Skip to main content

tv   Gregg Mitman Empire of Rubber  CSPAN  December 12, 2021 2:35pm-3:35pm EST

2:35 pm
luther king jr. and malcolm x had on their sons in the three mothers. if travels with george -- in travels with george, george washington's presidency is examined by replacing his journey through the new republic. and a new york staff writer reports on a family's wealth built by the selling of oxycontin, volume and other pharmaceuticals in empire of pain. all of these authors have appeared on book tv. you can find their programs on type the author's name in the search box at the top of the page. >> this year's wisconsin book festival in madison starts now on book tv. first, history professor discusses the firestone tire and rubber company's operations in the 1920s. >> good morning, everyone. i'm the director of the wisconsin book festival. thank you very much for joining us here today for our first in person wisconsin book festival in two years.
2:36 pm
it's been two years to the day. [applause] >> throughout the course of the pandemic, we put on more than 100 virtual events for people in madison, wisconsin, people across the country and the globe. it was a success, but we knew we wanted to get back to free cultural events in this space all together hosting great authors like this author we have here with us today to start off the 2021 fall celebration. this is the 20th time that we have celebrated the wisconsin book festival. it started back in 2002, and here we are bigger and better than we've ever been. i really want to thank you all for coming out today celebrating with us and want to greet the people viewing at home. thank you very much for watching. thank you for your time and attention. it means a lot to me. i also want to take a moment as i always do to thank madison public library, to the library foundation and everyone who sponsors and supports the book festival. some of you are here.
2:37 pm
thank you very much. we wouldn't be able to put on events of this level of quality, caliber, or breadth without your support. thank you very much. let's give a round of applause for those people. [applause] this is the first event of 12 hours of events that we'll be doing here at madison central library. i hope that you have looked at the schedule already. maybe you've picked out other things to do. maybe you have picked out some more of up coming events later in the month and in november, but please check us on line for all that information. you can see it all the time. i have already started planning 2022, so there will be wonderful things coming all day today and into the future. and now to our author today, for his book "empire of rubber". he is the william coleman professor of history, medical history and environmental studies at the university of wisconsin madison. i'm pleased to call greg a friend. it's been on many many years that i have been working with
2:38 pm
greg on events, but it is the first time i have been able to introduce him. welcome to you, greg. thank you very much for being here. his book "empire of rubber" is an ambitious and shocking expose about america's hidden empire in liberia. it is run by the storied firestone corporation and casts a long shadow of american foreign policy, on american relations around the world. greg has done exhaustive research to tell the sweeping story about how capitalism, racial exploitation and environmental devastation swept through this country in africa and shaped modern america in many many ways. please help me welcome him. [applause] >> thank you so much, connor, for that kind introduction and this opportunity to be at the wisconsin book festival which is such an amazing cultural resource for the community. it is a delight to be back in
2:39 pm
person. thanks to all of you for coming out, for the event this morning. my face is covered, but i would be smiling if you could see me. [laughter] >> i'm going to talk a little bit about the writing on this book and give you an overview that will hopefully give you a sense of some of the characters and themes in it. it is a very narrative driven story. i didn't set out to write a book about firestone. this project goes back almost two decades ago when i was asked to serve as a scholar consultant on a film that was to be made on the roots of international conservation and colonialism. the film never saw the light of day, but its focus was to be on coolidge who was a harvard primatologist and a leader in
2:40 pm
the 50s and 60s on international conservation circles. as part of the project, we had unearthed three expeditions which coolidge was on, one of which was a 1926 expedition to liberia. i'm going to show you a clip from that expedition. we have about two hours of surviving expedition footage and about 600 photographs, all of which are now available publicly on the website liberian, which we built in cooperation with the center for national documents and records agency in liberia and also indiana university and the university of wisconsin. so if you turn your attention to this screen here, you'll see a man taking a blood sample, the man behind him who is just about to wipe his brow is [inaudible], and the person that just tropicl
2:41 pm
medicine in 1913. it was the second department of tropical medicine established in the united states. the first was at tulane university. the son of a [inaudible] chief in liberia, who had worked his way to america on a boat, was educated at a school for boys in massachusetts and then went on to become an undergraduate at harvard university in the 19 teens. while at harvard, he became a strong voice for the rights of liberia's indigenous peoples, at a time when the united states was assisting the liberian government in a brutal
2:42 pm
