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A new Frontline/Pro Publica documentary reveals a deal struck between iconic tire company Firestone and Liberia’s notorious dictator Charles Taylor, infamous for his use of child soldiers. The film details how the company supported Taylor in exchange for being allowed to continue operating the world’s largest rubber plantation. We speak with the film’s director and the ProPublica reporter behind the investigation.
- Marcela Gaviria FRONTLINE producer; Director, "Firestone and the Warlord."
- T. Christian Miller Reporter, ProPublica
Preview: ‘Firestone and the Warlord’
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a new anthology of the world's six major religions. But first, Liberia was rocked by civil war in the late 80s, including an uprising led by the notorious Charles Taylor, who would later be convicted of war crimes. His tactics included crossing into neighboring countries, using child soldiers and dismembering civilians. A major American country, Firestone, operated the world's largest rubber plantation at that time in Liberia.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA new Frontline and ProPublica documentary explores a deal struck between the tire company and Charles Taylor, one which helped fund Taylor's fighters. Joining us to discuss this is Marcela Gaviria, who is a Frontline producer and director of "Firestone and the Warlord." Marcela, Gaviria, thank you for joining us.
MS. MARCELA GAVIRIAThank you so much for having me on the show.
NNAMDIShe joins us from NPR studios in, at Bryant Park. Also joining us is T. Christian Miller. He is an award winning reporter with ProPublica. T, thank you for joining us.
MR. T. CHRISTIAN MILLERThanks for having me on.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. You can also see this Frontline investigation, "Firestone and the Warlord," tomorrow night at 10 on PBS here in this area. Were you aware that tire company Firestone apparently helped fund one of Africa's most notorious war criminals, Charles Taylor of Liberia? Give us a call. Tell us what you know. 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. T. Christian Miller, I'll start with you. Tell us first how Firestone ended up in Liberia and what its relationship was with the government there when it arrived.
MILLERIt's a really fascinating story. Firestone, in the 1920s, established what would become the world's largest rubber plantation in Liberia. At the time, Firestone was looking for a source of rubber outside of the British empire, which then controlled most rubber supplies and the world. So, Liberia was a kind of a perfect place. It was in the right, a growing area, and it also had a very pro-American government and population, because Liberia had been founded, many years ago, by freed American slaves and the descendants of slaves.
NNAMDIIt was, indeed, I guess it was around 1847. Remind us of the political situation in Liberia in 1989 and what was going on with Charles Taylor.
MILLERSo, in 1989, Liberia was being run by a man named Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. Doe was heavily supported by the US government during the Cold War, but as his term continued, it became more and more corrupt to the eyes of most observers who were paying attention. So, Charles Taylor was a US educated activist who wanted to reform the government in Liberia. By 1989, he decided that it was time for an invasion. It was time to overthrow the government.
MILLERAnd the folks that we've talked to said he decided to do this by invading Liberia on Christmas Eve, 1989.
NNAMDIHe decided to invade Liberia on Christmas Eve, 1989. His aim was to take Liberia in a violent revolt and he and his fighters somehow made it to the Firestone plantation. What then?
MILLERIt was like a blitzkrieg when they came in, Kojo. I mean, they very rapidly advanced from the borders where they first entered Liberia. They got to the Firestone plantation in June of 1990. And just to set the scene a little bit more, the plantation, we call it that, but it's actually a gigantic concession. It was granted by Liberia to Firestone. It's 220 square miles. That's the size of Chicago. Firestone kind of took the idea of a company town and made it into a company metropolis.
MILLERIt had stores, hospitals, populations, everything. And it was right in between Monrovia, which is the capital of Liberia, and Charles Taylor's forces. So, for him, it was a place where -- it was a very attractive place to have -- to invade and to attack. It had supplies, it had fuel. It was close to the major airports. And the people who we've talked to just say, it was one of the things he needed to be able to launch his attack on Monrovia.
NNAMDISo there he was. But describe the deal then struck between Charles Taylor and Firestone.
MILLERWell, so, we'll fast forward a little bit through this, but the invasion actually forced Firestone workers -- the Firestone ex-patriots, off of the rubber farm. And they went back, the ex-patriots went back to the United States to figure out how to get back to Liberia. In doing that, they left behind some 8,000 Liberian workers, who worked for Firestone, who many of them, that we interviewed, were very resentful about being left behind. Firestone did however decide to return.
MILLERAnd at that point in time, Charles Taylor was in control of about 90 percent of the country. And they made a decision that if they were going to have to come back to Liberia, they were going to have to deal with Charles Taylor in one form or another. Because he had control of their area. And that's what led to this deal in January of 1992.
NNAMDIWe're talking with T. Christian Miller. He's an award winning reporter with ProPublica. And with Marcela Gaviria. She is a Frontline producer and director of "Firestone and the Warlord." They both join us from studios at NPR, Bryant Park. We're inviting you to join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850 or send an email to email@example.com. You could shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Marcela, Firestone, as a result of that deal, was able to resume its operation, so we know what the company got. What did Charles Taylor get out of the deal?
