Liberia: Firestone Liberis Response to a Daily Observer News Article

Editor’s Note: We welcome Firestone Liberia’s response and note that the article was premised on a concern raised by the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Cllr J. Fonati Koffa, that despite nearly a hundred years of operation in the country, Firestone Liberia and her parent company, Bridgestone, are yet to modify or diversify its activities to the benefit of the local population. Deputy Speaker Koffa’s concern was a caution against attracting concessionaires who will not be interested in adding value to raw materials harvested in Liberia.

Reading through Firestone Liberia’s response, we did not see anywhere where the company denies the core of the issue — which is a validation of the issue raised. Our points in the article did not lay blame squarely at the feet of Firestone as we know that the Government of Liberia shares just as much of the blame, as per its responsibility to get the best possible deal in the interest of the country. But that does not negate the fact that Firestone does not see Liberia worthy ground for adding value to the raw material that is cultivated and harvested here.

We appreciate the company for what it does for its employees and their dependents, as it is part of its corporate social responsibility. 

Bridgestone is aware of and concerned by the factually unsupported and damaging media accounts, like the opinion piece in the Daily Observer by William Harmon, that are referenced out of context. The January 26 opinion piece contains erroneous information, inaccurate allegations and false narratives that malign Firestone Liberia’s treatment of human rights, labor rights, and community engagement. Firestone Liberia is built on the core values of respect and trust for our employees and their dependents, and no other private company has done more to invest in the country and people of Liberia.

The many people who have earned a living from its presence, who educated their children in its schools, and those whose sons and daughters or grandchildren are now accomplished citizens would agree.

 We believe that the story of Firestone Liberia’s presence in Liberia has been one of productive partnership and shared effort with the Government of Liberia to promote prosperity, justice and a better way of life for the people of Liberia, particularly in the modern era, supported and strengthened by the Bridgestone Corporation’s acquisition of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in 1988.

Our company has worked diligently to fulfill its obligations in Liberia as a responsible corporate citizen – to provide for a stable, sustainable, and socially responsible natural rubber farming business that serves as a central pillar of the country’s economy – while also working to support the broader health and welfare of the Liberian people. This work underscores our global corporate commitment, the Bridgestone E8 Commitment, which is part of our sustainability journey with eight focus areas where Bridgestone will contribute value -- Energy, Ecology, Efficiency, Extension, Economy, Emotion, Ease and Empowerment.

Today, Firestone Liberia remains the largest private employer in Liberia and a consistent source of revenues for the Liberian Government.  None of this outcome which is so beneficial to Liberia would have been possible had the company simply left Liberia at the outbreak of civil conflict in 1990 and never returned. Firestone Liberia incurred large ongoing losses for its parent company in all the years between 1990 and 2003 and was a drain on company resources.

The easiest path, the least risky one, and the most economical one at the time, would have been to abandon Liberia in 1990, or again in 1992, or finally in 2003 during all of which times renewed fighting put the lives of the company’s employees in extreme danger.

With respect to Firestone Liberia’s employees, the company provides wages that far outpace the national average, and its benefits include provisions for free housing, free healthcare, and free education for more than 4,000 employees and their direct dependents. Firestone also maintains a very productive relationship with the Labor Union representing the majority of its employees. 

Currently, Firestone Liberia also provides a broad swath of services and support to both local communities and the Liberian people, with major investment in education, healthcare, infrastructure and more. For example, Firestone Liberia maintains one of the largest and most advanced referral hospitals in the country, which in addition to caring for employees and their dependents, provides critical emergency care at minimal cost to Liberian citizens from around the country, treating upwards of 60,000 patients each year. The company also operates 23 schools on the concession with more than 7,000 students, and the company donates over $150,000 annually to provide scholarships for higher education opportunities for both employees’ dependents and for qualifying students from around the country.

Firestone Liberia also stood by the Liberian people through the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2015, providing critical aid in a time of unprecedented crisis, when many other companies and even international aid organizations, chose to withdraw from the country. Firestone Liberia was on the frontlines of the Ebola crisis in 2014 and 2015 and helped save thousands of lives within the concession and in surrounding communities through its prevention and care measures.

The company’s leading efforts were recognized by a number of global health organizations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, the President of Liberia awarded Firestone Liberia the 2015 Knight Grand Commander of the Humane Order of African Redemption in recognition of the company’s heroic efforts during the country’s Ebola crisis.

