While England celebrates its 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, plantation workers in Liberia are trapped in a time warp of monumental proportions. They exist in the parallel universe of multinational corporate checkmate, where the prize goes to the highest exploiter. Robtel Neajai Pailey exposes the plantations of Firestone Rubber Company in Liberia.
Emmanuel B. is 30, a slender five foot three, and a slave whose piercing brown eyes tell unspeakable truths. He’s not the kind of slave we’ve seen in the collective imagination of 19th century plantations in the deep South of the United States. No, Emmanuel is a modern slave in 21st century post-conflict Liberia, and Firestone Rubber Company his unyielding master.
Like many workers on Firestone’s largest rubber plantation, Emmanuel was born in Harbel, has lived in Harbel all his life, and will most likely waste away in Harbel. Previously a student in Gbarnga, Emmanuel has ambitions to return to school, but those are pie in the sky dreams considering his family has no means of supporting him. As Westerners drive around in their heavy-duty SUVs propelled by another type of black gold—Firestone tires—Emmanuel wakes up at the crack of dawn to tap raw latex from 800 rubber trees daily. His clothes are tattered, and his shoulders covered in red puss-infected blisters from carrying buckets full of raw latex suspended from an iron pole to the Firestone processing plant two miles from his tapping site. For Emmanuel and his fellow tappers, a 5 a.m. start is the only means of filling their daily quota. Some have even begun to use their children to complete the herculean task.
Emmanuel sat perched like a statue, surrounded by green shrubbery and tall eerie splotched rubber trees one afternoon last December. He was taking a break, and had just finished tapping a record 800 trees when I spotted him while driving on a winding road on the Firestone plantation. He was gracious enough to demonstrate what a tapper does from sun-up to mid-morning. With a pitchfork suspended in the air, Emmanuel extended his long wiry arms to ease the raw latex out of the trees and into small red cups that catch the white liquid. The drip drip drip of the white coated liquid was almost as laborious to witness as Emmanuel’s daily task...another 799 trees to go and only five hours left. If workers don’t fill their quotas, their wages are reduced by half.
I visited the Firestone Rubber plantation for the very first time in December 2006 while on a research fact-finding mission for my dissertation. I decided to take a break from high browed academic work, and visit the sprawling modern day encampment I had heard so many horror stories about. It’s what I imagined the South to look like during the centuries of chattel slavery in the United States, with the hustle bustle activity of plantation life and the accompanying strokes of exploitation. As my brother-in-law, Christopher Pabai, and I pulled into the one million acre—and constantly expanding—plantation, we were welcomed by an ungodly stench, a stench I can only compare to the smell of rotten cheese. Not just ordinary rotten cheese, but the kind that has been drenched in burning oil, steamrolled on a conveyor belt, and neatly packaged for non-human consumption. That’s what raw latex smells like when it’s being processed. Rather than wearing masks to protect their noses from the assault, the plantation workers ingest the foul stench day in and day out. It took all my willpower not to retch all over Firestone’s perfectly manicured lawn or lush green golf course that senior management frequents while on hiatus from their back-breaking overseeing.....
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