Firestone's Harbel rubber plantation is located a few minutes drive from Robertsfield Airport. The plantation is situated on former mangrove swamp and jungle. It was built in the 1920s and 1930s under the direction of Harvey S. Firestone himself (Harbel is named after Harvey and his wife Idabelle). Firestone Rubber Plantations, the world's largest rubber plantation, was originally owned by the American Firestone which has consolidated with the Japanese Bridgestone.
In June 1993 over 600 civilians, mainly displaced Liberians, are killed in an armed attack on the Firestone plantation near Harbel. A panel of inquiry appointed by the UN Secretary General attributed the attack to units of the Armed Forces of Liberia.
The rubber trade was very small before 1840. That was the year of the discovery of vulcanization, which made rubber lighter, more flexible, less affected by temperature changes, and much more useful for bicycle tires. In 1840 Britain imported 300 tons, while by 1900 it imported 20,000 tons. For most of the 19th century rubber was a natural product gathered in the Amazon from wild trees. The British wished to have a supply within the British Empire. In 1876, under the guise of collecting botanical samples, Henry A. Wickham successfully 'smuggled' crates full of rubber seeds out of Brazil. The British took these seeds of rubber trees from Brazil and with them started experimental plantations in Malaya. When they were successful, the Dutch began developing plantations on Sumatra.
Frank Seiberling founded Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co in Akron in 1898 (the company is based on the name of the inventor, and was not related to the inventor) and in 1899 Harvey Firestone created the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.: the latter was eventually to be acquired by the Japanese Bridgestone Corporation. By the 1920s the formation of rubber cartel in Southeast Asia by the British helped raise the price of rubber. Prices rose, due in no small measure to the demand of the US auto industry.
During the 1920s, US rubber manufacturers (such as US Rubber, Goodyear, Firestone), bought sizeable plantations in an effort to lower prices and counter the British cartel. In 1927 Ford Motor Company established "Fordlandia" in Brazil, a one million acre plantation free from taxes for 50 years.
In 1926 the Firestone Plantations Company acquired the right to lease up to one million acres of land -- roughly four percent of the entire country -- for a period of ninety-nine years. Firestone Rubber developed its own telex compnay, the "Trans-Liberia Radiotelegraph Company", to operate a shortwave radio from Akron OH to the rubber plantations in Liberia.
When Malaysia fell to the Japanese during World War II, the Firestone plantation in Liberia became a main supplier of rubber for Allied forces. In 1943 the company made $35 million from its Liberia operations. The domination of the Liberian economy by Firestone and other US companies was so complete that in 1943 Liberia adopted the American dollar as its currency.
The Firestone rubber plantations in Liberia had a very large proportion of laborers working on it, providing them with employment, though in very poor conditions. By the mid-1960s there were over 20,000 workers at Harbel, though by the end of the 20th century there were only half that many workers. According to one estimate, there are over 100,000 people in Harbel's vicinity who are dependent on the plantation. This would make the Firestone plantation the second largest population center in the country, after Monrovia. Firestone ran two hospitals, twenty schools, and the Coca-Cola bottling plant.
Firestone Polymers markets the natural latex produced by the Firestone Plantations Company in Liberia, West Africa, a subsidiary of Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., which also reports as part of the Firestone Natural Rubber division. In January 2000 the former Firestone Synthetic Rubber & Latex Company was renamed Firestone Polymers. Firestone Polymers is a division of Nashville-based Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., the largest subsidiary of Bridgestone. The United States Trading Company is a subsidiary of the Firestone Company of Liberia.
Firestone has been getting out of the plantation business and laying off workers since the early 1980s, turning over older and less productive trees to a Liberian contractor. The Liberia Agriculture Company (LAC) is the second largest rubber plantation company in the country, operating in the Gran Bassa county.
Rubber trees are a source of natural rubber for tires, latex for gloves and various medical products, and resins for marine products. Natural rubber and latex are presently obtained from a tree grown only in tropical areas. Recently, it has been found that many people are allergic to this type of latex. However, they are not allergic to guayule latex.
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