Before I traveled to Liberia in West Africa as an ELAW fellow, like most people, I had no idea where the rubber that I ride around town on comes from.  The answer, of course, is that rubber comes from latex, a milky colloid that when tapped by a skilled forester, flows from the sap of the rubber tree.  The rubber tree, originally native to Brazil, is now grown in great quantities in equatorial regions the world over.

A Green Advocates member at the Farmington River in Liberia

Rubber is Liberia’s biggest product, by some accounts amounting to almost 90% of Liberia’s official revenue from exports.  By far, the largest producer is Firestone Tire Company, which leases one million acres of Liberia as a rubber plantation, equal to 4% of the country’s territory or nearly 10% of the arable land.  Since the plantation was established in the 1920s, there have been widespread allegations of forced labor, pollution and other human rights abuses.  There is an excellent summary of these issues in a recent Nation article that you can read here.

Fellow ELAW fellow Dan Kruse and I, accompanied by our hosts, Alfred Brownell and Francis Colee from ELAW partner Green Advocates, visited several sites around the Firestone Plantation, 30 miles southeast of the capital of Monrovia.  Local residents told us that Firestone has been dumping raw waste from rubber manufacturing directly into the Farmington River that locals depend on for water.  Many complain of rashes and birth defects as a result of using water from the river.

Green Advocates has in the past played a leading role in calling attention to pollution by Firestone.  In 2005, Green Advocates invited the press, lawmakers, government officials, and UN officials to an event along the riverbank.  Community members gave visiting dignitaries a tour of the community and the river.  In response, Firestone quickly arranged its own press event and declared 2005 to 2006 its “Environmentally Friendly Year!”

Green Advocates is currently planning a class action lawsuit on behalf of local citizens to force Firestone to clean up its act.  Alfred and Green Advocates see this sort of citizen legal action both as a way to protect people from pollution and strengthen Liberia’s civil society.

“When you take a company to court,” Alfred told us, “you cause the country to believe in the spirit of the law.”

James Johnston
Faculty Research Assistant
Oregon State University Institute for Natural Resources

James and Dan were selected by ELAW to participate in a joint project with ELAW Partners at Green Advocates in Liberia.  As a part of this project, Francis Colee of Green Advocates visited ELAW in February.