suppression of a crew rebellion in liberia on the west coast of africa. he had helped to broker many of the arrangements for the eight-member team from harvard, which was led by richard strong, and if you look at the photos, strong is the second person from the right seated, in the picture. but [inaudible] would be largely erased from the official expedition record as many go betweens were. the man who entered the frame in the clip at the very end was max thyler. here he is standing second from left. he would go on to win the nobel prize for the development of yellow fever vaccine, work that was tied to the harvard
2:43 pm
expedition to liberia. i began to ask what was this expedition about? the expedition i came to learn was a complete biological and medical survey of liberia, undertaken at the very moment in which firestone tire and rubber company was trying to bring closure to a deal with a liberian government nor a 99 year -- for a 99 year lease up to 1 million acres of land to grow a source of rubber free from british control. strong, the gentleman seated here who led the expedition and head of harvard's department of tropical medicine had survived many harrowing adventures on behalf of american economic, military, and political interests in foreign lands. he served as an army physician in the campaign in philippines during the spanish american war. he conducted autopsies on plague victims, working for the
2:44 pm
american red cross and the united states government. he had been dispatched there in 1911 to assist an international effort to [inaudible] an outbreak that had killed upwards of 60,000 people. he voluntarily threw himself into the efforts of the american sanitary commission during the first world war as it thought to alleviate the suffering of a devastating typhus epidemic inflicting civilians and soldiers behind the battle lines of war-torn serbia. he also watched many in expedition from the upper reaches of the amazon to the interior of liberia at the behest of the united states firms such as the united fruit company to assist in their commercial expansion into the tropics. and he dedicated the two volume expedition account to liberia to
2:45 pm
harvey firestone sr. published in 1930, the dedication read, and i quote, to harvey firestone, who has done so much for the development of the country of liberia and for the welfare of its inhas been -- inhabitants and firestone paid for the publishing of this volume. so as a historian of science, medicine, and the environment, i became greatly intrigued about what this story might tell us about the role of science in medicine and the corporate expansion of american empire in the 20th century. firms build worlds. they have been among the greatest forces shaping life in america. and in this moment of national reckoning around racial injustice, it's important to understand how american corporations like firestone buttressed by american science and medicine perpetuated racial inequality under the guise of
2:46 pm
humanitarianism and development. yet because firms hold private archives, they have unique power to control how they are remembered. what we know about how big tobacco covered up the health effects of smoking, or how oil companies sowed seeds of doubt about climate change science, only came through court cases that made company records public in the process of discovery. now, firestone had a large archive at a university which in the 1950s, harvey firestone jr., the successor to harvey firestone sr. in terms of the head of the company, in the 1950s, harvey firestone jr. published a pamphlet talking about the importance of these archives for u.s. business history, and for many years, they were at the university, but firestone never allowed any
2:47 pm
historian access to that collection, even though they were at a public university. and i was similarly denied access on multiple occasions. so part of the challenge in writing this book was how to tell a story that had been hidden from view for many years. and part of the answer came in 2012, through a chance meeting with then a graduate student at the university of wisconsin. he's with us today. i want to thank emmanuel. without him, this writing of this book wouldn't have been possible. [applause] so i showed some of this expedition footage to emmanuel, and he became quite enamored about it. he grew up on the liberian new guinea border not far from where this expedition passed. so we began together retracing the expedition in liberia to try
2:48 pm
and understand the meaning and impact of firestone and american science and medicine on people's lives and livelihoods in liberia. it would lead to the making of a film "the land beneath our feet, on history land rights in liberia, which emmanuel is a protagonist. i will show you the trailer from that film. ♪ ♪ [inaudible]. [inaudible].
2:49 pm
2:50 pm
>> this journey led not only to the making of this film but also to the writing of this book. and one of the things that we did was we took these expedition photographs and footage, and as we were retracing the expedition, we would show them to [inaudible]. this is emmanuel with his father, who would have been 16 at the time the expedition passed through that area. when we showed him footage of road building, which was through
2:51 pm
labor, and where men were building roads by hand. he had this incredible -- you could see the physical memory in his body, where he kind of reenacted the ways in which man built road by hands at this time that firestone had come to the area. we went through many towns, spoke to many elders. another place that we stopped was a place called [inaudible], which is outside -- just outside the firestone concession area. i will show you a short clip from the film that gives you a perspective on not only firestone's impact, but some of how i went about gathering information for the book. [inaudible].
