We will be giving 600,000 rubber stumps to smallholder farmers to assist them replant some of their plantations. We also have our plans lined up to replant new trees replacing those already worn out all these will be without financial risk to the government," he stressed.

Much of the promised investment would go toward replanting. Trees older than 30 years, have a significantly reduced rubber yield.

"It has become imperative for this generation of national leaders to give Firestone the concession to operate now. Liberian rubber constitutes about one percent of the world rubber exports and if we do not rescue it now, the industry will fade out", he warned.

During the war years economic activity in Liberia largely ground to a halt. The West African country's electricity and water supply broke down, road maintenance stopped and many parts of the interior became inaccessible for several years due to fighting.

But the Firestone deal has met with outcry from some prominent residents of Margibi county, just outside the capital Monrovia,where the one million acre (400,000 hectare) rubber plantation is located.

They argue that the transitional government should not enter into deals which commit Liberia to obligations beyond the end of its own mandate. This expires in January 2006, when the current power-sharing administration hands over to a new elected government following presidential and parliamentary polls on 11 October.

"The mandate of this government is clearly spelled out in the peace agreement that brought it power and which includes disarmament, resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees and holding elections," Bedell Fahn, a former senator for Margibi county told IRIN.

"But instead of it focusing on its mandate, it has now diverted to concession signing beyond its mandate", he complained.

However, the head of the government-run National Investment Commission, Roosevelt Quiah, said that the extension of the Firestone concession was a signal to the world that Liberia was ready for a return of foreign investors.

He denied that the transitional government was activing beyond its remit.

"Nothing in the peace agreement prevents the government signing this concession," Quiah told IRIN.

"This government took the decision to sign the agreement because we observed that the rubber industry is dying. There has not been any replanting of rubber trees for 15 years - when the civil war started," he said.

"The only way to save the industry is to grant Firestone additional years," Quiah said.

Firestone, which is now part of the Bridgestone group, is best known for making car tyres. The US company has operated in Liberia since 1926.

In that year, it paid the Liberian government six US cents per acre for a 99-year concession to establish a massive rubber plantation at Harbel, 35 kilometres southeast of the capital, Monrovia, where Roberts international airport is now situated.

The Harbel plantation was hacked out of the jungle under the personal supervision of company founder Harvey Firestone and is named after Harvey and his wife Idabelle.

The Liberian concession produced latex that was used by Firestone to supply Henry Ford's first mass produced car, the Ford Model-T.

But while the company grew to be one of the most prominent rubber manufacturers in the world, Liberians reaped few benefits.

Clarice Jah, a civilian member of the transitional parliament said that Firestone did not deserve the extension.

"The government should not have entered into another agreement with Firestone, because the company which has been active in the country for over seventy years, cannot show any meaningful development such as the building of roads, schools and health centres where the citizens would benefit," she told reporters last week.

"The people of Margibi will not support any further extension of Firestone concession until it seeks the welfare of local dwellers our people living in Harbel are not benefiting from Firestone, they are still impoverished," said Jah.

At its peak Harbel was connected to the national electricity grid, but power was only made available to contract employees of Firestone. The hundreds of unskilled rubber tappers employed by the company to harvest the latex from its trees were forced to continue relying on candles and parafin lamps.

However, under the terms of the extension of its concession, Firestone is committed to the refurbishment of Harbel Multilateral High School. This used to provide schooling for plantation workers kids, but in recent years it has simply housed hundreds of people displaced from their homes by the civil war.

Firestone has also agreed to build a new Junior High School within its concession area and extend an existing medical centre.

Today rubber is one of the few commodities that is still being exported legally from Liberia.

Shipments of timber and diamonds are still banned under the terms of UN sanctions that were originally imposed to prevent former president Charles Taylor from getting foreign exchange to buy arms.

Apart from the Firestone, a number of smaller rubber plantations such as Cocopa and Weila in central Liberia as well as the Liberian Agricultural Company (LAC) near the port city of Buchanan still remain functional.

But Guthrie Rubber Plantation, the second largest after Firestone, remains out of action.

The plantation, situated just north of Monrovia on the main road to the Sierra Leone border, is still occupied by several dozen demobilised fighters of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group.

Local residents complain that the ex-combatants are tapping its trees and selling the latex illegally to an exporter in Monrovia.

On Monday, more than 100 residents of Bomi and Grand Cape Mount counties where Guthrie is situated, stormed the Liberian parliament building to demand the immediate removal of these former fighters from the plantation.

"We have observed with grave concern and great dismay the continuous destruction and persistent squandering of the Guthrie Rubber Plantation. Since this plantation is the only hope of our two counties, we cannot sit supinely and see it being operated illegally by a handful of people who claimed to have liberated us. Those illegal occupants must leave now," read the citizens' petition to the court.

An official, who declined to be named, said there were plans to visit the plantation with some former LURD officials with a view to evacuating the demobilised gunmen before the end of this week.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]




Background / more 

Source: IRIN


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