CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Firestone Natural Rubber Co. L.L.C. has a new long-term lease in hand for its rubber plantation in Liberia and an aggressive replanting program in the works.
The subsidiary of BFS Diversified Products L.L.C. recently worked out an agreement with the Liberian government to continue leasing its Harbel Plantation until 2042. The extension pretty much guarantees the company will be able to produce natural rubber at the site for the next 37 years, unless, of course, another war breaks out in the country.
"We needed to know we were going to be there," according to company President Daniel J. Adomitis.
That set the stage for Firestone Natural Rubber to launch a 10-year replanting program on the plantation. Once it signed the pact with Liberian officials, Firestone Natural Rubber—which is responsible for BFS´ rubber plantations, shipping lines and its latex operation—launched an aggressive replanting program on the plantation
The company, which has been operating the plantation for 79 years, and Gyude Bryant, chairman of the Liberian transitional government, began negotiations on a new pact the week of June 22.
On June 3, Firestone Natural Rubber signed a formal three-year labor agreement with the General Agriculture and Allied Workers Union of Liberia, which represents about 6,000 workers on the firm´s 240-square-mile plantation near Harbel.
Plantation workers received an 18-percent incremental pay increase over the life of the contract, plus housing allowances and incremental shift bonuses. One important concession to the Liberian workers was a reduction in the subsidized price of rice, to $25 from $28 for two bags, that´s supplied by Firestone Natural Rubber.
"We supply virtually all the rice for our employees, going back many years," Adomitis said at the recent International Latex Conference, held in Charlotte. The firm also furnishes medical care and schooling for workers and their families. "We estimate there are 10 people behind every employee," he added.
The deals with the government and union complete more than eight years of work on the part of Firestone Natural Rubber to get the Liberian plantation operational again while laying out a progressive growth plan for the future.
The company has averaged about 1,000 acres of replanting annually for the past few years on its plantation, but needs to increase that to 3,000-5,000 acres per year to meet demand, Adomitis said.
About 60 percent of its production from the plantation is tire grade rubber sold exclusively to Bridgestone/Firestone. The remaining 40 percent is rubber latex that´s sold primarily in the U.S., he said.
Liberia has been the scene of civil war off and on since 1990. During the unrest, thousands of refugees fled to the plantation as a safe haven.
Fourteen years of chaos and poverty have left most of Liberia´s Hevea trees old, neglected and damaged, creating the need for the aggressive replanting program, according to Adomitis.
"This is a country that´s slugging it out with the basics of life," he said. "We have jobs for almost 7,000 people. We operate like a state government in terms of our responsibilities to the people in that area."
Miles Moore, Rubber & Plastics News staff, contributed to this story.