2:52 pm
[inaudible]. [inaudible]. [inaudible].
2:53 pm
[inaudible]. >> so the very place name here, right, illustrates kind of the history and memory of firestone and its impact in liberia. i also interviewed -- together we -- we had a liberian team of students that were helping us with this. we interviewed many firestone workers, some of whom could remember working for firestone as late as the -- as early as the late 1930s. and i would sit with them --
2:54 pm
firestone made industrial films in the 1940s, of kind of work on the plantations, and i would sit with them and turn off the sound, and we would watch, for example, tapping, and it would spark memories for which they would narrate of what it was like to work as a tapper on the plantations in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. state department records, operation manuals and letters home from plantation managers available in american government and university archives told part of the firestone story. interviews with chiefs, olders, and retired firestone workers in liberia told another side. i searched for liberian documents which many were lost during the civil war which erupted in 1989 and ended up in 2003. some were scattered in various locations in the capital city of
2:55 pm
monrovia. together these fragments shed light on the motivations, desires, and practices of an american corporation abroad and its impact in liberia. "empire of rubber" offers a story of how a behemoth american company on a national mission of profit, negotiated, maneuvered, and bullied its way into what was then of only two sovereign black nations on the african continent. stepping outside of america helps to make visible the structures of white privilege and power, buttressed by science and medicine that drove the march of american capitalism and empire across the globe. but the story of firestone and liberia is more than a story of the white supremacy and racial capitalism that empowered an american dynasty for more than half a century. it is also a history of confiscation, complicity, and resistance. the leaders of a struggling black republic maneuvered to
2:56 pm
save liberia from becoming an american protectorate. this is the president of liberia from 30 to 44. he was a masterful politician and diplomat who thwarted firestone's attempts to turn liberia into an american protectorate. from across the dyasporia, scientists, business people, rallied to support or oppose the experiment that was firestone in liberia. web dubois, sociologist and civil rights activist was one person who initially supported the firestone experiment in liberia. in 1924, when dubois first traveled to africa, sent by president coolidge to honor the second inauguration of the liberian president, the liberian president was advised that his
2:57 pm
country and i quote must have capital for her development. faced with a choice among england, france, and america, liberia would be wise by advice to choose white american investment which he believed posed the least threat to the country's sovereignty and self-determination. this is a map of liberia and west africa in 1926, and you will see how it is surrounded by european colonial territories, britain, france, and portugal. and britain and france particularly were always eroding its territories and really trying to lessen and lessen its boundaries. it was in this quite vulnerable position. dubois initially held out hope that white american capital working in partnership with in his words black educated men, both african and american, might create an industrial plantation of mutual dependence and prosperity like none yet seen. it all depended, dubois wrote,
2:58 pm
harvey firestone sr. on whether the rubber magnet rejected or not the color line that shaped life in jim crow america. dubois would later regret his initial support of firestone, and within a decade, he would become one of its most vocal critics. in looking to erect a colossal enterprise in the jungle of west africa, firestone turned not to african american experts as dubois had urged, but to the people and places of white privilege and power, ivy league institutions, labor and management structures, and scientific disciplines that both aided and profited from plan station slavery and -- plantation slavery and american empire. this was taken on occasion of thomas edison's birthday in 1929. on the far right is firestone,
2:59 pm
next to him is edison, next to him is henry ford, and then on the far left is herbert hoover who was just about to assume the presidency of the united states of america. in the 1920s, american [inaudible] 80% of the automobiles in the world and consumed 75% of the world's rubber supply. but only 1% grew under u.s. flag. britain held a monopoly on the world rubber supply. and in late 1922, britain enacted the stevenson friends edison and ford behind him, and set him on a determined quest to find a suitable place to grow rubber under american flag. firestone pressured hoover who in 1923, was then secretary of
3:00 pm
commerce, to work to get a congressional appropriation for half a million dollars for american experts to search foreign land for places and governments suitable to grow rubber. and that would be friendly to american interests. and initially, firestone thought that the philippines would be the best place to do this. -- [inaudible] american occupation of it. but despite his best efforts, he was unable to use his influence in the republican party to bend the philippine legislature to his will, to change their laws so that people could -- foreign corporations could own or at least more than 2500 acres of land. there was a limit in the philippines on how much land a foreign corporation could lease, limit to 2500 acres which was nowhere near enough to establish
