From the Archives: An Iconic Tire Company’s Secret History in Liberia
What are the costs of doing business in a war zone?
FRONTLINE and ProPublica probed that question in the 2014 documentary Firestone and the Warlord, a 90-minute investigation of the relationship between the iconic tire company Firestone and the infamous Liberian warlord Charles Taylor that is newly available to stream on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel.
Based on the inside accounts of Americans who helped run a rubber plantation for the company in Liberia, diplomatic cables and court documents, the documentary revealed how Firestone conducted business during a brutal Liberian civil war that began on Christmas Eve, 1989.
With remarkable access to key participants, Firestone and the Warlord pieced together how, over the next several years, the stories of Taylor, the American-educated warlord notorious for his use of child soldiers, and Firestone, Liberia’s largest private employer, intersected in fateful ways.
FRONTLINE producer Marcela Gaviria teamed up with reporters T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Jonathan Jones to bring this story to light. Their investigation uncovered how, in exchange for being able to operate, Firestone made a deal with Taylor and, in Taylor’s own words, served as “at that particular time our most significant principal source of foreign exchange” — and how Taylor turned the Firestone plantation into a rebel base that he used to wage war.
“Do I think they have blood on their hands? Yes. I believe they facilitated a warlord in his insurrection and in the atrocities that he created,” Gerald S. Rose, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia from 1991 to 93, told FRONTLINE and ProPublica in the 2014 documentary.
Firestone said it was powerless to prevent Taylor from occupying the plantation and that at no time did the company have a collaborative relationship with him.
“Firestone’s decision to remain in Liberia was very costly for the company,” Firestone and its parent company, Bridgestone, told FRONTLINE and ProPublica at the time. “Firestone was able to preserve an important economic asset for Liberia, and we are proud of that.”
The documentary — which The New York Times called “an example of the reason we bother to scrutinize history” — raised provocative questions about corporate responsibility, accountability and the ethical ramifications of doing business in conflict zones.
Firestone and the Warlord is the latest documentary from FRONTLINE’s extensive archives to be released on the series’ YouTube channel. You can also watch it in the PBS App and in FRONTLINE’s online collection of more than 300 streaming documentaries.