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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

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