When conflict overtook Liberia and Firestone Liberia in 1990, we had to make a decision on what to do based on little information and no precedent. We decided to try and maintain the operation, care for our workers and their families, and look to return at the first opportunity to resume full production.
That is what we did. It was the right decision.
Firestone attempted to navigate the difficult situation in Liberia for a long time without appearing to take sides. Unfortunately, the Firestone concession was located entirely in territory controlled by the Charles Taylor government. At one point, we were forced to accept the reality that we would either have to deal with the Taylor government or abandon the concession — and all Liberians who depended on it — without any guarantee that we could ever return. We chose to stay and see if we could work with the Taylor government.
Our role was to produce rubber. We believed it was up to the political leaders to determine the future of Liberia. There was a process in place, and the negotiators considered the NPFL to be a part of it. It was our hope that a solution would emerge while we continued to operate our business and support the people in Liberia who depended on us.
Because we kept operating, our employees and families had work, and we were able to return and rebuild. The Firestone operation is critically important to the economy of Liberia and to the lives of thousands of people who depend on it for wages, healthcare and education. Firestone made an objective and clear-headed decision to preserve it.
On June 17, 1990, Firestone abandoned the farm as the expat management evacuated. Firestone officials would make forays over the next 18 months to deliver supplies, check on employees, and attempt to return and re-launch production. Firestone reached an agreement with Charles Taylor and returned in February 1992, to shut down operations again when the war resumed in late October 1992.
Partial production would not resume until April 1996, with full production not returning until 2000.
For several years after 1990, Charles Taylor’s forces occupied Firestone’s facilities against the wishes of the company and its employees. They took trucks, food, medical supplies, fuel, tools, parts of buildings and many other items as they wished under the obvious threat of violence to anyone who considered stopping them. They occupied many buildings and lodging areas during various times of the fighting.
Once Firestone decided to maintain the facility for as long as possible, it worked with all relevant parties to ensure there was minimum damage to the plant and facilities, that its employees received food, medicine and other crucial items, and that Duside Hospital received supplies. It assisted NGOs in transporting vital goods to Liberia. For example, a U.S. State Department cable of July 29, 1991, praises Firestone as a “NGO” playing a major role in relief operations as it worked with such groups as Catholic Relief Services and MSF International in providing food for months to at least 70,000 pesons.
The Firestone facility was often the front line of fighting, as witnessed by incursion by forces from all factions — including the peacekeeping force — during the years of fighting. The destruction to the farm, the innocent slaughter of civilians, the bombing of the hospital all bear witness to this unfortunate geographic reality.
Firestone worked with all factions in Liberia, the same ones who sat down with the United Nations, Jimmy Carter and many other, in an effort to find a peace accord, which eventually emerged. All of those factions, including Charles Taylor’s NPFL, were part of the transitional government that emerged prior to elections.
At no time did Firestone have a cooperative relationship with Charles Taylor. All of our activities were focused on protecting our employees and property, and there were no good options. As a company, we have to rely on guidance from people who do foreign policy for a living. And we consulted with U.S. government regularly throughout this period
The accepted understanding was that the Yamoussoukro IV agreement provided, in effect, that both the Interim Government and the Taylor-led NPRAG would continue to administer territory under their respective control pending elections in late 1992. This development suggested a regularization of the status quo for the interim until elections. Additionally, a Joint Elections Commission was formed, a Joint Economic Commission contemplated and joint nominations made to a unified Supreme Court. In the view of international organizations and nations, the door appeared to be open to an early resolution of the Liberian and both entities were being dealt with on the same level.
As Charles Taylor was the elected president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003, Firestone functioned under his administration.
Here is what happened during this part of our history:
When rebels crossed the Farmington River onto Firestone Liberia, in Akron, Firestone officials were reeling from the quickness of what had occurred. The debate over what to do next centered on the question of should Firestone even attempt to keep the farm on life support until production could be resumed. If it ever could.
Employees still recall those first furious, confusing days. When they heard the gunfire and noise, some of the workers went to the Farmington River to watch, still not fully believing the war would come to them. Then the rebels started to cross and the workers fled to their home and waited to see what would happen.
Most employees thought the rebels would remain on the farm for only two or three days, a week at the most and then life would return to normal, just as it has been in other parts of Liberia.
The first night employees stayed inside and later learned how the rebels killed the butcher. The second day, the rebels began to be more mean and demanding. The third day there was exchange of gunfire and more than 200 employees moved to Harbel Hills for safety.
Within a month, the reality hit home. The rebels were not moving through. This new type of war was at a standstill. The front line, if one existed, was at the gates of the farm. A growing contingent of rebels was on Firestone’s property, appropriating its infrastructure, demanding money and food, and terrorizing workers. Retribution killings had started. What many thought would be a rebel drive-by had quickly become an uncertain ongoing maw.
