How We Uncovered Firestone’s Deal with Charles Taylor
In 2007, freelance reporter Jonathan Jones came across a striking one-line description of the West African nation of Liberia in a history book, The State of Africa.
The country, it said, was “little more than a fiefdom of the American Firestone company, which owned its rubber plantations.”
His curiosity piqued, Jones went looking for the history of the tire company’s operations in Liberia. But there were no books to be found.
That’s when the seed was planted for an investigation that would span the next seven years and would unravel the relationship between Firestone — the largest private employer in Liberia — and Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord infamous for his use of child soldiers.
Ultimately, working with ProPublica reporter T. Christian Miller and FRONTLINE producer Marcela Gaviria, Jones uncovered the details of the deal Firestone struck with the warlord — how it agreed to pay millions of dollars to Taylor in exchange for being able to operate (money that, in Taylor’s own words, provided the “financial assistance that we needed for the revolution”), and how Taylor turned the plantation into a rebel base that he used to wage war.
To get there, the investigative team talked with more than 100 former and current Liberian Firestone workers; more than a dozen retired expatriate Firestone senior managers who helped to run the plantation during Taylor’s rise; a Firestone attorney; dozens of diplomats, government officials, representatives of the United Nations and non-government organizations; leaders of former warring factions in Liberia; and Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
They tracked down never-before-seen documents — lots of them, including 200 state department cables obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that provided an almost day-by-day account of events on the plantation during the war as reported by the U.S. Embassy.
And they uncovered a trove of hundreds of court documents from an insurance case involving Firestone that shed new light on the company’s relationship with Charles Taylor.
The court documents — which included handwritten diary notes from Firestone management, confidential evacuation plans, and records of tax payments to Taylor — weighed 44 lbs.
Miller, who has spent much of his career focusing on how corporations operate in foreign countries, had never seen anything like it.
“I remember, especially, picking up a piece of paper on which the headline was ‘tax payments to Charles Taylor’s government,’” Miller says. “That was the moment where I was certain this was a story worth showing.”
Gaviria was also stunned by what the team had uncovered. But she was initially skeptical about delving back 25 years to scrutinize a group of Americans on an African plantation.
“My first instinct was, ‘There’s a lot of bad things that happen in this world – why focus on this?’” the veteran producer says. “But as I learned more and more, I just had this real, visceral feeling that this story stands for something larger. It was a no-brainer to pursue it.”
That’s exactly what Gaviria, Miller, and Jones did. They spent the spring of 2014 locating and reaching out to more than 300 Americans and Liberians who had been involved when the paths of Charles Taylor and Firestone intersected, and worked to convince them to share their stories.
“Initially, my nose got bruised by the amount of doors that were slammed on us,” Gaviria says. “It was really, really hard, and most people didn’t want to talk.”
But eventually, sources opened up – including former Firestone managers who spoke on-camera with remarkable candor, and even shared home videos and photos from their time helping to run the plantation.
By the time the investigative team arrived in Liberia in June 2014, they had compelling, first-person accounts of what had happened on the plantation during Taylor’s rise.
Those accounts dovetailed with what the team heard from Liberians who had worked on the plantation at the time, Miller says: “In combination with all of the documents, we had a kind of confirmation of sources that’s not always possible in investigative journalism.”
The investigative team had wanted to make a second trip to Liberia, but then, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa spiraled out of control and prevented them from returning. The interviews they had done there in June left a deep impression.
“One woman, Mary Pollee, went through hell— both at the hands of Charles Taylor’s forces and Liberian government forces,” Miller says. “Her ability to tell her story, and to do it with dignity and with grace and with precision, was so powerful.”
So, the team hopes, is the end result of their investigation.
“I want people to come away from the documentary and the story thinking about individual choices,” Gaviria says. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Well, corporations make these choices, because what matters is the bottom line’— but people work in corporations.”
“One of the things Firestone has said in their defense is ‘We don’t take sides, we don’t play politics,’” Jones says. “But of course, their decisions had real political impact.”
The same is true for corporations operating right now in conflict zones around the world, Jones adds.
“Even when they have the right intentions,” he says, “the decisions they make have real-life consequences for the people on the ground.”