3:01 pm
a large rubber plantation. then after that failed, firestone shifted his attention to liberia. liberia had the existence of an abandoned british rubber plantation. this is mount barkley. firestone never gave hood credit for his profitable advice. he instead attributed the idea of growing rubber in liberia to his son harvey jr. who would become the principal executive overseeing the company's liberia plantations. this is harvey firestone jr. on the mount barkley plantation. he's the one on the right with the tie next to donald ross, a scottish rubber planter who became the first operations manager on the plantations in liberia. together father and son would
3:02 pm
use their significant influence in the republican party to try and strengthen their foothold in liberia and assert control over its government, including calling upon hoover in the final hours of his presidency to send gunboats to protect their interests, although hoover never did so. as simpson, a distinguished liberian statesman later recalled, liberia was caught and i quote between the devil and the deep blue sea in negotiating a deal with firestone. the country either risked a takeover of territory by france and great britain which would bring an end to the black republic or accept the lesser evil, that of veiled economic denomination by a company [inaudible]. the firestone investment offered liberia the promise of development and a guarantee of
3:03 pm
american protection from the threat of european imperialism. even so, charles dunbar burgess king who at the time was president negotiating the agreement, this is him here. edwin barkley who was then secretary of state before assuming the presidency in 1930 did their best to limit the powers of an american corporate empire seeking access to land and labor in their country. i'm going to jump ahead a couple decades to world war ii which proved a boon to the firestone tire and rubber company as its rubber plantations in liberia took on strategic importance in a world at war. this is franklin roosevelt with ed win j. barkley in 1943, just outside the firestone rubber plantations, where the u.s. had set up american military base that was used to help protect their plantations and also as a
3:04 pm
landing base for planes going across the african continent. it is the first time that a sitting u.s. president stepped foot on african soil. in december of 1941, the japanese military bombed pearl harbor and began its sweep across the peninsula, the united states worst fears were realized. in a matter of weeks, a region that supplied 90% of the world's natural rubber had fallen to the axis powers. suddenly, liberia, one of the remaining strongholds of allied natural rubber production became critical to american economic and military interests. wartime demands for rubber helped lock in place a set of relationships, between liberia and the united states, between white managers and black laborers, and between humans and the natural environment in this
3:05 pm
smallest african nation that had emerged as a pivotal place in the wartime global economy. this is an ariel view of the plantations in -- aerial view of the plantations in 1937. you can see all the rubber. among people, trees, parasites, chemicals, and machines, it brought benefits and burdens that differential affected lives in ways that revealed the racial logics and values of firestone's corporate culture. roughly 3 of every 4 dollars made in liberia found its way to firestone's parent company in the united states, which amounted to close to a half a billion dollars in profits between 1944 and 1971. firestone sold itself on the promise of benevolence to liberia, but life and work on the plantations was highly segregated by race, a fact that
3:06 pm
led dubois to become one of firestone's most outspoken critics. at their peak in the 40s, the firestone plantations employed approximately 30,000 liberians. the majority of whom were tappers, earning 18 cents per day. and this gives you a sense of how brutal the labor was. these are -- the workers, they had to tap 300 trees a day, and then they would have to carry these latex buckets to collecting stations, some of which were miles away. they are six gallon pails each. it weighed almost 100 pounds that they are balancing on those shoulders. i met a number of retired firestone workers that talked about how they had no nerves left in their shoulders from this kind of labor. they were supervised by roughly
3:07 pm
125 white managers. the racial geography's visible on the 200 square mile enclave and embedded in the structure and management of a plantation workforce were greatly shaped by the racial attitudes of an american company in town. this is the main firestone plant in akron, akron, the center of american rubber manufacturing was home to one of the largest . although in longer segregated. housing and healthcare for white management, this is white management housing and black laborers. this is liberian labor housing -- was segregated. medical surveillance of and drug testing on workers' bodies was routine.