GAVIRIAWell, this piece of land, as T. was saying, is extremely important to Liberia. But the people, I mean, it occupies almost 10 percent of the country. It's 220,000 square miles. And when you think about this piece of land, it wasn't just the communications, the fuel, the vehicles, the proximity to the airport. Without this piece of land, Charles Taylor wouldn't have had the credibility in the eyes of the people. So, he needed Firestone. He needed them to be able to say, hey guys, I'm for real. I have an American company that I'm working with.
NNAMDIAnd indeed, Charles Taylor himself, having been educated in the United States, fully understood the importance of that. T., you researched this in depth, and you wrote an in depth piece. How did this story first come to your attention?
MILLERMarcela and I have a co-reporter on the story, by the name of Jonathan Jones, who had spent many years researching a book on Liberia and the relationship with Firestone. Because of its history and its very rich cultural resonance. He came to us and said, well, here's a small part that I think is interesting that involves this agreement between Firestone and Charles Taylor. And Marcela and I began to look at the evidence that was there, the documents that we could turn up, the state department cables that we saw.
MILLERThe interviews that we began to get from Firestone, ex-patriots and Liberian workers. We went over to Liberia to interview many people. And it just became clear that this was a really fascinating slice of history, but a slice of history that also had a lot of meaning for today.
GAVIRIAAnd I think I'd add that, you know, T. and I have done many different reports, but there has never in my lifetime, as a reporter, had I seen such a perfect tale. I mean, it's just such a fascinating story. A sliver of history, but to have a group of Americans stuck in a plantation in the middle of a civil war and to really dig into the sort of moral and legal decisions that they had to make to kind of operate and continue operating. It was just fascinating on a human level.
NNAMDIWhat I found interesting in that agreement between Firestone and Charles Taylor, Taylor's demands of the company were, well, surprisingly populist, including paying the workers in American dollars. Can you talk about the deal from that perspective? Did that actually work out? Did it actually happen?
GAVIRIAI think you have to remember that at the moment that Charles Taylor is asking for this deal to be signed, he sees himself as the future President of Liberia. He has tremendous political aspirations. At the time, this was in the early 90s, he's just a warlord. And so, he needs to project himself to the people of Liberia, somebody that can provide employment and housing and electricity and wages. So, I think he uses these terms in the actual deal, because he wants to cement himself as that kind of a leader.
GAVIRIAWhether in the end, he turned out to be that kind of a President, I think is pretty well documented. He was, you know, a populist, but, you know, the gains during his presidency were not visible, really.
NNAMDIMarcela, here's what a former Firestone attorney, whom you interviewed, had to say.
FIRESTONE ATTORNEYThe easy answer for Firestone, in my opinion, would have been to just say, we're out of here. It's risky, it's scary. Economically, it doesn't make any sense. So, we're just going to shut it down and walk away. But if you felt a sense of responsibility to Liberia and most importantly, to the workers, people you worked with for years, it had no other choice. The decision was to stay.
NNAMDIThat's just a clip from the documentary called "Firestone and the Warlord." You can see it tomorrow night on PBS. We're talking with Marcela Gaviria. She's a Frontline producer and director of the documentary. T. Christian Miller is an award winning producer with ProPublica. Let's go now to Desmond in Greenbelt, Maryland. Desmond, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DESMONDKojo, I just want to comment on the situation. I was a 12-year-old kid around the time the guys they're talking about, 1992. The benefit alone -- Firestone was a loan company that signed the deal with Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor controlled 90 percent of the country at the time.
NNAMDIYou were living in Liberia at that time, Desmond?
DESMONDI was a 12-year-old kid. Yeah. I lived in Buchanan where Lamco was. There was a Swedish company called Lamco. They signed a deal with Charles so they could continue mining. Everybody, if you just look at it from a humanistic standpoint, Firestone didn't even have the choice. But to sign a deal for people. They employed about -- over a thousand, a thousand people, the family and their kids depended on them. So, if you look at it from that standpoint, you can't just say supported the rebels. You have to think about it from the humanitarian standpoint.
DESMONDThese people -- Firestone did the right thing. And not Firestone alone. There were numerous companies that did it because Charles Taylor owned 90 percent of the country at the time.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you for pointing that out. Because Marcela, the attorney that you spoke with points out that Firestone's choices were stark. Generate income and work with those in control of that area. Or abandon their employees. Can you talk about the relationship between the workers and Firestone, because when the fighting got bad and things got dangerous, the Firestone executives, at one point, left, and workers on the plantation did feel abandoned. Marcela.
GAVIRIAYeah, I'd like to say that the caller's absolutely right. I mean, there are other companies that signed similar deals and we focus, of course, on an iconic American company, Firestone. And in truth, it was a very difficult decision for the company. I mean, they have to sort of think about their bottom line. They have to think about the employees that work for them. They have to think about the safety of the managers that are stuck on the plantation dealing with a civil war. And not only just a civil war, but an army of child soldiers that has occupied their plantation. It's very dicey stuff.
