When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won Liberia’s presidency in 2005, she campaigned on a promise to move the country forward.
Issues involving Firestone’s Liberian concession provided an early test of her ability to deliver. The company had been accused of rushing a favorable new deal through the weak interim government that followed Taylor’s exit in 2003.
Environmental groups complained that the company’s discharge was polluting the river that Taylor’s rebels had first crossed so long ago. There were complaints about child labor, substandard living conditions and the exploitation of workers.
Johnson Sirleaf rose to the challenge by demanding a new contract between the company and the government. She reduced the number of years in the company’s lease on its plantation. She improved the system that Firestone used to pay independent farmers for their rubber. She convinced the company to invest in a plan to recycle old rubber trees into building material. And she got it to improve worker housing.
For its part, Firestone adopted a zero-tolerance child labor policy, and even union leaders acknowledge its success. The company also says it no longer discharges wastewater into the river bordering the plantation.
Johnson Sirleaf has not been inclined, however, to hold the U.S. rubber giant accountable for its long-ago support for Taylor.
We interviewed Johnson Sirleaf one rainy day in July on the top floor of Liberia’s foreign ministry. A tropical rain pounded the roof and windows. She was coping with a new emergency, the Ebola outbreak. Johnson Sirleaf’s health ministry was beginning to broadcast public service announcements about the disease. Soon, the crisis would overwhelm the nation.
“The results of war, the results of politicking, the results, if you may, of still trying to find a national identity, all of those have not enabled us to achieve the level of reconciliation that we want,” she said. “But it’s something that we’ll have to continue to work on.”
She was well aware that Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission had recommended further investigation into Firestone as one of the companies that aided Taylor during the civil war.
But when we presented her with documents that showed that Firestone had paid taxes to Taylor, she seemed reluctant to examine them.
She had not seen them before, she said. But she already knew the company, its history, its economic, cultural and political power. She already knew the company had survived labor strikes and lawsuits, coups and killers, renegades and reformers. She already knew that Firestone had wrapped itself around Liberia like a creeper vine around a tree.
Firestone had been part of Liberia for years. It would be part of it forever.
What was the use of looking back?
“Some of what happened in the past, we knew of. Some of this, we don’t,” Johnson Sirleaf said. “Quite frankly, we don’t know, and sometimes we don’t even want to know.
“We just want to proceed.”
Additional reporting by Marcela Gaviria and Will Cohen of Frontline. Design direction by David Sleight, production by Hannah Birch. Additional interactive development by Mike Tigas.