JAMES VONLEH and his family have come home to their tribe in the jungle. James has exchanged warm greetings with the relatives. As a welcoming gift and sign of his status he has been given a white chicken and some kola nuts. The men now talk loudly and the women prepare a pepper-sauce soup’. The rythmic thump-thump of a club-like pestle fills the air as a teen-age girl pounds young cassava greens to a smooth paste.
‘Here you must work hard’, James admits. ‘But we will not be hungry while we have land. No one can humbug you. I thank God I have people and can make a farm. Firestone is finished for me. I will not go back again.’
It’s just a five minute drive from Liberia’s Robertsfield Airport to the Firestone company’s Harbel rubber plantation. The plantation was hacked out of mangrove swamp and jungle in the 1920s and 1930s under the direction of Harvey S. Firestone himself. (Harbel is named after Harvey and his wife Idabelle). In 1926, in one of the most spectacular Third World land grabs ever, Firestone negotiated the rights to a million acres at just six cents per acre with tax-free privileges for 99 years.
The Liberian rubber business grew rapidly, spurred on by the war boom and the post-war industrial surge in the West. Firestone profits soared. In 1943 alone, according to Harbel’s Estate Manager Kevin Beslow, the company made $35 million from its Liberia operations.
Firestone had less problem growing rubber trees than it did getting Liberians to work on them. Rubber takes intensive manual labour, lots of it. Each tree and there are millions of them in Harbel alone requires daily attention. But Liberians were reluctant to leave their forest farms to work for wages. They could trade to get what they couldn’t grow or make. So why work for money?
The government and the company found a way around that problem. First, a ‘head tax’ was instituted which had to be paid in cash. Then a ‘labour recruitment’ scheme was started. Each regional chief was obligated to send a quota of men to work for Firestone for which they were paid per head. It wasn’t slavery since the workers were paid but it was certainly close to it. This practice only ended in the mid-i 960s. The company also gave other incentives: subsidized rice, schools, health care centers and a hospital, as well as company housing and the use of idle land to make small gardens.
By the mid-1960s there were over 20,000 workers at Harbel. Today there are just over 10,000, although it is estimated that more than 100,000 people in Harbel and vicinity are dependent on the plantation. That makes the Firestone estate the second largest population centre in the country.
There is a nine-hole golf course and country club where you can buy imported hot dogs and hamburgers and krinkle-cut french fries to drink with the local Club beer. There’s also a huge factory from which concentrated liquid latex is sluiced into tanker trucks for final shipment to the US and east coast.
The number of foreign managers has dropped under Firestone’s ‘Liberianization’ programme. There were 157 in 1967, mostly Dutch, British and American. Today there are 29. But the top executives are still white. They and the Liberian managers live in pretty red brick houses perched on grassy knolls, many near the town of Harbel.
The boss of the whole operation, Don Weihe, is a likeable straight-shooting American with a penchant for bird hunting. His white-columned, ante-bellum style mansion fronted with clipped lawns and richly coloured hibiscus commands a breathtaking view of the flat rubber-growing land below and offers glimpses of the workers’ camps.
James Vonleh was just 30 years old when he left his family’s farm near Tapita in Nimba County. He travelled the rust-red, laterite roads past Ganta, Gbanga and down the tarmac road finally to Harbel at the southern edge of the Firestone concession. ‘It was a chance to have money to buy things, to make some better life’, James remembers.
He became a rubber tapper, a good one with deft cutting skills and a feel for the trees. ‘You have to cut just so’, he says balancing his old tapping knife in his palm. ‘The tree has three skins before you hit bone. If you cut too deep into the bone, you wound the tree. That is bad. If the foreman finds out he can make trouble and give you no work for a week.’
Rubber tappers are the backbone of the natural rubber industry. At 5:00 a.m. every morning in the murky half-light of dawn, seven days a week, a small army of men and women, over 6,000 at Harbel alone, gather their tools. Fortified with a slug of palm wine and a bit of cold rice the tappers head off to their patch. In bare feet and tattered work shorts they sling a ‘gunga’ bag over their shoulder, shove a fist-sized tapping knife and bottle of ammonia into it and begin the routine that will last until early afternoon.
First tree. The curved blade of the knife starts at the top of an old cut, following the line and shaving off a millimetre of new bark. Where the knife scrapes the fresh white latex oozes, the drops building into a small rivulet which drops down the tree, onto the metal spout and finally into the black vinyl collecting cup. A quick squirt of ammonia to keep the liquid from stiffening up, a couple of steps - and the next tree. And the next: 650 in all. Then, three hours later, after the trees have bled and filled their cups, the tapper makes another round, gathering the liquid in galvanised steel pails.
