Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

The foul stench of Firestone

Slavery isn't dead, writes Robtel Neajai Pailey. Its modern-day variant is just found on a different kind of plantation

June 1, 2007
4 min read

Emmanuel B is 30, a slender five foot three, and a labourer whose piercing brown eyes tell unspeakable truths. He’s not the kind of slave-labourer we’re familiar with from 19th-century plantations in the Deep South of the United States. Instead, Emmanuel is a modern-day plantation labourer in 21st-century, post-conflict Liberia, and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company is his unyielding master. Like many workers on Firestone’s largest rubber plantation, Emmanuel was born in Harbel, has lived in Harbel all his life, and will most likely waste away in Harbel.

As westerners drive around in their heavy-duty SUVs, propelled along on the black gold of Firestone tires, Emmanuel wakes up at the crack of dawn to tap raw latex from 800 rubber trees daily. His clothes are tattered and his shoulders covered in red pus-infected blisters from carrying buckets full of raw latex suspended from an iron pole to the Firestone processing plant two miles from his tapping site.

Emmanuel was gracious enough to demonstrate what a tapper does from sun-up to mid-morning.

With a pitchfork suspended in the air, he extended his long wiry arms to ease the raw latex out of the trees and into the small red cups that catch it. The drip-drip-drip of the white-coated liquid was almost as laborious to witness as Emmanuel’s daily task – another 799 trees still to go after this one.

For Emmanuel and his fellow tappers, a 5am start is the only means of meeting their daily quotas; their wages are reduced by half if they fail to do so. Some have begun to use their children to complete the Herculean task.

I visited the Firestone rubber plantation for the first time in December 2006 while on a research fact-finding mission. I decided to take a break from high browed academic work, and visit the sprawling modern day encampment I had heard so many horror stories about. It’s what I imagined the South to look like during the century or so of chattel slavery in the United States, with the hustle bustle activity of plantation life and the accompanying strokes of exploitation.

As my brother-in-law, Christopher Pabai, and I pulled into the one million acre – and constantly expanding – plantation, we were welcomed by an ungodly stench, a stench I can only compare to the smell of rotten cheese. Not just ordinary rotten cheese, but the kind that has been drenched in burning oil, steamrolled on a conveyor belt, and neatly packaged for nonhuman consumption. That’s what raw latex smells like when it’s being processed.

Rather than wearing masks to protect their noses from the assault, the plantation workers ingest the foul stench day in and day out. It took all my willpower not to retch all over Firestone’s perfectly manicured lawn or lush green golf course that senior management frequents while on hiatus from their back-breaking overseeing.

But the foul stench is the least of the workers’ worries.

While England celebrates its 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, plantation workers in Liberia are trapped in a time warp of monumental proportions. They exist in the parallel universe of multinational corporate checkmate, where the prize goes to the highest exploiter. Firestone has been playing the chess pieces of Liberia’s rubber pawns since the company signed a concession agreement with the Liberian government in 1926 to lease one million acres of land for six cents per acre – an abominable exchange given the astronomical dividends garnered from rubber sales then and now.

In 2005, Liberia’s transitional government signed another concession agreement for an extra 37 years of rubber slavery. Rubber is Liberia’s largest export, and Firestone its largest international corporate exploiter, I mean employer, to date. The country and its people have paid a high price for the asymmetrical relationship.

History challenges us to stay on a forward moving dialectic of change. The Firestone example shows us that an ironic distortion of that dialectic is taking place right under our noses. Slavery isn’t dead, it’s manufactured in the rubber we use daily. We owe it to Emmanuel and his comrades on the Firestone Rubber Plantation to change the course of history, to make a clean break from modernday slavery and its peculiar 21stcentury manifestations. We owe it to ourselves.

For more information on the struggle against Firestone, visit the Stop Firestone Campaign website. Liberian native Robtel Neajai Pailey is a graduate student at the University of Oxford and a multi-media producer for Fahamu/ Pambazuka News, which has published a longer version of this article

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun