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Firestone Lease an Issue in Liberia Election Campaign

  • Joe Bavier

As new elections approach in Liberia, signaling the end of a two-year transition period, many in the war-crippled country have begun questioning the legitimacy of the interim government's business dealings. Among them is a new land lease with the United States-based Firestone rubber company, one of Liberia's most important foreign investors.

A tanker truck barrels down a hill on its way to the main factory on Firestone's rubber plantation in Harbel, Liberia. Nearby, a work crew uses steaming asphalt to patch potholes in the road.

The Harbel plantation has some of the only paved roads left in the country.

Earlier this year, Firestone closed a deal with the Liberian government extending the lease on its estates for another 36 years, 16 years beyond the term of the original agreement signed in 1926. Firestone officials say the extension demonstrates their commitment to help rebuild Liberia.

But not everyone is happy. In a building set among rows of crumbling one-room, tin roofed huts, a group of local Firestone workers say they feel cheated.

"They didn't consult us at all. We don't even know what they signed in their contract," said one worker. "We do not know if the agreement that was signed, whether it is in our favor. As we are here, we are expecting improvement."

Workers say the transitional government could have put provisions in the deal to better their working conditions.

The men say they regularly work double shifts of 14 hours. For that, they earn a little over three dollars per day. Living conditions in company housing camps, they say, are deplorable. They say they have no electricity. Water is gathered from a shared pump installed by the United Nations. One man says his roof recently

collapsed.

"You, your children, your wife, your brother, we only have one room we sleep in. Your sister comes to visit you, you sleep in one room," said a worker.

Firestone officials say they are committed to improving infrastructure on the plantation, including building a new school, rebuilding a medical center and the expansion of social services. They argue that, in a country where as much as 85 percent of the population is unemployed, the wages they pay are substantially higher than the national average.

But the deal, which went forward with the consent of the transitional government, has been called into question by some in Liberia, who say the caretaker body, which was appointed rather than elected, has overstepped its authority.

Suspected corruption in the interim administration led the West African bloc ECOWAS to open an audit of the transitional government earlier this year.

The director of a civil society group looking into the Firestone lease, Monrovia-based James Makor, believes the U.N.-supervised arrangement that brought the transitional government to power does not allow it to negotiate any contract longer than the the government's two-year mandate. But Mr. Makor is also putting the blame on Firestone.

He alleges that by closing the lease agreement before general elections scheduled for next month, Firestone was attempting to ensure its influence over the terms of the deal.

"By 2025, the original agreement should have expired. And in that original agreement it says, at the end of 99 years, Firestone should be turned over to Liberia," he said.

The president of the Firestone Natural Rubber Company, Dan Adomitis, in a phone interview with VOA, denied the accusation. He says Firestone has been pushing for a lease extension since the last elections in Liberia, which former rebel leader Charles Taylor won.

"For the last 15 years, we've had very limited operations, obviously, on our estates in Liberia," he said. "And really, what this agreement does is recognize that we've lost much of that period. And really just gives us credit for that period."

Mr. Adomitis says there is no reason why Firestone shouldn't have signed the agreement with the interim government.

"Its important that all governments have some kind of term or horizon to them," he said. "And whether its this government, which is recognized by the international community as the government of Liberia, or the next government, which might have a time in office of four years, all governments have to enter into agreements that, in some way, survive their term."

The Firestone president declined to say how much money was involved in the deal.

The Firestone agreement and other long term contracts agreed to during the transition period, notably in mining concessions, have become a topic of debate this campaign season, with at least one presidential candidate calling for their review and possible nullification.

Some civil society groups accuse transitional government officials of accepting kickbacks to rush these through, charges the officials deny.

Any decision to revoke or investigate recent deals will be left up to the new elected government. Legislative elections and the first round of a presidential poll are scheduled for October 11.

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