3:08 pm
by the late 50s, with the rise of the civil rights movement in the united states, and liberation movements in africa, firestone segregationist policies on its liberia plantations had become an embarrassment to the u.s. state department. in 1958, eisenhower special assistants for foreign economic policy warned the president of the firestone plantation's company in liberia, that firestone had, quote, a bad reputation as an employer of africans, one that was damaging to the prestige of the united states. that same year, in response to firestone's segregationist practices, and those of other american firms, like [inaudible] steel which operated a large iron ore mining concession in the country, liberian president william tubman introduced an annex segregation bill into the liberian legislature that liberia, a country where whites could neither own land nor be
3:09 pm
citizens, needed a law against racial discrimination, suggests how entrenched jim crow was in the plantation and mining enclave built by american firms on sovereign african soil. this is tubman. on the left is harvey firestone jr. who would retire from the company in 1963. next to him is tubman. next to him is one of the other brothers that would essentially assume the presidency of the company. outside the jim crow enclave of firestone, liberia did become a place of professional opportunity, for african american experts, as dubois had hoped, and who would join dubois in their critic critique of firestone. george brown, for example, was an understudy to carter woodson, a foundational figure in establishment of african american history at howard university, who would go on to
3:10 pm
pursue a phd in anthropology and history at the london school of economics. with support from his friend paul rokeson brown undertook a brilliant study of the different economies at work in liberia in the 30s that highlighted the importance of land to liberia's rural indigenous people and offered a warning of the ways in which firestone's plantation economy would reshape life in liberia. frank pender, and he is on the left, very left, he was an agent trained at florida and at a&m university. at roosevelt's administration, he, ho -- he worked for the farm security administration helping black sharecroppers in the u.s. expanding, agricultural cooperatives, and greatly improving their lives.
3:11 pm
in 1944, pender went to liberia on a u.s. economic mission, and he would stay there for more than a decade, helping to expand international markets for liberia's small farmers in ways respectful of west african agricultural traditions, offering a counterplantation model to development in defiance of firestone. yet the concession economy that firestone planted in liberia continues to shape liberia's presence. in 2018, 50% of land in liberia had been leased long-term to foreign corporations for agriculture, mining, and timber rights, and all those colored areas represent concession holding. so you see how large that mass is. in 2018, the liberian legislature also passed the land rights act, which for the first time in liberia's history gives
3:12 pm
legal recognition to customary land rights held by the majority of liberia's rural population. the law, if enforced, offers an important means for individual and community self-determination and protection from foreign land grab, that has shaped the country's history since the arrival of firestone. thank you. i will stop there and be happy to have questions. if you have any questions, please go to the microphone. >> thank you, greg. my question is, how universal is this example of liberia throughout the african
3:13 pm
continent? >> in terms of u.s.? >> no, in terms of any large economy. i know that china is making a big move towards africa currently, and any other countries that you know of. >> yeah, so certainly i mean, sub saharan africa is one of the major areas where a kind of -- people talk about new land grabs happening, for a number of reasons, and china is certainly a player in that. they are certainly very prominent in liberia. there's a new wave of effort to extract iron ore -- liberia sits on some of the purest iron ore in west africa and some of the older mines, such as, in a region of liberia are being reopened, and china is an important player in that. another area no longer rubber, but the biggest area of
3:14 pm
concessions in west africa of these kind of land lease deals is oil [inaudible]. and so, you know, in liberia, what you see is these concessions are kind of built on top of one another. so one of the biggest concessions for close to 700,000 acres of land, by -- was originally a malaysian oil pump company that's been recently resold, but that concession was built off a concession that bf goodrich had had in the 1950s. so these concessions keep turning over to other companies for -- you know, in the context of agriculture for new commodities that have become important and oil palm right now is one of those. >> did you want to ask a follow up question? >> sure. >> do you see this just as
3:15 pm
durable global economy, or is it just -- i shouldn't say just, but is it kind of the same old model of imperialism that, you know, originally began in what you're talking about here, in your book? >> right, i mean, so, you know, i mean, it's both, right? i mean, the story of firestone in liberia is a story of economic globalization. it is also a story of imperialism. you know, in the early 20th century, william howard taft, when he was president of the united states introduced what he called dollar diplomacy, and basically the idea of we're no longer going to use guns and bullets to get other countries to do our bidding, but we would use dollars and economic
3:16 pm
support. and that -- you know, in the case of firestone, one of the things that they did that was perhaps the most egregious was in the process of getting this deal for land and labor, they also at the final hours of the agreement, added a clause that the liberian government needed to take out a 5 million dollars loan from the finance corporation of america, at 7% interest for four years. because at the time, liberia had a lot of debt to great britain, germany, and other countries, and what -- it later turned out, and dubois, actually exposed this publicly was the finance corporation was firestone. one of the things that that loan did was it put in place american
3:17 pm
