WASHINGTON — The government of Liberia is renegotiating its concession agreement with Bridgestone/Firestone for the operation of the world´s largest natural rubber plantation, according to Liberia´s president.
Negotiations between BFS and Liberian officials began the week of Feb. 12, said Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf during a Feb. 16 speech at the National Press Club. Johnson-Sirleaf was in Washington to meet with U.S. officials, executives of the World Bank and representatives of private industry to discuss ways to promote the revitalization of her war-ravaged country.
Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia in November 2005 and assumed office two months later, making her the first elected woman president of any African nation.
A BFS spokeswoman said that renegotiating concession agreements with Liberia´s natural resource business partners has been one of Johnson-Sirleaf´s express priorities since she assumed office. In her speech, Johnson-Sirleaf said her government is methodically renegotiating 95 such agreements.
Johnson-Sirleaf did not elaborate on her negotiations with BFS. Although the tire maker did not discuss the specific issues the negotiations would entail, it did issue a statement about the renewal agreement it signed with Liberia in 2005, before Johnson-Sirleaf took office.
"By signing the agreement with the government in 2005, Firestone committed to invest $100 million of capital, in addition to wages and outside rubber purchases, in the rebuilding of Liberia," the company said.
"Today, Firestone is on time or ahead of schedule with regard to all its investment targets and is meeting its other commitments under the agreement," it said.
Among other things, BFS operates and pays for 21 schools on the 240-square-mile plantation, serving some 13,000 children, as well as a medical system that receives up to 9,000 patient visits a month, the company said.
BFS first negotiated a concession agreement with the Liberian government in 1926. The company denies a May 2006 report from the United Nations Mission in Liberia, which claims the existence of human rights violations on the plantation, as well as the accusations of the International Labor Rights Fund, which alleges near-slave labor conditions for BFS´s 6,000 Liberian workers.
In her speech, Johnson-Sirleaf spoke of the horrible difficulties created in Liberia by the seven-year civil war and the corrupt administration of former President Charles Taylor.
For many years the country had no health care, no electricity and no running water.
Today, however, Liberia is making significant strides in its efforts to re-establish basic services and attract foreign investment, she said. The country had an economic growth rate of 8 percent last year, and school enrollment rose 40 percent.
"One of our proudest milestones was being able to turn on the water and the lights for the first time in Monrovia in 15 years," she said.