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Firestone in Liberia

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If you haven’t read the Pro Publica report on Firestone funded Charles Taylor’s extraordinarily violent takeover of Liberia in 1992, do so.

Firestone served as a source of food, fuel, trucks and cash used by Taylor’s ragtag rebel army, according to interviews, internal corporate documents and declassified diplomatic cables.

The company signed a deal in 1992 to pay taxes to Taylor’s rebel government. Over the next year, the company doled out more than $2.3 million in cash, checks and food to Taylor, according to an accounting in court files. Between 1990 and 1993, the company invested $35.3 million in the plantation.

In return, Taylor’s forces provided security to the plantation that allowed Firestone to produce rubber and safeguard its assets. Taylor’s rebel government offered lower export taxes that gave the company a financial break on rubber shipments.

For Taylor, the relationship with Firestone was about more than money. It helped provide him with the political capital and recognition he needed as he sought to establish his credentials as Liberia’s future leader.

“We needed Firestone to give us international legitimacy,” said John Toussaint “J.T.” Richardson, a U.S.-trained architect who became one of Taylor’s top advisers. “We needed them for credibility.”

While Firestone used the plantation for the business of rubber, Taylor used it for the business of war. Taylor turned storage centers and factories on Firestone’s sprawling rubber farm into depots for weapons and ammunition. He housed himself and his top ministers in Firestone homes. He also used communications equipment on the plantation to broadcast messages to his supporters, propaganda to the masses and instructions to his troops.

Secret U.S. diplomatic cables from the time captured Taylor’s gratitude to Firestone. Firestone’s plantation “had been the lifeblood” of the territory in Liberia that he controlled, Taylor told one Firestone executive, according to a State Department cable. Taylor later said in sworn testimony that Firestone’s resources had been the “most significant” source of foreign exchange in the early years of his revolt.

Firestone is claiming it had no choice, etc.

Today, Firestone maintains that at the time it struck its deal with Taylor, the guerrilla leader had “no well-established record” of human right violations. It said that many other companies and world leaders had treated Taylor as a legitimate political figure. Other companies operating in Liberia at the time chose to leave. But some stayed on through the violence.

“Does Firestone believe it did the right thing? Yes,” Firestone said of its decisions in Liberia. “Do we, along with former U.S. presidents, the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and many leaders around the world who worked with Charles Taylor regret the war criminal he became? Yes.”

No “well-established record.” Gotcha. And I’m not downplaying the cost of doing business in an unstable country and the compromises that companies make. But the rubber industry has long contributed to that instability through low wages, bad working conditions, and paying off dictators and strongmen to control the workforce and ensure its investments. Firestone has significantly exploited Liberia going back to the 1920s. So while there probably wasn’t much American employees of Firestone on the ground in Liberia could do to stop the killing, the corporation itself holds plenty of blame.

This very long story is remarkable, but not so much an aberration as one might think. Yes, Charles Taylor was extraordinarily awful, even for the region. Yes, it’s rare to get actual documents so clearly showing how a single U.S. company openly backed a psychopath with such force and resources. But on a lesser level, this is just the cost of doing business for many companies. Look at the apparel industry in Vietnam or Bangladesh or Cambodia. These companies back leaders like Hun Sen in Cambodia that kill labor organizers all the time. Chinese repression of dissent is part of the appeal. So this report is far more useful is we look at it as a tremendously well-documented example of a systemic problem rather than an isolated incident of one company and one ruler working together.

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