GAVIRIAThey made a decision at one point to evacuate because they felt it was unsafe. And that had tremendous consequences for the 8,000 workers that were left behind and their extended families. Many of them -- the Krahns that were on the plantation and the Mandingos, certain tribes that were being targeted by the AFL Doe's forces, when the invasion happened, you've got to remember that it's not must Charles Taylor that's inflicting sort of damage on the population. You've got, you know, all sorts of forces that are clashing.
GAVIRIAAnd the workers got caught in the middle. There was an interview that we did with a man called Ken Gerhardt (sp?). He was a Firestone manager that had a Coca Cola bottling company very near that was owned by Firestone. And he lost a third of his workforce, 300 people that worked for him, his own driver, his secretary. You know, it was very painful for the managers. And I think they feel -- and it was amazing to me after all these years speaking to them, they're still holding this sort of the pain and the loss of that era and feeling the guilt that they might've been able to do something. And they weren't able to.
NNAMDIEventually Charles Taylor was tried for war crimes in the Hague. He's currently in prison in England serving a 50-year sentence. But during his trial he said this.
MR. CHARLES TAYLORHarbel is the location of the Firestone rubber plantation.
INTERVIEWERAnd what was the significance of capturing that?
TAYLORYou had immediately a means that would provide the needed financial assistance that we needed for the revolution. So once we captured Harbel we then made it very clear to the Firestone plantation company that they could no longer be permitted to exercise allegiance to the government in Monrovia. So it became, at that particular time, our most significant principle source of foreign exchange.
NNAMDICharles Miller (sic) testifying at the Hague. T. Christian Miller, Firestone executives played down the company's role in Charles Taylor's coming to power. But from your research would you say its role was significant?
MILLERWell, we certainly just heard Charles Taylor's opinion on that that it did play a significant role. Our reporting showed that it's virtually impossible even to this day to talk about how much money or how much funds actually flowed to Charles Taylor. Even at the War Crimes Tribunal, they weren't ever able to determine an actual figure. It was kind of hard to measure it in purely monetary terms.
MILLERBut what (unintelligible) sort of referenced is there weren't any other companies that were working in Charles Taylor's territory. But none of them have the significance of Firestone, both on a size of the area that the Firestone's plantation was, on its cultural significance in the country. Like Marcela said, Firestone was a signal. And if Charles Taylor could get Firestone running again in his country, it was a way for him to have international credibility and legitimacy. And that's what one of his top advisors told us.
NNAMDILiberia's truth and reconciliation commission took years to interview thousands of victims. What happened after that?
MILLERThe truth and reconciliation commission delivered its final report in 2009. And it was very interesting. Some of the people we talked to were very critical of the commission describing it as being defanged and not having some of the authorities that other commissions we've seen as in South Africa or Rwanda had.
MILLERSo what happens was when they delivered the report, they're simply able to recommend a list of people whom they described as perpetrators of the civil war and a list of companies who they say committed economic crimes in that war. Firestone was amongst those companies listed. It was described as having aided Taylor in his efforts. But there was no sanctions or any action ever taken as a result of those recommendations from the truth and reconciliation commission.
NNAMDIMarcela, some wish that the Liberian government today would raise these issues with Firestone. You spoke with the current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. But it seems the government would rather not reopen old wounds in a country so recently at war and a country currently struggling with the problem of Ebola.
GAVIRIAYes. We had an opportunity to speak to the current president of Liberia also, former Nobel Peace prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. And she was very upfront and honest with us. She really said that the country has a lot on its plate with the Ebola crisis . It was just beginning when we spoke to her but she was -- clearly that was on her mind. And she didn't want to open old wounds and spent the country's meager resources on investigating something that in her opinion happened in the past. And the best policy would be to leave the past in the past. Other...
NNAMDIAnd finally...go ahead, please.
GAVIRIAOther people that we spoke to were very critical of her because they feel that it's important for -- in order to move forward to deal with that history.
NNAMDIFirestone whose parent company is Bridgestone resumed operations in 1996 and is still the largest private employer in Liberia. The company responded to this film with a statement, Marcela. What did that statement say?
GAVIRIAWell, it's a statement that I hope -- it's several page long. But they basically told us in writing that they are very proud of the decisions they made in Liberia, and that they feel that they protected an important asset, an economic asset. And that had they stepped away, had they walked away from the plantation, they would've harmed their workers and it would've had lasting consequences for the country.
NNAMDIThe documentary is called "Firestone and the Warlord." You can see it tomorrow night at 10:00 on PBS in this area. Marcela Gaviria is a Frontline producer and director of the documentary. Thank you so much for joining us.
GAVIRIAThank you for having us. And I hope everyone tunes in. If you miss it on air you can always watch it online. It's free. Just go to PBS.org.
NNAMDIAnd go to our website kojoshow.org to see a clip from the documentary. T. Christian Miller is an award-winning reporter with Pro Publica which cooperated with Marcela in presenting this. T., thank you for joining us.
MILLERAnd thanks so much for having me on. And there's a written version of this too, which will be available on the ProPublica.org site to accompany the documentary.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, a new anthology of the world's six major religions. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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