Firestone's John P. Carmichael probably did not realize when he went into the tire business that he would one day be dealing with problems such as finding a location for a new funeral home.
But as manager of Firestone Plantations, a 220-square-mile concession that is the world's largest rubber plantation, Carmichael today is responsible for the health and welfare of 75,000 Liberians.
Firestone's annual expenditures read like the municipal budget of a small American town: $800,000 for the Firestone school system; $375,000 for the local magistrate's court and the Firestone police force; $1.75 million for medical care and hospitals; $1 million for housing; $1 million in rice subsidies.
Before Firestone came here, these plantation lands on the West African coast were bush country dominated by tribal chiefs.
But over the course of half a century, Firestone has imposed its own order on this large chunk of Africa, carefully structuring a society based on position in the Firestone hierarchy.
While the Firestone Plantations here is larger than most, it is otherwise typical of foreign-operated concessions that supply industrial countries with vital raw materials.
Firestone's competitors -- Goodyear, Goodrich, Uniroyal, Dunlop and Michelin -- operate similar albeit smaller holdings in Guatemala, Brazil, the Ivory Coast, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and Michelin had plantations in South Vietnam until 1975.
Today, the leisurely, colonial-era plantation life chronicled by Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham has given way to businesslike management by global corporations.
Yet some things have not changed. The plantations continue to depend on a marriage of foreign capital and local labor. And, as is clearly the case here in Liberia, these foreign bastions continue to have a major impact on the societies into which they intrude.
Harvey Firestone turned to Liberia soon after the British parliament passed legislation in 1922 restricting rubber exports from Malaya and Ceylon to boost depressed Asian rubber prices. Branding this a "vicious plan," Firestone declared that "Americans should produce their own rubber."
The company's status in Liberia as a state within a state was established at the beginning. Firestone received the rubber concession in return for a$5 million private loan to the debt-ridden Liberian government, then dominated by the descendants of the freed American slaves who colonized Liberia in 1822 and who formed an independent republic in 1847.
As Firestone's own plantations grew, many of the country's leading politicians -- including the late presidents Edwin Barclay and William V. S. Tubman and William Tolbert, the current President -- also became rubber planters. To prospective Liberian planters, Firestone supplied seeds, transportation, skilled overseers and sometimes loans, all of which gave the power structure a stake in the Akron company's success.
As rubber culture spread, Firestone began to transform Liberia. It dredged a harbor out of Monrovia's muddy lagoon, built an airport, cleared thousands of acres of bush, constructed network of roads, erected housing and clinics, and established the first radio communications with North America via a receiving antenna in Akron.
Both Liberia and Firestone benefited from these activities, but today Firestone Plantations and the rest of Liberia hardly seem like part of the same country. While Liberia still struggles with poverty, bureaucratic mismanagement and illiteracy, Firestone Plantations operates with almost military efficiency.
Liberia is spending $15 million a year on rice imports -- a substantial sum for a country with a population smaller than metropolitan Washington. School attendance isn't mandatory and illiteracy is high. The country has only 325 miles of paved roads.
In an effort to force more rapid movement toward agricultural selfsufficiency, the government has posted signs all over the capital "Warning -- It's No Joke -- No Rice Imports After 1980."
Surprisingly, the country's overall rubber culture is not even an economic bright spot.
Members of a United Nations team that is helping Liberians rehabilitate and replant 63,000 acres say smallholders have been badly neglected -- both by Firestone's agricultural specialists and government.
The country's 5,000 smallholders produce only 20,000 tons a years of Liberia's 80,000-ton total -- the opposite of Asia where smallholders produce more than the plantations.
Yields of smallholders in Liberia have been running 200 pounds an acre -- near the lowest annual yield in the world.
Just outside Firestone's main plantation, thousands of rubber trees are going untapped despite current high rubber prices. Several owners, who teach at a local school, said that they do not know how to tap their own trees and that skilled tappers work for Firestone.
Liberia also has failed to develop light industry that could process the local rubber into finished rubber goods with a higher market value. In 1975, it exported $46.2 million worth of natural rubber, while paying out $8.9 million for finished rubber imports such as tires.
Several large Liberian planters have been looking into the possibility of setting up a joint venture with a U.S. manufacturer to produce "dipped goods" such as medical gloves. However, this scheme would depend on being able to obtain concentrated latex from Firestone, since Firestone owns the only centrifuges and equipment for keeping fresh latex in a liquid state in Liberia.
One source of tension that has recently developed between Firestone and the local population concerns pay and working conditions on the giant plantation, which is run according to work rules and customs established by Firestone.
In the early 1970s, Firestone began a program of "Liberianization" in which it appointed Liberians to supervise all 45 of its 2,000-acre subdivisions. But Americans still control the top managerial and financial positions -- a pattern that is not unique to Firestone Plantations but is common in U.S.-owned multinationals worldwide.
At the top of the hierarchy are Americans. In the middle are loyal Liberians, and at the bottom are 10,000 rubber tappers, some of whom have just drifted in from bush.
Tapping rubber trees is hard work. The day begins with a 6 a.m. muster. Tappers then fan out to an area of 400 to 500 trees called a "task."
Pay, which varies according to skill and experience, averages $3.06-a-day plus an allowance of rice. Tappers are always on guard against poisonous cassava vipers in the underbrush. The tapping goes on even during driving tropical rainstorms that leave everyone soaked.
In one camp, some 40 children, many of them of school age, wandered about in the morning. One young man who had just returned from tapping said he had been working for Firestone since he was 12, and never attended school.
Firestone headquarters in Akron acknowledges that about half the children between 6 and 18 on Firestone Plantations do not attend school. It says these children are "not excluded by Firestone," however.
A child is eligible to attend a Firestone school after obtaining an admission card from a local teacher, and then obtaining verification at division headquarters that his parents are employed by Firestone.
Firestone's Bernard W. Frazier attributed the high rate of absenteeism to the fact that newly arrived young people "have difficulty in overcoming embarrassment at being so far behind younger children, and simply do not go to school, even though we provide the opportunity."
One advantage that Firestone has long enjoyed in Liberia has been the absence of a strong union representing its workers.
The liberian United Workers Congress is barred by law from organizing agricultural workers -- a fact that the UWC regards with steadily increasing outrage.
"This country was independent in 1847, so when the hell are agricultural workers going to have a real union" asks the union's secretary-general, Frank G. Walker.
While Firestone has succeeded in keeping the union out of its plantations, the labor climate has begun shifting in Liberia.
Last summer, grievances involving back holiday pay over a 14-year period flared into a wildcat strike by most of the Firestone Plantations' work force.
Firestone and the Liberian Labor Ministry persuaded the strikers to return to work after several weeks of unrest.
But the government, too, has served notice on Firestone that their long-time relationship is changing.
When President Tolbert's brother, Stephem, opened negotiations with Firestone in 1974 on revisions of the concession agreement, he handed the company a list of 185 demands.
After months of tension -- which at one point included a Liberian threat to expel Carmichael from the country -- Firestone accepted most of the government's points.
Firestone gave up its special privileges at the port of Monrovia, surrended its duty-free import privileges and agreed to an increase in the real estate taxes it pays from 6 cents to 50 cents an acre.
"We learned a lesson," a Firestone official remarked recently. "They were ready to take over the plantation, and we needed the rubber."
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