financial overseers that had complete control over liberia's customs and revenues, so they were, you know, it was basically managing the economy of the country, and when you added in all the costs of the american [inaudible] and so forth, dubose calculated that the interest rate of the lane was actually 17% -- the interest rate of the loan was actually 17%. it shows the kinds of ways in which companies like firestone, as well as the u.s. government, were using financing as a way to really gain an economic stranglehold on countries like liberia. the other -- in terms of other places where we see this kind of jim crow being exported, by american firms in this period, [inaudible] in saudi arabia is another good example of that. >> were the united states
3:18 pm
corporations any better or worse than the french, the british, or the japanese in their imperialism? >> that's an important and interesting question. the u.s. kind of promoted itself as an exception that we weren't a colonial power in the sense of controlling territory; right, except for, you know, in the example of the philippines, where there wasn't, you know, an invasion. so were they any worse or better? i would say not. you know, it wasn't done through military might, but really through this kind of dollar diplomacy. >> i have a question, but i don't quite know how to phrase it, so i'm just going to try, but i'm going to maybe ask if there's any way you can help rephrase it better, if you're able to figure out what i'm
3:19 pm
trying to ask, but -- you know, sometimes when american corporations export jobs to other countries, like india and singapore, it sometimes depending on the type of jobs of course, but sometimes tends to build a middle class in those countries where one did not exist before, but that has never happened when we've gone into african countries. i was just wondering why is that? i mean, is it because the terms that the company has imposed on the government, when they go in are much more onerous in the african countries than in those other countries? or why exactly -- or is it the type of jobs that we put in? thank you. >> yeah, thank you so much, it is a great question.
3:20 pm
you know, i think there's a number of dimensions to that question. in the case of the plantationings -- plantations in liberia, it classifies tapping as unskilled labor. in fact, tapping is highly skilled labor. the cut you need to make on a tree is very precise, or else you will damage the tree. and so to be able to do that 300 times a day, you know, that takes a lot of skill. but they were classified as unskilled labor, they received the lowest wage, as i said, in 1950, it was 18 cents a day. now, firestone provided free medical care. they provided -- you saw the housing. and they provided free education up to the 8th grade for workers
3:21 pm
on the plantation, although education was segregated, so the children of white managers went to different schools than those of liberian workers. so the wage rate was not really -- it wasn't really possible for workers to kind of move into the middle class. now, you know, it did provide opportunities for the education of their children, and that provided a way out for some on the plantation. they also had a nurse training program, and, you know, i have talked to a number of people that went through that and then went on to have, you know, become more of a middle class. but what it actually -- the way in which firestone operated actually exacerbated wealth inequality. it did so in this way, in order
3:22 pm
to get liberian elites on board, one of the things that firestone did was they provided free rubber seedlings to liberians; they would provide scientific expertise on growing rubber, and they would guarantee to buy that rubber back at wholesale rates, although they had a monopoly on that. and so one of the things that that did was the kind of lead families who were in power in liberia, if you look at the land surrounding the concession area, it's -- a lot of it is owned by those who had major power in the liberian government. so william tubman who was president of liberia had the largest independent rubber plantation, and he was, you know, the wealthiest man in
3:23 pm
liberia, was president for 23 years. during the 1950s, there were increases amount of labor unrest on the plantation because of these inequalities, and tubman would use the liberian military and police to squelch those strikes on the firestone plantation, because if firestone had to pay a higher wage to those workers, he had to pay a higher wage. so one of the things that it does, and, you know, this is why it didn't kind of lead, you know, to a greater middle class is it created this autocracy and greater wealth inequality that liberia is still living with to this day. i hope that answers your question. >> [inaudible]. >> rubber is still an important commodity, crop in liberia. one of the -- you know,
3:24 pm
interesting things is that in other parts of the world, small independent rubber farmers are able to compete with some of the larger plantations, and certainly people in liberia plant were as kind of a petty cash crop [inaudible] kind of a long tradition in the history of liberian agriculture, and rubber never was native to liberia. it originated in brazil, but in brazil, in south america, you cannot grow rubber plantation style because there's a fungus in that region that destroys it if it's grown as a mono crop, which is not the case in southeast asia or liberia, so that's why it was able to be grown successfully plantation style in liberia, but as i said,
3:25 pm
small farmers do kind of poly crop use of rubber to get small [inaudible]. emmanuel's family at one time had considered planting rubber, as part of a source of economic revenue, but emmanuel maybe you could speak to that, why you chose to do that. >> [inaudible]. >> maybe you could use the mic, i think, since it's -- >> [inaudible]. >> okay. i'm officially here. i'm going to try to be a bit official. first, gregg, thank you very much. i really do appreciate you. in fact, the book is dedicated
3:26 pm
to me and my village, very humble about that. gregg should get a phd at the university of madison wisconsin. [applause] >> back to the question, yes, rubber is still a big commodity in liberia. [inaudible]. simply because someone told me, and that's true, you can't eat the rubber. so you would grow it mostly for export. but we use oil palm for food,
3:27 pm
cooking, medicine. that's why we chose to grow oil palm. the way we grow it, it is kind of different. used to export the oil to the u.s. and other places. [inaudible].