With dollars in his pocket James’s life began to change. He lived in a company-supplied hut and he married. He and his wife put aside their tribal names. Kakwan became James, his wife Bekadi became Ready. And they had four children. In 1980 he became a tapping headman with 23 tappers under him. He got a bigger house, eight feet by ten, two rooms with dirt floors and corrugated iron roof to cover the mud walls.
His kids went to the Firestone school and he was able to buy rice from the Firestone store near the Harbel market. His promotion meant another 50 cents a day on top of the $2.07 a day base rate that tappers earn. Finally he had enough to buy a royal blue safari suit and a portable stereo radio. Ready got the material to make a new dress.
Then Firestone began to lay off workers. The Western recession was hurting sales. Sixty per cent of rubber goes into automobiles and the car market was depressed. Costs had to be cut. Wages were frozen, new planting stopped and tappers began to lose their jobs - 2,500 were dismissed in 1981-82 alone.
In late 1982 James was transferred to Division 43, an area of old trees near the end of their tapping life. Then in March 1983 he was laid off. He’s still not sure why. ‘I come back from tapping,’ he says, ‘and the overseer call me over. He say "James, work is finished, please take your paper for your pay, Firestone say no more work here."
In fact that was not quite true. There is more work, but not with Firestone. Division 43 was turned over to a Liberian contractor, like thousands of other acres in the plantation over the last two years. The trees are old, scarred up both sides of the trunk, in many cases beyond the reach of a tapper’s knife. There is still latex, but it flows slower. Sq the company devised a new strategy. Rather than fell the old rubber and replant, Firestone simply turned the tapping and latex collection over to a local entrepreneur. Firestone supplies the fertilizer, the herbicide, the tapper’s tools and buys the rubber for a guaranteed price.
The new manager deals with the tappers. In this case he hired his own workers and James was not one of them. ‘Is much better for Firestone this way, James spits. ‘This way they not have to care about poor tapper man at all. Knife cut you, snake bite you, now Firestone doesn’t care.
No longer Firestone employees, the tappers are denied the company ‘incentives’. No schools, no cheap rice, tinned fish, kerosene or oil, no access to health care. Firestone reckons a tapper can earn about $23 a week in cash and $18 a week in subsidies for a seven-day week. Working for a contractor you earn according to how much latex you collect, which depends not only on speed but on the age of the trees and the weather.
Odako Kolleh, a 24-year old tapper working for a local contractor in near-by division 39 says he is lucky to earn $25 a month working seven days a week. ‘I work too hard and sometimes make only 50 cents a day. Since we are on the plantation we buy rice from Firestone’s store, but we pay regular prices. What can we do? We cannot say things. If we do, contractor say "you not here to make grumble with". He will get police to carry me to jail. He has power for me, for true.’
Firestone wants out of the plantation business. Harbel Estate Manager Kevin Beslo admits that operating a massive Third World rubber estate is no longer sensible or profitable. There are too many headaches. The subsidized rice, the schools, the hospitals and in the last two years the final straw, a trade union.
J.H. Rosensen, Firestone’s Executive Vice-President in Akron, Ohio suggested as much in a letter to the Liberian government in December, 1982. He called for ‘an orderly transfer of Firestone’s interests to Liberia’ and assured the country that Firestone ‘would be willing to work with the government in management of the plantation and marketing of rubber’. Head of State Doe understandably balked at the idea. The country is virtually broke, kept afloat from week to week by American aid. ‘The government can’t even pay the civil service’, says one professor at the university. ‘Taking on the financial burden of Harbel would be a nightmare. Firestone has this country over a barrel.’
Don Weihe is warm and welcoming in his unpretentious wood-panelled office in the Firestone executive building. No suit and tie here, just an open-necked khaki shirt and sharply-creased trousers. But he is also a bit nervous, slightly tentative. Journalists have given the company some trouble in the past, he explains. ‘It all looks so black and white to an outsider. They look at the tapper’s housing and their wages and conclude they’re being exploited. But it’s not that simple. By local standards our people do extremely well.’
‘It all comes down to this’, he says picking up the plastic collecting cup fitted to every rubber tree. ‘Whatever we can sell the latex in this cup for is all we’ve got to work with. That’s the bottom line’.