Firestone is one of those all-pervasive brands that I have always been aware of, something that you see almost every day thanks to their ubiquitous tires. But, before moving to Liberia, I never gave the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company (owned by Bridgestone) much more thought.
It turns out Firestone has played such an important role in Liberia’s history that the country has actually been called the “Firestone Republic” (echoing the term “banana republic”). Firestone’s involvement stretches back to 1926, when the company signed a 99-year concession agreement with the Liberian government and started the single largest natural rubber plantation in the world. It originally spanned one million acres, 4% of the country’s land.
We recently visited the plantation, which is about 50 miles outside of Monrovia in a place called Harbel, named after the founder, Harvey Firestone, and his wife, Isabelle. It’s right near the Roberts International Airport, which incidentally started as Firestone’s private landing strip. Driving around, we were amazed by how vast it is – 118,000 acres or 200 square miles (the size of the concession was renegotiated downwards by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf). Rows upon rows of neatly planted rubber trees stretch off to either side of the well-paved roads that crisscross the plantation.
The place is like its own mini-Republic, with its own housing, churches, schools, hospital, banks, post office, supermarkets, markets, roads, and taxis (not to mention the more exclusive Firestone “Staff Club,” which includes a golf course, a tennis court, a gym, a restaurant, and even a verandah with a spectacular view). All of these amenities exist because some 6,500 people live and work inside the plantation (and allegedly not all happily – some human rights groups have criticized Firestone’s working conditions and accused them of using child labor).
Before visiting Firestone, I had never given much thought to where rubber comes from. It comes from a labor-intensive process of tree-tapping, which involves making an incision into the bark of the light-colored trees and collecting the white latex sap in a bucket. There is an art to the cutting – the tappers start at a certain distance off the ground, make small cuts, and work down and around the tree at a 30 degree angle.
The tappers go to work early in the morning, cutting each tree one by one. They then leave the trees for several hours to “bleed” their latex, which runs down the incised bark into small red buckets that are hung from the trees. The bark eventually grows back, and the tree can be tapped again.
The workers pour the individual collections into a bigger bucket, which are taken to the factory on the plantation. If left, the liquid natural rubber latex coagulates into a solid gooey lump that looks like a large wet wiggly marshmallow. The water is extracted from these lumps to get solid rubber (which is brown). That rubber is exported to the US to be converted into tires at Firestone’s factories. In addition to car tires and plane tires, rubber is also used for products like gloves and condoms.
Although rubber grows well in Liberia’s tropical and humid climate, interestingly it is not indigenous to the region. The rubber tree originally comes from South America. Europeans gathered its seeds, germinated them in Kew Gardens (near London), and then spread the rubber tree throughout the world to places like Malaysia, India, Congo, and Liberia. And the rest is history…
P.S. In addition to visiting the plantation, I have taken information for this post from BBC, Wikipedia, LiberiaPastAndPresent.org, and The Nation. If you know more, please comment!