‘Liberia A Nation of Tappers,’ Says Deputy Speaker



— Cautions Liberians to not let emerging fisheries sector follow Firestone's trend of milking the country and doing little to empower its people

In a critique of Liberia's political and economic governance in 1958, the black American civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois commented that “a body of private capitalists, even if they are black, can never free Africa; they will simply sell it into new slavery to old masters overseas.”

Du Bois’ assertion, which many historians believe was in direct reference to the operations of Firestone, Liberia’s largest concessionaire at the time, remains valid after nearly a century of the company’s activities in the country. As the locals wallow in poverty and deprivation, the old masters overseas, bask in wealth and comfort at the company’s headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, and other US cities. 

Liberia has helped make Firestone the crème de la crème in the global rubber industries—a feat that translates into being not only one of the very few wealthiest private companies in the world, but the world’s single-largest natural rubber producing company. In contrast, the only honor that the host of this globally renowned company bears is being a “nation of tappers,” according to the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, J. Fonati Koffa.

The company, which is just six years shy of its hundredth year of operation in Liberia, has not provided any local value addition to the natural rubber (latex) harvested from its trees. Instead, the latex is exported for processing, denying Liberia higher revenue potential, better employment opportunities, and sustainable livelihoods for its citizens.

For Deputy Speaker Koffa and other critics of Firestone, the export of the commodity has provided little or no benefits on the ground, since the lion's share of revenue is captured at the end of the value chain, in other countries that have the capacity to add value to raw materials extracted from Liberia.

Koffa considers Firestone as a bad example that should not be emulated by concessionaires that are interested in doing business in Liberia.

Many, including the Deputy Speaker, find it unacceptable that while Liberia helped global superpowers win a world war with its natural rubber, with nearly 600,000 acres of the crop planted across the country, the country still imports, at its own expense, a huge quantity of the finished rubber products yearly, including the bare essentials like tyres, rain boots, rubber bands, and latex gloves. 

Koffa, who is the Representative of Grand Kru County District #2, told an audience of fisheries experts and academicians who gathered at the launch of the country’s first Fisheries and Aquaculture undergraduate program at the University of Liberia, that the fisheries sector should not be treated by prospective investors as Firestone has done to Liberia.

“This sector cannot be like Firestone,” Deputy Speaker Koffa, who served as the keynote speaker at the event, said. 

“Firestone has been here for nearly a hundred years, and we are still a nation of tappers. We don’t make a single tire in this country. We don’t even make significant exports of rubber products here.” 

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Deputy Speaker, J. Fonati Koffa speaking at the occasion

The launch of the new program at UL is part of steps to widen its scope of operations in the “promotion and pursuit of academic excellence” at the state-run university. It is one of many interventions by the World Bank in 2010 to improve the fisheries sector in the country.

With a specific caveat to the World Bank and other international partners that graced the occasion, Koffa said the sector has a huge potential to impact the economic growth and development of the country and, as such, Liberians should not be taken advantage of with indignity for their own natural resources as has been the case in the past. 

He said Liberia can no longer be a supplier of raw materials to industries in the West while its people dwell in poverty and unemployment. 

“We have become victims to some of our major natural resources, but with this fish, we must benefit from significantly,” he said, while boasting that Liberia has the best fish in the world. “You cannot turn us into fishermen for the fish industries in Europe. That we will not accept.”

“Bring some of those industries here so we can process some of our products here. We can process our tuna here.”

He noted that the fisheries sector should be set up in such a way that it becomes a sustainable source of employment for Liberians.

“We must process, we must build the capacity of our people, and we must be able to create sustainable livelihoods for our people. This is not too much to ask for.”

Under the guidance of the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority (NaFAA), it currently provides jobs for 33,000 people and contributes immensely to revenue generation and the country’s foreign exchange. The sector also contributes ten percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Deputy Speaker Koffa noted that the statistics would improve dramatically if Liberians are adequately trained and empowered to manage the sector. 

“I think we can do better to improve these numbers. This sector has the potential to do a lot. It will help support food security, sustainable livelihoods, and economic growth,” he said.

The launch of the program, which is the capacity building component, is the first of many steps, UL and NaFAA authorities said.  

It is anticipated, Koffa noted, that the academic program will adequately train and empower Liberians to manage those natural resources so that we can accrue optimum benefits as a people and also become responsible custodians of our ocean, our vast coastline, and other marine gifts.

As the representative of the Lower House at the event, Deputy Koffa pledged the support of the legislature to ensure that the program succeeds. “The legislature stands ready to appropriate funding for the development of the necessary infrastructures both at the UL campus and at NaFAA’s headquarters and at the port,” he noted. “It is a necessity that we develop this sector as it has the potential for employment and sustainable livelihoods for our people.

Meanwhile, Firestone is not only known for its economic exploitation of Liberia, the company is also accused of massive land grab, and some of the worst human rights abuses in global concession history.

The Firestone agreement, described as one of the worst concessions in human history, saw the company pen a 99-year contract with the government of Liberia for one million acres at the rate of six cents per acre. Hundreds of people, who had lived on the land for generations, were evicted. Villagers were pushed at the margins of the concession area.

Many were shocked that the Firestone agreement was extended in 2015 to 2046 after agreeing on an amendment with the government.