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Marketplace Morning Report

Tires and civil war: America’s business with warlords

Kai Ryssdal Nov 17, 2014
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Back in 1926 an American named Harvey Firestone cut a deal with the government of Liberia.

The African country, which had been founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, sold Firestone a million acres of land chock-full of rubber tree plants – for just 6 cents an acre. The deal created the world’s largest rubber tree plantation and deeply intertwined Liberia and the Firestone Tire Co. But in the late 1980s, the relationship started to become much more complicated. A series of political uprisings and coups led to the takeover of a large portion of Liberia by infamous warlord Charles Taylor. 

“Charles Taylor became the first person since Nazi Germany as a head of state to be convicted of crimes against humanity,” says T. Christian Miller, a ProPublica reporter who worked on the new documentary “Firestone and the Warlord” with Frontline. The film focuses on a decision Firestone made after Taylor took over  to go back and try to rebuild the plantation.

“This becomes a story about choices,” Miller says. “The choices that a big American corporation faces when it comes into contact with a violent guerrilla leader, which happens all the time.”

The filmmakers dug up more than 200 documents that reveal – for the first time – that Firestone and Taylor struck a deal to bring the company’s business back to Liberia. To many Liberians, and even some U.S. diplomats, the deal helped fund the warlord’s rampage and reign, thereby leaving the company with blood on its hands, Miller says.

But Firestone continues to insist that it was just conducting business as usual.

“They would deny that,” Miller says. “They were not there to help Charles Taylor fight a war. They were there to run their business. And as part of having to run their business they had to pay taxes to the guy who was in charge. At that time Charles Taylor was in charge.”

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