As the debate continued, Firestone did what it could to keep the food, medical and other lifelines flowing to its employees while trying to find a way to resume operations. In March 1991 and again in October 1991, the Harbel Tapper, one of two ships owned by Firestone, would manage to dock and offload supplies. Some would go to those on the farm, others to the interim Liberian government. In the March 1991 shipment, for example, there were 80,000 bags of rice, an assortment of medical supplies and supplementary food and fuel oil for CRS. The October shipment offloaded 5,000 50-kilo bags of rice, while Firestone simultaneously donated 4,000 bags to the interim Liberian government.
About 75,000 individuals living on the Firestone property were being supplied food and aid. Meanwhile, the Firestone ships would also ferry free of charge supplies and materials needed by humanitarian groups working in Liberia.
All this while, Firestone employees were sending petitions to Taylor urging him to facilitate the company’s return. “Everyone wanted the company to come back,” one employee said, “because then we would have some relief.”
Yet the destruction continued. Firestone’s Duside Hospital remained opened and continued to function, getting supplies when possible. However, even the hospital was not spared. Lyndon Mabande, head physician at Duside Hospital, still remembers how the hospital was bombed by West African peace keeping troops despite having a big Red Cross on its roof, part of the damage sustained to the facility through years of fighting. Nevertheless, the hospital stayed opened.
In January 1992, Firestone officials and Taylor’s government signed a Memorandum of Understanding to resume operations on the farm. The MOU’s terms included tax payments to the government ruling the part of Liberia where Firestone’s farm is located and the requirement that Firestone increase standards of living for workers, such as improved hosing, safe drinking water and electrification. In exchange, the ruling government promised to provide security during a time of conflict.
Repairs began in February. In April, Taylor’s representatives traveled to Akron to meet Firestone executives to accelerate the start up. The agreement also outlined the tax payments Firestone would make to the Taylor government, as well as Firestone’s commitments to improve workers’ housing and other working conditions.
Don Weihe, a veteran Liberian hand and former Firestone employee, returned to be general manager of the operation. It appeared normalcy was returning.
Then on October 15, 1992, Taylor’s forces launched Operation Octopus, an attempt to take Monrovia. The impact on the farm was devastating: airstrikes from ECOMOG – the West African peacekeeping force – began on November 2 and lasted 16 days, killing 39 and injuring more than 200. The Duside Hospital was struck, despite that huge Red Cross. The rubber processing plant was damaged. On November 19, 1992, Don Weihe met with Charles Taylor to say goodbye. Weihe left Liberia with 14 other Firestone employees.
The hospital soon shuttered. On January 24, 1993, Mabande and others left the facility and shut the place down. Mabande later met the Nigerian pilot who had bombed the hospital. The pilot told Mabande that saw us all as NPFL fighters and rebels. “There were more civilian casualties from air raids than anything else,” Mabande recounted.
In February and March 1993, Ecomog captured Harbel. Conditions deteriorated quickly on the farm. Fighting continued on the farm through 1994. Before Firestone could return, the conflict raged and the people suffered, culminating in the Carter Camp massacre on June 6, 1993, with nearly 600 killed or missing.”
By 1997, the second stage of the Liberian conflict was over. A peace accord ratified Taylor’s victory. In July of that year, Taylor was elected president by an overwhelming majority. In February, Firestone concluded that conditions were now stable enough to restart operations on a trial basis. The company hired 2,000 former workers and officially reopened its plantation. By July 1997, the plantation was operating at one-third its capacity, with 3,000 workers.”
The farm was secure enough to serve as a safe haven for the civilian population and remained so even as a third round of fighting commenced.
By July 2002, about 50,000 of the country’s 200,000 IDPs (internally displaced persons) moved to Harbel for protection.
During this period, Firestone was fully operational, producing at roughly 90 percent of its capacity and employing 6,000 people. This was significant because Liberia’s unemployment rate was between 75 and 80 percent, and international investment slowed dramatically because of the fighting. Virtually the only large international businesses that stayed operational at this time had left. Firestone continued to pay taxes to the government of Liberia, which provided essential revenue for the government’s counterinsurgency campaign.
Fighting increased sharply in 2003. The port Firestone used to ship its rubber was closed in June because of the growing conflict. Over the next few months, the port opened and shut periodically.
Some have accused Firestone of turning a blind eye to the atrocities that occurred by various forces in Liberia, including Charles Taylor. Twenty-five years later, we all have the benefit of hindsight and everyone can see that Charles Taylor was in fact a war criminal. At the time, many groups were at war, each accusing the other of war crimes and atrocities.
Firestone has invested more than $146.9 million to improve living and working conditions since the end of the conflict, and has plans to invest tens of millions more. We have built more than 3,600 new homes, and more are under construction. The company currently operates 27 schools that teach more than 15,000 children. Firestone also runs nine health care facilities — including the renovated Duside Hospital — that treat employees and their families as well as other members of the Liberian community. To help rebuild the Liberian rubber industry, the company has distributed more than 4.1 million free rubber tree saplings to Liberian farmers.
We have also embarked on a completely new kind of relationship with our employees by negotiating a new labor contract, and we have plans to upgrade the plant and vastly improve the environmental facilities.
It was the right decision.