- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

MONROVIA, Liberia

Little that’s worth anything makes it out of Liberia’s war-wrecked ports these days — except rubber.

Three years after a ruinous civil war bankrolled by stolen timber and diamonds, rubber is the first commodity to return to the export market. But the slow and violence-marred reform of the rubber sector shows how challenging it will be to restore trade and manage Liberia’s resources.

Abandoned rubber plantations have had to be wrested from former militiamen. Bandits still sneak onto plantations and tap trees, wielding the acid used to coagulate the natural latex as a weapon against those who try to stop them.

Firestone Natural Rubber Co., Liberia’s largest employer with 6,000 workers, is both courted and hated. The government wants the company to increase investment in the economy; Liberians want jobs, but many workers say Firestone pays too little.

“The problem of the struggle for the control of natural resources, it’s manifested itself in the problem with the rubber plantations,” said Alan Doss, the U.N. special representative to Liberia. “Reform carries risk. There are winners, but there are also losers: those who perhaps have lost what they saw was their right.”

Sales of timber and diamonds smuggled from neighboring Sierra Leone purportedly funded the child soldiers and killing squads that tore Liberia apart from 1989 to 2003, leaving nearly a third of the country’s 3 million people homeless.

The West African country recently celebrated its first year with an elected government; former President Charles Taylor was chased out as part of a 2003 peace agreement. New President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has made resource reform a priority, re-allocating land and renegotiating contracts to get U.N. sanctions lifted and prevent fighting over exports.

Mrs. Sirleaf canceled all timber contracts granted by previous governments and renegotiated with Mittal Steel Co. to develop iron-ore mines under terms more favorable for Liberia. Iron exports in small amounts began in 2006.

Diamonds — a smaller resource in Liberia than in Sierra Leone but still potentially lucrative — continue to be banned by U.N. sanctions until Liberia shows it can ensure that stones are tracked so they aren’t used to provoke more wars.

Rubber was not subject to sanctions, and exports have continued during the reforms. From April last year to September, rubber accounted for 94 percent of Liberia’s exports, bringing in $88.7 million.

But as one of the few sectors earning money, the rubber industry and its workers are targets.

At the Firestone plantation recently, a barely conscious man lay on a hospital bed with gauze tightly wrapped around his arms and hands. Doctors said he was lucky to be alive after illegal rubber-tree tappers threw acid on him and slashed his wrists with machetes. Moses Sumo’s mangled hands prevent him from ever returning to work as a tapper.

Mr. Sumo was the 18th victim of such attacks — some deadly — at the Firestone plantation in just over a year. Firestone officials say they are doing their best to police the area, but the vast plantation is hard to protect.

Researchers and aid workers say unemployment in Liberia is about 80 percent. That means men crowd outside Firestone offices in hopes of getting work, while some with those sought-after jobs complain about wages.

Jean Fatu Stewart, head of the Firestone union, said tappers have trouble making ends meet, but he backs the company’s assertion that it pays more than the workers could make elsewhere.

The 200-square-mile plantation is an hour’s drive from the capital, Monrovia. Firestone, which has been in Liberia since 1926, has begun to replace dilapidated housing, repair roads and order new textbooks for its schools. Plantations in Liberia are required to provide housing, medical care and schooling.

Agriculture Minister J. Chris Toe said Liberia needs to demand more investment from Firestone — a tire plant for example, or better terms that will keep as much wealth in the country as possible. He said the contract with Firestone will be renegotiated this year.

Other large rubber plantations are relatively unpoliced as they wait for the government to find private investors to take them over. Thomas Major of the government-backed Rubber Planters Association said there are plenty of interested parties, but the approval process is long.

The spike in oil prices has made synthetic rubber more expensive, which in turn increases the price of natural rubber. Liberia’s rubber farmers say they can now sell a ton of natural rubber for about twice the price a few years ago.

The Guthrie Plantation near the Sierra Leone border was wrested from former combatants last August. The Rubber Planters Association now oversees the enterprise, with U.N. soldiers standing guard.

In a strange twist, Mr. Major said some former rebels who once controlled the Guthrie Plantation now work there tapping trees.

Smaller private plantations also are operating, with owners trying to clear brush and collect latex from trees a decade or two past their prime.

“The government is taking money from me,” said Matthew Mangolie, who leases a 675-acre rubber plantation and hopes to develop an additional 700 acres he owns. He complained about taxes, which he doesn’t think he should have to pay.

“The fighters have really destroyed the farms,” Mr. Mangolie said, arguing that the government should pay him to help redevelop the industry so large companies like Firestone don’t make all the profits.

Mr. Mangolie and Mr. Major argued about how to best save the business while driving along one of Liberia’s newly repaired roads to inspect overgrown plantations.

Mr. Major insisted that taxes are necessary, and it will all take a lot of time. “We’re in the stage where we’re just going to be poor for a while,” he said.

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