LONNIES LIBERIA PAGE
LONNIES FATHER ARVID WHO RAN THE PLANTATION FOR 18 YEARS
"The bark is the company's most precious asset," says Ballah Sumo, who has worked at Firestone for 26 years.
He says the tappers only cut 1/16 of an inch of bark at a time.
They start cutting the tree exactly 68 inches from the ground and go down at a 30 degree angle.
The cost of synthetic rubber has risen recently because of high oil prices and so some tyre manufacturers are switching back to natural rubber.
Liberians hope this will continue. As well as Firestone, there are several other plantations and countless small farms.
While car tyres can be made from either synthetic or natural rubber, only natural rubber goes into the tyres on aeroplanes
The bark can regenerate and a single tree is normally tapped four times - twice on each side.
Finally, the trees are "slaughter tapped" - quickly, without taking any care - before being cut down.
Some 20,000 people are still living on the plantation.
Tanu Clark (right) has lived there for five years, since his home in northern Liberia was attacked by rebels. He earns his living by making charcoal.
The building behind him was destroyed when the plantation was occupied during the 1990s.
"I look after about 1,800 trees and can collect six buckets of liquid latex each day."
Tappers earn a minimum of $3.19 a day and can earn more if they exceed production targets - a decent wage in a country where there are few other employers.
A joint UN-government report has criticised unsafe working conditions and poor living quarters but Firestone denies these claims.
Rubber tapper Augustin Kpatah says: "I would like my seven children to work here, too, but in an office, not tapping the trees.
If the latex is left overnight, it coagulates into a solid lump in the cups.
These are collected and taken to a factory on the plantation.
Here the lumps are pressed together and the water extracted.
The solid rubber is sent to Firestone's factories in the US to be turned into tyres
Liberia Blog Post 1
My first real memory of Liberia is actually about returning to Liberia from being on leave with my parents in the US. It was in the very early 1950s.
My father was working at the time as an auditor on the Firestone Plantation in Harbel. The company needed accurate auditors and accountants back in those days because it was way before the days of computers. Accuracy in record keeping depended on exacting and diligent work provided by actual human beings… and unlike today… there were jobs for human beings in those days.
We had been in the United States for three months. My recollection of our daily activities is very spotty because of my extremely young age. I do remember leaving New Orleans Louisiana on a Delta Lines freighter called the Del Oro. I had a severe case of pneumonia when we arrived by train in New Orleans. Although my memory of the time is like I am looking through a sheer gauze curtain I do remember the doctor coming to treat me in the hotel room in New Orleans… and I remember being really sick. Well… one recovers from things easier when one is a child… and so did I.
My father had bought a dog for us while we were in the states. The dog was a Dachshund we named Duffy. I do not have any independent recollection of where my father got him but I know he was not a puppy… although young he was an adult. My father purchased a nice aluminum cage for Duffy to be transported in… and to keep him from committing suicide by leaping to his death from the deck of the freighter. The cage had windows all around and a nice thick pad inside. It even had secure places to hold food and water… or maybe beer, who knows?
The Del Oro was delayed from leaving for several days due to bad weather in the Caribbean… a hurricane I later learned. Finally the Master, Captain Owens, determined the weather report was good enough to leave. Weather reports were not all that accurate in those days as you will see.
Slipping her hawsers at the Delta Lines wharf in New Orleans the Del Oro rode the broad Mississippi current south from the Crescent City to the Gulf of Mexico. The trip out through the delta took around 12 hours and it was the last smooth ride for two weeks.
The seas in the Gulf were, shall we say, a bit large. We could stand on the main deck of the Del Oro and gaze up at the wave crests some twenty feet above us. That equates to forty foot seas. I thought it was all just grand but then I was too young to get seasick… hell, I didn’t know any better. My father, as I recall it, looked decidedly grim. His usual sense of humour seemed obvious by its absence. My mother was… how you say in your country?... petrified.
Duffy wasn’t bearing up too well either. The movement didn’t agree with him and my father said Duffy didn’t like the noise produced by the ship’s Diesel engines. As the trip progressed he became more and more lethargic.
The seas did abate somewhat as we approached the mid Atlantic but the winds were still on the nose as we were proceeding “the wrong way” through the trade wind belt.
Two things I remember really well about the Del Oro were the smell of pine scented deck cleaner and the taste of Post Shredded Wheat cereal in M&R powdered milk. I still like shredded wheat but the days of M&R Powdered Milk are long past… too bad.
One day I was playing in my cabin… yeah, I was important… I had my own cabin and my parents had theirs. However, now that I look back on it, I realize they probably were not trying to make me feel better or special because I had my own cabin… They probably just wanted to get away from me for a while!
Be that as it may I was playing in my cabin. It even had a portlight… which was open. In those days I guess I had an inflated idea, if not of my worth, then at least my influence. I leaned out the portlight and howled at the top of my lungs in my little child’s soprano voice:
“ABANDON SHIP!” I screamed into the wind.
After that I had what was probably a panic attack. I was terrified everybody, upon hearing me, had leapt headlong into the gray heaving waters of the Atlantic Ocean… leaving me to my own devices.
Damn I was relieved when I tore out of my cabin and saw crewmen still at work on the ship. I promised myself never again to utter a false command. I finally realized twenty five years later when I became a musician that nobody ever listens to me…
The Del Oro dropped anchor in the harbour in Dakar, Senegal (then French West Africa) two weeks later. Whatever had been wrong with Duffy had killed him by that time. My father always said he had expired from the stress of the storm and the whine of the Diesel engines. We spent a week in Dakar while the Del Oro transferred cargo, then steamed on to the Freeport in Monrovia.
Check back soon for another post!
Firestone and Liberia –
The Liberian Civil War (1989-2003)
In 1989, Charles Taylor and his NPFL rebel group launched a rebellion against the Samuel Doe government of the Republic of Liberia. Civil war ensued among various tribal groups and the country suffered estimated deaths of up to 300,000 people before the end of fighting in 2003. The war was characterized by the use of child soldiers (many of whom were fed narcotics in order to incite them to perform the deadly tasks directed by their leaders) and gruesome atrocities including the random amputation of limbs, mutilation and the murder of pregnant women simply for the purpose of betting on the gender of the unborn child.
In addition to the human carnage, the infrastructure of the country was laid to waste. Buildings, including hospitals and power facilities, were looted, burned and destroyed. Water and sanitation systems fell into unimaginable disrepair and were rendered useless. By the end of the war, the nation was left without power, water or sanitation. The war displaced nearly one-third of the population into refugee camps across the country and West Africa. Tens of thousands of refugees migrated to the Firestone farm seeking to avoid the horrific violence, overwhelming the property.
The U.S. State Department has said that the war "brought about a steep decline in the living standards of the country, including its education and infrastructure." Most major businesses were destroyed or heavily damaged, and most foreign investors and businesses left the country. Today, about 80 percent of Liberians are unemployed.
USAID, the foreign aid branch of the U.S. State Department, has said, "it is difficult to exaggerate the devastation that this war has had on Liberia's physical, social, political, economic and governance structure."