Recently, members of the nonprofit community gathered in Washington, DC to attend a forum that examined the current social, economical, and political conditions in the West African nation of Liberia. After two decades of instability and two civil wars that killed 250,000 people, Liberia has begun the process of picking up the pieces of its shattered nation, which is no easy task: Six in seven Liberians live in dire poverty. Fortunately, the country, founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century, has abundant natural resources. With the restructuring of Liberian government to a unitary constitutional republic led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female elected head of state and a Harvard-trained economist, it seems as if these resources could bring some needed revenues into the country.
With the return of political and economical stability, however, there is a rising concern over worker’s rights for Liberians. There has been a steady and growing increase in land ownership and the extraction of Liberia’s natural resources by U.S. companies like Chevron, Firestone, and other conglomerates.
As Western outsiders acquire more land, Liberians already living on the land are being pushed from their homes. Village lines have had to be redrawn due to land grabbing. Different communities have been squeezed together and forced to share increasingly limited resources left behind by the corporations.
Large-scale extraction of the land has caused rivers and streams to become polluted, simultaneously wiping out the food and water sources as well as possible trade opportunities for local families.
A major problem with the presence of big business in Liberia is the corporation’s failure to invest in the Liberian people. Alfred Brownell, a Liberian lawyer, told event participants that “the (American) Firestone Corporation has been present in Liberia for over 80 years, and still to this day there is not a single person of Liberian descent in a position of power within that company.”
Liberian workers are relegated to labor-intensive, menial, low-paying jobs. If companies like Firestone or Chevron proceed to invest only in the land without investing in the people, and provide wealth for themselves but not the Liberians, then the American-Liberian relationship will continue to be exploitative. Consumers should hold big corporations accountable for how they produce their products and the devastation they leave behind. American corporations must be held to a high standard when it comes to extracting resources from the world’s poorest nations.