Kick-Starting Economy Biggest Challenge Facing Post-War Liberia

IRP Gatekeeper to Liberia Sunni Khalid reports on his recent trip in a week-long radio series for WYPR, "Starting From Less Than Zero: Liberia Rebuilds"

Liberia 2010

By Sunni Khalid

January 12, 2011

Also appeared on WYPR, an affiliate of NPR

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Firestone Liberia, the world's largest rubber plantation at Harbel, sprawled out on a 100-thousand square acres about 30 miles east of Liberia's capital, Monrovia.

A Firestone manager explains the science of tapping rubber trees while a thin man, armed with short knife, curved at the end, cuts carefully into the bark of a nearby tree, carving a spiraling, diagonal pattern around the trunk. Within seconds, a small stream of milky white liquid pours out of the tree and snakes into a small cup - it's natural rubber, the lifeblood of Liberia.

" the depth of the cut is very important. You should not cut deep into the wood. That means you will injure the trees. And when you injure the trees, you can see an uneven regeneration of barks and that is not good. So, it has to be tapped in such a way, you get a maximum number of rubber from the trees, but not ruining the trees."

In 1926, American Harvey Firestone, Jr. signed a 99-year lease for five-million dollars to a nearly bankrupt Liberian government in 1926. It coincided with the growth of the automobile industry, producing tires for the American auto industry. And latex is used for making gloves, tires, masks and dozens of household items, Since its inception, this plantation has been the backbone of Liberia's modern economy.

When the first of Liberia's civil wars broke out in 1989, Firestone was gradually forced to cease operations. The company had to evacuate. Eventually, the plantation was overrun by warring factions. Buildings were ransacked, machinery stolen, and the forest of cultivated rubber trees was hacked or left untended for years. The plantation re-opened in 2003.

"Probably about 30 percent of our area was heavily damaged. So, that what's been cleaned out. It's been felled. And we have replanted."

That's Charles Stuart, the president of Firestone Liberia. If the accent sounds familiar, it should; Stuart was born and raised in Dundalk, Maryland.

"Typically, an estate will replant three percent of their total planted acreage on a yearly basis, on a rotational basis. We find ourselves in a little bit different spot because we lost so many years of not being here. So, our replanting is at a much higher pace right now."

Rubber trees usually have a life span of 25 years. Almost a generation of production was lost. Now Firestone has undertaken a massive replanting. And it has also invested 200 million dollars into rebuilding housing, schools and a hospital. About 7,000 workers - who make an average of four-dollars-a-day -- live on the plantation along with 15-thousand family members.

But Firestone is also diversifying

Electrical saws inside a huge lumber factory slice through large slabs of hawaya - the wood that is produced from rubber trees. Two dozen Firestone employees cut and stack the wide planks of the checkered wood, which could become a major source of revenue for Liberia, according to Joseph Phillips, Jr., a shop supervisor.

"You see it as hard wood, not necessarily rubber wood, it's hard wood and it's predominantly used for furniture. And this is what is used for, I would say, 90 percent of the furniture made in the U.S."

Despite ups and downs in 85-year relationship with Liberia, Firestone's Charles Stuart says he feels his company's links with Liberia are secure.

"I think there's a unique relationship with Firestone and with Liberia. Sometimes, it's a love-hate relationship, but I think there's a certain level of trust. That we're a quality corporation that's here to do the right thing, the right way."

But Firestone has its critics. When the plantation was started in the 1920s, the Liberian army press-ganged thousands to work on the land in conditions likened to slavery - the ultimate irony in a nation founded by freed slaves. Revenues helped prop up a succession of corrupt leaders. And accusations of child labor, poor working and living conditions have dogged Firestone's operations in Liberia over recent years.

"The country is being held hostage by Firestone. Firestone is powerful, very, very powerful. Don't ignore that. And it's used that in various ways to try and hold the government in check."

That's Alfred Brownell, the president of Green Advocates, a local non-profit in Liberia. The group has made repeated claims that Firestone has dumped chemical waste into a local river, shared by poor communities. The government recently exonerated Firestone of the charges, but that has not satisfied Brownell, who says the investigation shows a disturbing relationship between the government and Liberia's largest employer.

"Firestone dumped the waste and the government came up with a report. The president intervened and tried to negotiate the community to drop any claim against the company. But it's clear that Firestone broke the law! So what is the government trying to do to address that? Firestone broke the law by discharging waste into poor communities. It is the law. And governments enforce the law."

President Johnson Sirleaf denies the allegations of illegal dumping. And a too cozy relationship with Firestone, pointing out that her government has renegotiated its contract - twice. But cracking down on a multi-national could scare away the kind of foreign investment needed to rebuild Liberia and create jobs in a country with an official unemployment rate of 85 percent.

"Liberia is a very small, very poor country, in a part of the world that has not attracted a lot of investment, up to this point."

Mark Quarterman is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says the Liberian government, with a small budget of only $350 million, must use a deft hand in dealing with its corporate partners, since it badly needs foreign investment to rebuild its electrical grid, sewer system and roads destroyed by the civil wars.

"I think that with effective economic policies, the positive global environment as well, it can create jobs for its people. And this is the mantra: jobs, for their people. That's what needs to be created in Liberia and that will lead to the best scenario."

If the country can remain politically stable, Liberians could soon begin to reap benefits from some of its economic advantages. Last year, the government signed a seven-billion dollars worth of deals with China and a European-based consortium to resume iron-ore mining, slated to start the spring. There are estimates that mining could generate 60 percent of Liberia's revenues.

In addition, Liberia's location and the longest runway in sub-Saharan Africa, could once again make it the hub for international commercial flights, as it was a generation ago. Last year, Delta began direct, seven-hour flights to Monrovia.

"Robertsfield was built by the U.S. Army during World War II, so that our aircraft could refuel there to supply our troops in North Africa."

That's Witney Schneidman, a former deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, who does business throughout Africa, including Liberia.

"Robertsfield is larger than Kennedy, Dulles and LaGuardia, combined. And it has the potential for enabling Liberia to be the jumping off point for infrastructure, for air services, for air cargo, for passenger traffic, for all of West Africa."

Liberia's economic potential is there. The question may not be so much if it can take advantage of it, but how, and how soon.

Sunni Khalid is a senior reporter in WYPR's News Department. He has reported this series, "Starting From Less Than Zero: Liberia Rebuilds," on a grant from the International Reporting Project (IRP).