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
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,"
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
"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
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
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
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 ]