Firestone is one of the oldest and largest natural rubber plantations in the world. Founded in 1926 in Liberia by Harvey Firestone, the plantations continue to provide employment for thousands of Liberians to date. Till Trojer, a post-doctoral researcher at the Wheeler Institute, anthropologist and filmmaker, travelled to Liberia last year in May to film and co-create a documentary about the social and economic impact of Firestone. For the project, Till collaborated with Siatta Scott Johnson, Liberian filmmaker, journalist and storyteller, whose previous credits include the critically acclaimed Iron Ladies of Liberia.
“What would Liberia have been without Firestone?” This was the question that prompted the reflections of three Liberian Firestone employees on their lived experiences at the plantation. They were encouraged to share both the positive and negative impacts Firestone had on their lives and the lives of their families. The Wheeler Institute, together with Professor Elias Papaioannou and Till Trojer, collaborated with local partners in Liberia to tell the personal stories of people who had been directly impacted by the practices of the company.
This documentary amplifies the ongoing ERC-funded research of Elias Papaioannou (London Business School), Stelios Michalopoulos (Brown University), Giorgio Chiovelli (Universidad de Montevideo), and Etienne Le Rossignol (University of Namur).
How Firestone came to be
At the turn of the 20th century, the United States government, backed by the American Republican party, President Herbert Hoover, and key lobbyists in the automobile sector (like Henry Ford), wanted to secure rubber for the American market. In 1926, the US government supported Harvey Firestone, an American businessman and founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, to establish a rubber plantation in Liberia.
During the following years, the company became the largest private-sector employer in the country. In 1935, the company had 19,000 workers, and by 1960 its workforce had grown to 24,300. The company built social service facilities for its employees and eventually constructed infrastructure such as roads, waterways, hydroelectric power, housing units, and educational and health facilities not only in its concession areas for its employees but also for public use. Firestone contributed to building the Roberts International Airport used by the Americans during World War II, the Freeport of Monrovia, and smaller linkage roads between Monrovia and Ganta. These projects, delivered by a Firestone subsidiary, the Liberian Construction Company, were all completed in the 1940s.
Fast forward several decades to the 1980s when 40% of latex used in the US came from Liberia, and Firestone was bought by the Japanese conglomerate Bridgestone in 1988. Today, the Firestone Natural Rubber Company, LLC (FSNR), a subsidiary of Bridgestone Americas, Inc., employs 4,300 people – 99.7% of whom are Liberian – with benefits that include free dependent education, free family housing, free family healthcare, and $150,000 (USD) awarded annually for educational scholarships to universities, trade schools, and other institutions of higher learning. The FSNR operates 24 schools, educating approximately 7,000 students, along with a highly regarded referral hospital that treats more than 3,000 patients per month and delivers over 500 babies per year. Today, Firestone remains the largest contiguous natural rubber operation in the world (covering almost 185 square miles).
Presenting the humans of Firestone: The stories in the film
The documentary aims to present the human stories behind the data. During the project’s initial story-finding phase, Jacien Carr and Ibrahim Nyei, contributed to the research as experts on the economic and political history of both Liberia and Firestone. Previously Jacien and Ibrahim wrote expert reports on selected African countries for Elias Papaioannou’s ERC project in 2020. Their expertise helped to facilitate contact and access on the ground.
Eventually, the team found the perfect stories to complement the film, during which we are introduced to Fayiah, Paul and Ellen who share their real-life experiences
- Fayiah, a rubber tapper who worked for Firestone for over 30 years, from the early 1980s to 2011
- Paul, a teacher who was born on the Firestone plantation and received his teaching education in Monrovia before returning to Firestone to teach for 14 years following the Civil War
- Ellen, a nurse who worked for Duside, the biggest hospital on Firestone, for 38 years from 1973 to 2011
In the film, they share their life stories and their lived experience on Firestone. Both, the film and the stories explore the legacies of colonialism in Africa by providing a personal and intimate insight into the lives of former workers from one of the world’s oldest and largest natural rubber plantations.
Collaborating to tell the lived experience of the legacy of the Firestone concession
As an anthropologist and filmmaker, Till wanted to find out what the numbers in the ongoing research of Professor Papaioannou and in the history of Firestone meant for an individual’s lived experience. “We have this huge data-driven project, and I wanted to compliment it with storytelling.” How did people who worked for companies like Firestone experience it? What new research ideas and theories could we explore as a result of this direct engagement with those who experienced the effects of the concessions first-hand?