Over the past two years, in the face of the global pandemic, Firestone Liberia has worked closely with the Ministry of Health to provide support in the form of contact tracing, a full-service quarantine facility, and COVID-19 isolation and treatment centers. These activities, while specific to the pandemic, are part of a broad and ongoing effort by the company to support the health and welfare of the Liberian people and include a longstanding relationship with Children’s Surgery International, which has completed ten surgical missions at the Firestone Liberia Medical Center since 2010, performing more than 1,000 lifesaving and life-changing surgeries on children from across the country and the surrounding region.

Further, the company also works to engage local communities surrounding the concession in a proactive and positive way, and to support the economic well-being of a growing population of independent natural rubber farmers in the region. The company has and continues to make significant investments in public health, in infrastructure, and in educational resources that help to uplift the Liberian people and businesses as they strive to build a secure and productive future.  

Specific to the other issues outlined in the opinion piece, we would like to offer the following:

  • With respect to the allegations of a ‘massive land grab’ and being ‘one of the worst concessions in human history,’ Firestone followed the established processes and adhered to all rules and regulations of the time. In fact, tribal areas were specifically set aside at that time and continue to be maintained within parts of the Concession Area. It is also critical to understand that the Liberian Government held title to all traditionally held land at the time and had the authority under law to lease those lands for farming purposes.  Despite that, the 1926 agreement between the Liberian Government and Firestone specifically provided as follows: “(f) Tribal reserves of lands set aside for the communal use of any tribe within the Republic of Liberia are excluded from the operation of this Agreement. Should any question arise as to the limits and extent of such reserves such question shall be finally determined by the Secretary of Interior of Liberia on a reference by the Lessee.” Thus, even during a time of colonial domination when communal rights to land were everywhere under attack, the original Firestone agreement with the Liberian Government protected such lands from exploitation.  What is important is the belief at the time that most land taken for rubber farming purposes represented virgin or secondary forests not actively being cultivated by local communities.  Thus, and given Liberia’s sparse population in 1926, land was plentiful and the large-scale displacement of people a most highly unlikely result.  Indeed, in the years since 1926, the company has not been made aware of any substantial claims based on such displacement.

The Liberian Republic was founded in 1847, and under the Constitution, all land was designated as public land. In 1973, the Public Lands Law formalized the procedure for acquiring public land in Liberia. A concessionaire would have to file surveys setting forth the geographical boundaries of the area the company desired to develop with the government. Consent had to be granted by the tribal authority, with a signed tribal certificate and appropriate compensation, which was then filed with the county land commissioner. The commissioner then had to attest that the development area was not part of a Tribal Reserve, was not privately owned and was unencumbered.

In 1927, Firestone sent a study team to Liberia to survey land for a natural rubber farm. Despite the widely quoted concession area of 1 million acres, the approved development area has only and always been, 118,900 acres. Within this area is the 500-acre Gazon Tribal Reserve, which is still lived on and farmed by the descendants of the original indigenous people. Given the presence of the Tribal Reserve, there is no reason to believe that when the Firestone Concession was granted in 1927, the procedures outlined above were not followed. 

It is also useful to provide context for the entry of Firestone Liberia into Liberia in 1926. Firestone at that time sought access to a source of natural rubber to supply the growing American automobile industry that was outside the colonial control of Great Britain and France. Perhaps the most important refutation of such claims is that after nearly 100 years, there have been no widespread claims for abuse or forcible loss of land and livelihood by Liberians arising from the Firestone operations.  And of course, for nearly fifty years, the Firestone agreement in Liberia has incorporated and maintained the highest international standards, including in particular, those strictly adhered to by the Bridgestone Corporation.

  • With respect to allegations of ‘some of the worst human rights abuses in global concession history,’ Firestone Liberia does not employ anyone under the age of 18, and the company has a strict zero-tolerance policy against child labor. Violation of this policy is a terminable offense. Children belong in the classroom, not at work. Past allegations of child labor, including a case in U.S. Federal Courts against Firestone was dismissed with prejudice. Our practices are codified in the Bridgestone Group Statement on Human Rights and Bridgestone Group Global Human Rights Policy covering all Bridgestone employees and group companies globally. Further, these same fundamental principles are applied throughout our supply chain and codified in the Bridgestone Global Sustainable Procurement Policy, affirming our respect for international norms on human rights.

Over time, Firestone has served a salutary purpose in Liberia and been a positive economic engine for the country. Firestone Liberia is committed to forging a better world by learning from the lessons of the past and continuing to be a positive engine for the Liberian economy.