Fragile Liberia struggles to protect a crucial industry

Rubber exports, economy threatened by brutal latex thieves

May 20, 2007|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,Los Angeles Times

HARBEL, Liberia -- They come in broad daylight, with guns, machetes, knives and buckets of acid.

The invaders of Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire's rubber plantation in Liberia are hunting what they call "elephant meat": To them, the company is so big that anyone can take a hunk of flesh and no one will notice.

Some people who stand in their way get hacked to death. Acid has been hurled on the faces and bodies of others.

During 14 years of civil war in Liberia, the plundering of plantations and other assets became so common that the country was brought to its knees. Firestone, owned by Japan's Bridgestone, was occupied by rebels several times during the war that ended in 2003.

The company abandoned its operations during the conflict. Its research station, hospital, schools and other infrastructure were looted and destroyed. Millions of trees were "slaughter-tapped," which means the tapping was done so crudely that trees died.

The company revived its operations, but the lawlessness did not end with the war. Illicit tapping is part of a wave of criminality driven by an 80 percent poverty rate and high unemployment, particularly among former combatants. Liberia's police force, in the process of being restructured and professionalized, cannot cope.

Rubber is Liberia's biggest export, and the Firestone plantation, which is on 200 square miles, is the country's biggest employer, with 6,000 workers. It exports concentrated latex and dried crumb rubber.

Although the country is not a huge component of Firestone's global operation, Liberia's inability to protect its largest foreign investor in the war's aftermath sends an alarming signal to other potential investors who are needed desperately to provide jobs that the fledgling government cannot afford to create.

At Firestone's compound, smoke drifts over vast tracts where once-healthy trees that could have lived 30 years have been felled and uprooted by the illicit tappers.

The destruction stretches as far as the eye can see. In other areas, seedlings about a foot high stretch to the horizon, part of the company's project to replant as many as 5,000 trees a year.

But the trees will take seven years to mature. Meanwhile, more trees are being killed by the thieves.

It is not just Firestone that is suffering the effects of war. A United Nations report last year said former combatants controlled several rubber plantations in Liberia, where gangs or private security guards often arrested people illegally. Working conditions across all plantations have declined, the government says.

Firestone says that it has started rebuilding schools, housing and hospitals and that it plans to invest $100 million to upgrade the plantation and facilities.

A group of human rights activists filed a lawsuit in California against the company, claiming that conditions were akin to slavery. A Firestone spokesman in Liberia, Rufus Karmorh, said the company would vigorously contest the action.

"The damage caused since 1990 has been enormous. Firestone was not on a different planet during the war. We were right here," Karmorh said.

Joseph Kolli, a tapper, works from about 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., covering as many as 600 trees a day. Rubber tappers use a curved blade to shave off the bark of rubber trees, millimeter by millimeter. The drops of latex build into a rivulet, which drips into a metal spout. Tappers can carry two buckets filled with as much as 125 pounds of latex. They are paid $3.38 a day for their work.

"It's tough work. The tapping ... requires concentration. You have to observe the tree, because cutting the tree can make the tree die," said Kolli, who added that he and his co-workers fear the bandits. "They have been throwing acid on people. People are afraid of going to work because these people are wicked."

Robyn Dixon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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