Ever since Harvey S. Firestone started planting rubber in Liberia in 1926, the rubber sector has been, probably aside from the Liberian government, the nation’s largest single employer.
For soon after he started his plantation, Mr. Firestone got other Liberians, beginning with President C.D.B. King’s Interior Secretary, James (Jimmy) Francis Cooper, interested in planting rubber.
Mr. Cooper, in turn, got other Liberians involved in the rubber sector and soon the number of rubber planters quickly grew. Being labor-intensive as it is, therefore, the rubber sector became the largest single employer, for there was Firestone, employing thousands to clear the land, plant and tap the rubber, and other Liberian rubber planters doing the same thing.
The rubber sector continues to attract tens of thousands of workers.
So when the rubber price drops, causing farmers to worry seriously about their future, the government cannot sit idly by, for she knows the consequences: the already high unemployment would worsen and farmers may be forced to close their farms, causing more even economic problems for government and for us all.
That is why President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Central Bank Executive Governor J. Mills Jones have swiftly intervened to avert a continuing crisis. Through the President’s initiative, CBL Governor Jones has pumped into the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI) US$5 million and L$129,750,000 as a stimulus package for the resuscitation of the rubber industry.
Announcing the move at the weekend, Governor Jones, said it was the government’s way of revitalizing the sector. He acknowledged the implications for employment, saying that the problems with rubber could negatively impact other areas in the economy.
LBDI President John Davies said his bank was happy to be part of the rescue. But he urged the rubber planters to pay back the loans on time so that it would continue to do what banks do, lend to others in need of financial assistance.
Farmers will have access to the funds through their organization, the Rubber Planters Association of Liberia (RPAL) and LBDI. RPAL president Benjamin Green Garnett expressed great appreciation to the President, CBL Governor and the Liberian government as a whole for the stimulus package. This was a milestone, he indicated, since GOL does not normally reach out to rubber planters when they are in distress.
But you have a president who is an economist and financial expert, and a Governor who, in addition to being a top-notch economist himself, has demonstrated time and again his total commitment to assisting Liberian businesses. So the time for such a stimulus package is now.
In the 1960s, whenever the price of rubber dropped, President W.V.S. Tubman, who was himself a rubber planter–with rubber farms in Bonike, Maryland County and Totota, Bong County–always urged rubber planters to produce more to help make up for the price drop. It is probably not that simple, but that is what RPAL president Ben Garnett says they will do. The important thing, Mr.
Garnett reckons, is to keep the rubber farms open so that they may continue to produce and sell their rubber, no matter the price. The farms just have to keep operating until things get better; otherwise the weeds would take over, causing a reduction in the flow of latex and leaving the farm workers idle.
This would be good for no one–not the rubber planters, not the tappers, and surely not the government.
In the past many rubber planters, especially the small and medium ones, depended on Firestone to bail them out when they were in financial stress. The situation is so severe this time around that the mighty Firestone is itself feeling the pinch and it, too, has had to lay off staff. This is serious.
We do not know how long the crunch in the rubber market will continue, but we hope that soon we will begin to see light at the end of the tunnel. When that time comes, and the rubber planters become again comfortable with the rubber price, they, led by RPAL, should begin to prepare for a rainy day, by setting aside an investment fund.
This would empower the RPAL itself to be in the position to rescue its own members in times of financial stress.