Criminals gangs have hit Liberia’s largest rubber plantation, Firestone. The gangs have been illicitly tapping the trees at the company’s plantation 45 miles outside of Monrovia. The result is a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rubber. But as Voice of America’s English to Africa reporter Frank Sainworla tells us from Monrovia, security has now been increased with security sniffer dogs in an effort to stop the criminal gangs.
The repeated raids on the Firestone plantations have created fear among workers there. One worker told me that elicit tapping is dangerous and is limiting the amount of rubber expected from the plantation. He said the attacks also make him fearful.
The plantation is so large that the criminals say what they are taking will not be missed. They are quoted as saying they are taking “elephant meat” in which they equate the rubber they steal to a huge animal.
Authorities say some of the criminal gangs include as many as 50 people.
Private security guards and even local police tend to make easy targets for the criminals. Security guards are not legally allowed to carry pistols to protect themselves. And the local police force is also said to be lacking in arms for self-defense.
Firestone spokesman Rufus Karmoh said the attackers use machetes and poison acid on their victims, “Firestone has been one of the targeted victims of illicit tapping over the year. There have been some fatalities and destruction. It’s been attributed to illicit tappers who are roaming the concession areas in search of rubber to the detriment of our dedicated employees and management.”
It’s not known how much the thieves have cost Firestone but it’s estimated to be in tens of thousands of US dollars. Karmoh says the activities of illicit rubber tappers are posing a serious threat to production and Firestone had to appeal for support from the United Nations peacekeepers (UNMIL) and Liberian police.
Sniffer dogs have been brought in from Europe to help the police and UNMIL detect and track down the illicit tappers in a plantation area covering hundreds of hectares. Four husky German shepards are part of Firestone’s K-9 unit now in action to ward off the criminals.
Jonathan Weedor is the head the K-9 unit of the Firestone industrial security force called the Plant Protection Department (PPD.) He said the introduction of the dogs is making a big difference in efforts to crack down on the thieves, “They are trained police dogs. They're specialized in sniffing, tracking criminals, detecting and searching for missing persons. They can even go as far as discovering bodies. Since we brought the dogs in on the 24th of January, illicit tapping has been reduced by 30 percent or below. We patrol the entire plantation every day.”
Firestone is trying to plant 5,000 new seedlings per year. It takes seven years for a tree to be large enough to produce rubber. But many of the trees are burned or damaged by the thieves, and other investors say they’re worried by the inability to
stop the criminals. Observers blame part of the problem on an 80 percent unemployment rate, and also the long period of theft during the country’s civil war.
Firestone says it has invested nearly $100 million to upgrade its facilities in Liberia. It's the country’s biggest employer – with 6,000 workers on over 200 square miles of plantations. Development specialists say they’re concerned that the attacks will undermine Liberia’s efforts to rebuild its devastated economy.