Originally created 09/23/01

Rebuilding with rubber

HARBEL, Liberia - His able black hands start eye-high on the back of the trunk, and in a single, swift motion, his knife cuts an arc halfway around and down.

The cut swells with milky white latex that follows the arc to its bottom, where it drips and falls into a cup below.

He will make 500 or more cuts like it this morning, and 500 more the next day and the next.

He is a tapper, one among thousands working Liberia's Firestone plantation, which, at 220 square miles, is the largest rubber plantation in the world.

The cups of raw latex he collects will be added with the other tappers' latex to produce 1.2 million gallons every month.

As the troubled west African nation struggles to rebuild after a seven-year civil war, the proud Firestone operation remains the largest single economic force in the country, which it has been since production started in 1926.

The storied operation is still referred to as the "Firestone plantation" even though Firestone was acquired by Japanese tiremaker Bridgestone Corp. and renamed Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.

In a country where almost nothing works, including power lines and plumbing, Firestone employs thousands of people and ships latex and rubber to facilities such as the Bridgestone/Firestone South Carolina plant in Aiken, which takes in about 1,200 tons of Liberian rubber each month.

The plantation's output is impressive considering the war left the vast rubber orchard littered with land mines and unexploded ordnance, and miraculous considering the operation is actually expanding capacity and putting hundreds of independent Liberian farmers back in business.

"Based on the experience I've had starting this place up (after the war)," says managing director Ed Garcia, "I can say that it's easier to start a new company than revive an old one. When we came back in '96, it was a very sad sight."

Plantation history

Learning lessons from the military buildup during World War I, Firestone founder Harvey S. Firestone decided that producing his own rubber wasn't just good business, it was a matter of national security.

In 1924, Mr. Firestone sent his oldest son, Harvey Jr., around the world in search of just the right place: the Philippines, Borneo, Sarawak, Malaya, Ceylon and Singapore, with a stop in Liberia.

Liberia was going through a rough patch. The country was in the process of fending off charges of state-sponsored slave labor, which were parried away successfully, but national self-esteem was at an all-time low.

Liberia was founded by free blacks and freed slaves from America, including the Augusta-born Tubman slaves in the 1800s.

Liberians had little contact with whites and harbored very real fears that England and France, established colonial powers, were out for their land.

At this same time, a young lawyer was climbing Liberia's political ladder. William V.S. Tubman, an eloquent dynamo who would rise to the presidency in 1944, was the grandson of Augusta-born slaves who were freed by their owner and given an inheritance to live free in Africa in the 1830s.

Mr. Tubman wasn't too fond of Firestone's overtures at first, but eventually saw an opportunity: doing business with a large American company could save Liberia from colonial predators.

"My father initially was opposed to the Firestone Company," explains his son, Shad. "But he, in fact, sponsored it through the senate. The reason for that was they agreed to put a plantation down in Cape Palmas."

Cape Palmas, Mr. Tubman's hometown, far down the coast from the capital, was most vulnerable to European encroachment.

With a sweetheart 99-year concession in hand, Firestone built a wooded African empire: a 2,000-seedling grove became a 90,000-acre rubber-tree canopy, and the company built top-quality schools, living quarters and medical facilities for its staff and workers. There is even a nine-hole golf course with blackened sand greens. (The toughest hole is the fifth, a long par 4.)

Business was very good for decades, and Firestone boasted that it was able to help bring Liberia into the 20th century with new roads, schools, bridges and other infrastructure while producing some of the world's highest-quality rubber.

But Firestone's relationship with Liberia hasn't always been rosy.

"Firestone was probably the most uncooperative company with respect to the unions," says Shad Tubman, who was president of the Liberian labor unions in the early 1960s.

Shad Tubman was working hard to enlarge paychecks for Liberian workers across the country. His organization got wages increased from a silly-sounding 4 cents an hour to a minimum of 18 cents. Firestone only budged up to 8 cents an hour, he remembers.

And, he says, after many years in operation, the plantation was still run solely by whites, and the difference between living quarters for white and Liberian staff was "like night and day."

Shad Tubman vividly recalled playing golf at the Firestone plantation with a couple thousand workers watching.

"I turned to my caddie and said I didn't realize the workers here liked golf. 'Oh no, sir,' the caddie said, 'that's not because they like golf. It's the first time they've seen a black man play this game."'

Mr. Tubman still laughs uncontrollably when he remembers his Tiger Woods moment. And, he says, "You must understand that Firestone being in Liberia was important, and not all bad."

The Liberian civil war, which began on Christmas Eve in 1989, shut down the Firestone operation almost completely from June 1990 to January 1996.

Except for the 4-megawatt hydroelectric power station, which was strangely left untouched during the war, the Firestone plant has had to be rebuilt and its land rehabilitated.

A prewar work force of 8,000 is now just 6,000. That number will grow as Firestone begins replanting, but it is a slow process. The new trees take about six years until they're ready to tap.

Adding to the postwar problems is the fact that the plantation is home not only to its workers but also their extended families. Mr. Garcia estimates that number is near 150,000.

"A lot of our people were former combatants, so you can't change them overnight. It took a while for them to get back in the system and live normal lives again. It wasn't easy," Mr. Garcia says.

Ed Przybyl, who worked at Bridgestone/Firestone's Aiken plant from 1998-2000, was a financial manager for the Liberia operation in the early days of the war.

He remembers children on the plantation who would bring him his favorite fruit, finger bananas, or would bring him snakes and insects to photograph for "dashes" - tips of a dollar here and there.

But he balances those memories with thoughts of gun-toting children who operated checkpoints during the war. At one checkpoint there was a pile of skulls, at another a skeleton propped in a chair.

"You don't know what attracts you to Liberia," Mr. Przybyl says. "You felt like you could make a difference."

Mr. Przybyl, who works stateside for Bridgestone/Firestone, says he would go back in a heartbeat.

"Everything else seems boring."

Helping independent farmers

Bridgestone/Firestone is doing its part for postwar Liberia by being a good corporate citizen.

One of its innovations has been to build stations where independent farmers can sell their rubber to Firestone, as many roads are too difficult to travel and farmers get ripped off if they hire brokers to transport the rubber to the plant for them.

To process the increased amount of dry rubber they're buying, Firestone completed a new facility in 2000 to double its capacity from 5 tons per hour to 10 tons - an expansion unheard of in Liberia.

"We believe that by going out there and helping reactivate all these farms, we'll generate a lot of employment," Mr. Garcia says. "And when that happens you have better stability, and it's only in our best interests."

Augusta Chronicle photographer Jonathan Ernst traveled to Liberia while researching the Augusta-born Tubman slaves, who would go on to become one of the west-African nation's most influential families. While there, he visited the country's largest industry, a rubber plantation that supplies Aiken's Bridgestone/Firestone tire plant with most of it's raw material.


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