Take the long drive southwest out of the capital on one of the only paved roads in Liberia, and eventually you’ll hit one of the country’s few remaining traffic signs, announcing a fork in the road. The arrow pointing to the right is labeled simply ‘"Airport." To the left: "Firestone."
Hang a left and in a few minutes you’ll be inside what the company’s website calls "the largest natural rubber plantation in the world." The airport actually started out as Firestone’s private landing strip, until FDR touched down and declared it would be an ideal rest stop for American planes on their way to the North African front. For years, Firestone has supplied the airport with all its electricity, free of charge.
Shortly before that fork in the road, if you don’t blink, you’ll glimpse the village of Smell-No-Taste. The name dates to the Second World War, when American GIs were busy carrying out FDR’s orders. "What they used to do," Edwin Cisco says, "was they used to prepare the meats, and the scents of the food would go all out. So the people said they would only smell the food," and here his colleague Austin Natee chimes in, "and they would not taste it." Both men crack up.
Austin and Edwin are officers of the newly independent Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL), and they want a taste. After five months of negotiations, the union finally won a new contract on June 28. It’s the second contract FAWUL has won since Liberia settled into an exhausted peace in 2003. In interviews this past fall in Liberia, workers and activists recited a list of grievances, some of which go back decades: literally backbreaking quotas, meager wages, dismissal without cause, and atrocious housing, to say nothing of Firestone’s ongoing pollution. These days the company has roughly 5,000 tappers on the payroll, which makes it the second largest employer in a country with massive unemployment.
"Plantation" isn’t the word for Firestone. Think "state within a state." Firestone originally controlled one million acres—four percent of the country, or nearly 10 percent of arable land. The current government, under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, renegotiated the concession to encompass 100,000. The company runs the schools, provides housing and water and markets; it even operates the only hospital, one of the few in the country. The four access roads are guarded by a mix of officers from Liberia’s various security services, alongside Firestone’s private security force, occasionally shaking down drivers while ostensibly checking for illegal tappers. The plantation swallowed up whole villages when it was established.
If this state had a capital, it would be the city of Harbel (named for company founder Harvey Firestone and his wife, Idabelle). A school sits at a fork in the road, humming with children throughout the day; across the street are the dilapidated shacks many of the students call home (Firestone has been building new houses—which still lack bathrooms—but Austin and Edwin estimate that more than half of its official employees still live in the equivalent of shanty towns). In the center of all this is FAWUL’s headquarters, a small, nondescript one-storey building. Austin, the union’s president, maintains a sparse office at the back.