Like Till’s previous research on the salt trade in Northeastern Ethiopia, the co-creation and participatory nature of the film were of paramount importance. It also reflects the Wheeler Institute’s mission to forge communities of practice in the Global South. “We wanted to build collaborations, find local organisations, filmmakers to work with” – says Till. To accomplish this aim, he collaborated with Siatta Johnson and a team of two other Liberian filmmakers, writers and directors: Derick Snyder and Chris Anderson.
Siatta, along with Derick and Chris, provided guidance, insight, and direction to co-create the final work, helping to discover the protagonists, conduct interviews and gather footage, all in less than three weeks.
The experience was collaborative from the beginning; as Till mentions “moments like the conversations in the car were so important, bouncing back and forth ideas. Driving 45 minutes gave us a lot of time for discussion which created a dynamic that was so important for the overall production.”
The goal was to find characters that would make sense in the context of Firestone’s impact and provide a way to connect the past to the present, through 100 years of history. The natural choice was to find a rubber tapper, an essential worker who helped to make Firestone great. The concession also provided free healthcare and education, so the team wanted to feature a teacher and a medical professional, to tell their stories too.
Till, Siatta and the rest of the team hope to submit the film to international festivals next year. The film will be an immersive experience, inviting audiences to connect with the characters’ stories and to educate themselves about Firestone, Liberia and the role of private companies in Africa. The whole film will be released in early 2023.
The project maps the various aspects of European colonisation, including charting the existence, operations and practices of all main private (concessionary) companies in Africa. Further, the research tries to understand the historical origins of contemporary African inequality and the long-term developmental impact of colonialism. It also seeks to assess, on the one hand, the impact of concessionary politics and economies and, on the other, that of private companies on contemporary African political economy. The scope of the project is multi-disciplinary, blending history, political science, anthropology and economic research across 39 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. To date, the project has digitised hundreds of maps and consolidated thousands of historical archives to provide new geospatial data that shows private concessions boundaries, operations and practices along with standardised country reports. The data, which will be publicly available, will allow for further analysis of the impact and legacy of the concessions.
Clower, Robert W., George Dalton, Mitchell Harwitz, and A.A. Walters. 1966. Growth Without Development: An Economic Survey of Liberia. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Kraaij, Fred van der. 1980. ‘Firestone in Liberia’. In Dependence, Underdevelopment and Persistent Conflict – On the Political Economy of Liberia, by Eckhard Hinzen and Robert Kappel, 199–266. Bremen, Germany: Ubersee-Museum Germany.
Mitman, Gregg. 2021. Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia. New York: The New Press.
Jacien G Carr (Jay) is a researcher from Liberia with a PhD in History from SOAS University of London, whose doctoral work focused on African Military History. Jacien obtained his BA from The Ohio State University and his Masters from SOAS University of London.
Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei holds a PhD in Political Science from SOAS University of London. He is an Adam Smith Fellow in Political Economy at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University.
Siatta Scott-Johnson is a journalist working with the Female Journalist Association of Liberia as well as a filmmaker, and storyteller, whose previous credits include the critically acclaimed Iron Ladies of Liberia.
Derick Snyder is a Liberian journalist and director, producer, and cameraman. As a journalist, Derick worked with the United Nations Mission (for 9 years) and is currently a freelance journalist for the BBC and the Reuters News Agency. He is the winner of the 2014 Mohamed Amin Africa Media Award covering the devastating Ebola pandemic that ravaged his nation in 2014. As a filmmaker, Derick produced and directed the feature documentary MAHER – Black Rain In Bomi (2016) and TUTU (2018). TUTU won the category of best short film at the “Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) / Films That Matter Short Film Festival” in London 2019.
Chris Nikanu Anderson is a film producer, director, actor, editor and cinematographer. Chris earned a Bachelor’s in Business Management and Mass Communication from the University of Liberia. He has worked as an independent documentary filmmaker for international organisations, NGOs, and research institutions. For many years, Chris worked for Derick-S Production as a cinematographer, director, actor and writer. Together with Derick Snyder he wrote, produced and filmed the feature documentaries MAHER – Black Rain In Bomi (2016) and TUTU (2018).