A new investigative documentary aims to expose the history of US rubber company Firestone’s engagement in Liberia. But in failing to follow the money, talk to key Liberians and explore the company’s labour and environmental practices, the film falls a long way short, as Robtel Neajai Pailey explains.
Despite being released to great fanfare in the US on 18 November, the investigative documentary Firestone and the Warlord is disappointing. As someone who has extensively studied and written about Firestone, a tyre and rubber company founded in Ohio in the US, which has operated in Liberia since 1926, I believe the film’s producers simply did not dig deep enough.
There are some merits to the ProPublica/Frontline documentary such as the revelations from court documents, US State Department cables, Firestone corporate records, correspondences, and video footage – but they ultimately conceal more than they reveal of Firestone’s asymmetrical relationship with Liberia.
The film’s narration begins: “This is a story about business and war. It’s a story about a small group of Americans and the choices they made many years ago. A story about the cost of operating in a volatile and remote country. Its setting is a rubber plantation in Africa, owned and operated by Firestone.”
From the outset, the narration harks back to Joseph Conrad’s description of the Belgian Congo in Heart of Darkness. Liberia is an unnamed African backdrop of savagery, calamity and doom, while Firestone and its US workers, like Kurtz in Conrad’s novel, are presumed innocent until they encounter “the horror”. For the first eight minutes of the film, we are bombarded with an often distorted and caricatured interpretation of Liberia’s history by white male diplomats, journalists, and former Firestone managers. We do not hear from two of Liberia’s pre-eminent statesmen and scholars, Dr D. Elwood Dunn and Dr Amos Sawyer, until much later. It sets the tone of the film as primarily concerned with the perspectives of non-Liberians.
In an attempt to make the narrative palatable to a US audience, the film vilifies Charles Taylor, Liberia’s militant-turned-president, while portraying Firestone as morally superior. It remains surprising that the film’s title was not “Charles Taylor and the Rubber Company” since the gratuitous war imagery employed to demonise the former Liberian president makes him the central feature of the documentary. Taylor is referenced with accompanying video footage, from his years in combat to his trial in The Hague for war crimes committed during neighbouring Sierra Leone’s 11-year armed conflict. It primarily paints the rubber company as a coerced, innocent victim of Taylor’s brutality.
“When evil is given an opportunity to reign freely, these things occur,” says former Firestone accountant Steve Raimo, who reduces Liberia’s conflict to “tribal warfare”. His former colleague Ken Gerhart continues with a mocking smile on his face: “Well, if they were the right tribe, they survived. If they weren’t, they didn’t.” Missing from their skewed analysis of Liberia’s armed insurgency are the shifting geopolitics of the Cold War, the country’s rising inequality and politicisation of identity and the alleged US complicity in Taylor’s mysterious US jailbreak.
In diminishing Liberia’s conflict to the irrational machinations of African “tribes”, the film appears less concerned with Firestone’s business practices and more obsessed with Taylor’s warmongering. Firestone is largely portrayed as a law-abiding, tax-paying, responsible contributor to formal employment in Liberia.
The film’s narrator argues that when Liberia offered Firestone a chance to develop a million acres of rubber at six cents per acre in 1926 that it was a “mutually beneficial arrangement”. But for whom? Throughout the film, the Firestone plantation pre-1989 is painted as a tranquil place for the mostly Liberian labour force. Yet while the film exposes the “good life” of the company’s expatriate managers, the living conditions and the low wages of Firestone’s Liberian employees is generally glossed over.
During the early part of Liberia’s armed conflict the company shut down and its foreign staff left the country in 1992. Shortly thereafter, they return to do business, but must first contend with Taylor.
In a twist of irony, the film shows footage of Taylor scolding Firestone’s foreign senior staff for their negligence: “There’s a little war, and you leave…there’s no water, no food…it’s inexcusable.” Accusing management of abandoning plantation workers, Taylor demands to know how Firestone will make amends.
In 1992, the company signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Taylor to resume operations, which was crucial for Taylor. At the Hague, he said that Firestone provided economic and political capital during the conflict.
Edwin Cisco, president of the Firestone Workers’ Union, argues that the company’s motivations boiled down to “profit, profit, and profit”. Yet, while the film harps on about the fact that Firestone paid Taylor US$2.3m in “taxes” and spent $35.3m on the plantation and its workers between June 1990 and February 1993, the unaddressed elephant in the room is how much profit Firestone made. The company has never revealed its earnings.
But the film reminds us that Taylor siphoned off huge sums from the spoils of war, while the same level of scrutiny is not paid to Firestone’s revenue stream.
One former Firestone manager says unabashedly, “Firestone’s intent has always been to make money. It always has and it always will be. We’re in the business to make money.” Although the film is meant to be an exposé, it neither pursues the money trail nor questions why such financial information is concealed.
One US diplomat argues in the film that “Firestone has blood on its hands” because of resumption of operations in the midst of armed conflict. This may be true but Firestone’s labour relations could also be violent. When workers demonstrated against the company’s arbitrary decision in 1997 to deduct 38% of their monthly salaries to replace money that had allegedly been stolen during the first Liberian armed conflict, then president Taylor unleashed his security personnel to attack 7,000 unarmed demonstrators.
In the film, Herman Cohen, former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and other diplomats condemn Taylor for being “venal” and “unsavoury”, yet do not once interrogate Firestone’s practices. The film ignores the backlash against Firestone crystallised in a transnational campaign, Stop Firestone, spearheaded in 2005 by Liberians and an international coalition. The campaign was largely based on a groundbreaking report “Firestone: The Mark of Modern Slavery” by the Liberian NGO Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU). SAMFU representatives were not interviewed for the film.
Also glaringly missing is that in November 2005, 35 Liberian plaintiffs filed a class action suit in a US court alleging that Bridgestone Corporation and Bridgestone North American Tire, the parent company of Firestone Liberia, had violated labour laws by using child labour and cruel labour practices by instituting unrealistic daily quotas, dumping toxic substances in the plantation’s only water source, the Farmington River. The film does not interview Alfred Brownell, the Liberian lead attorney on the case. It should be noted that the plaintiffs did lose the case.
On the other hand, we do hear Gerald Padmore, a Liberian attorney and Firestone legal representative arguing Firestone’s case: “They [Firestone] did the right thing, they did not try to exploit the country…They did not pay off warlords or give money under the table. They didn’t do any of those things. They did the right thing.” It almost feels like ProPublica and Frontline went out of their way to find a Liberian who would support Firestone’s innocence.
Rather than climaxing with a critique of Firestone, the closing narration of the film reframes the company as largely exempt from culpability because it has “invested more than $146m to improve conditions on the plantation in Liberia and remains the country’s largest private employer.”
The irony is that Firestone has not built a single processing plant in its almost 100 years of operation. On the world’s largest industrial rubber plantation, the company could not produce one latex glove in Liberia to shield healthcare workers from the Ebola outbreak.
As Dunn asserts: “Firestone has been able to get away with what it has because of a combination of factors – Liberian regimes’ permissiveness, US government support for its business interest and the media (local and international) failing to beam the spotlight on the company’s transgressions.”
Unfortunately for Liberians Firestone and the Warlord has done little to help correct that injustice.