3:28 pm
[inaudible]. again, thank you, gregg. >> thank you. [applause] >> any other questions? >> [inaudible]. >> d can you use the mic? >> [inaudible]. >> the lease has been renegotiated a number of times, when william tubman was president in the 1970s, it was renegotiated in a way that was much more towards liberian -- more favorable to liberia. for example, it was only in the
3:29 pm
1970s that liberians started to be promoted into management positions. even into the early 60s, there was not a single manager on the plantations who was liberian. so things really started to change in the 1970s, in terms of it being more, you know, the interests more favorable to liberia. it's now, you know, it's a much smaller operation now. i think it's maybe about 4,000 workers, you know, on that, in that concession area. but still wages are very very low, and firestone from my understanding has gone more towards outside contract labor, so one of the things that happens is then if you're a contract -- if you're working as a contract laborer, you don't have access to the kinds of
3:30 pm
medical care and other things, so it's still challenging. >> why did firestone have to do with the civil war? what's the situation in liberia now for the common workers? >> uh-huh. so there's a great documentary that was done by frontline on the relationship of firestone in the civil war called "firestone and the warlord" which i highly -- you know, if you are interested in this subject, i would highly recommend it. one of the things is that the firestone plantations outside monrovia became an important strategic point of operations for [inaudible]. -- [inaudible] negotiated with firestone.
3:31 pm
firestone was still purchasing rubber from basically this liberian warlord which, you know, is a bit questionable, and firestone -- the front line documentary really explores that. mine, in -- i mean, in terms of the condition of workers in general in liberia, i mean, we see this real -- in this concession economy, you know, and for example, particularly oil palm, which has really taken over a lot of these new concessions, one of the things that happens is that because people -- rural people as in emmanuel's village, they own that land in terms of a customary tradition. it is not like in the u.s. where we have kind of private property, right? that's a concept in west africa
3:32 pm
that's largely an alien one, although obviously changing. but one of -- and because they hold customary rights to that land, they don't have a lot of legal rights. and so one of the things that happens when these concessions are granted by the liberian government, and, you know, obviously there is a lot of corruption that happens in that process, the people which were using that land -- so, for example, women in liberia are the farmers. and women do a lot of the agricultural work. they plant cash crops, subsistence crops. those cash crops are used to help support their kids to go to school. when that land is taken from them -- and if you look at these
3:33 pm
plantations, this one that emmanuel and i were on, you get lost. if you drive in there, if you don't know what you are doing, you can't find your way out because it is just oil palm after oil palm for miles in all directions. and they are on these little islands in this vast sea of oil palm, so they have no access to grow, you know, cash crops, subsistence crops and so forth. only 20 to 30 percent of the people in that area get jobs with the company. so in that sense, you know, it really deprives people of livelihoods and further exacerbates this kind of wealth inequality that we were talking about earlier. so thank you. please. >> you mentioned palm oil. why is there such a demand for palm oil? you know, it is not just in africa, but it's in southeast
3:34 pm
asia. why, you know, that's controversial now, and palm oil has been around for years and years, i believe. >> it has. it's now in everything you eat. just pick up any product, whether it's shampoo, soap, you know, food, and it's in everything. you know, it is partly our own consumerism that's really driving this great expansion of oil palm. there's a new book out called "planet palm" that i would recommend if you're interest. that gets into this subject. thank you. are we at time? >> [inaudible]. >> great. thank you so much. i enjoyed this discussion. [applause] from the wisconsin book


info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on