Firestone Plantations Harbel Group Liberia
Pictorial map of the largest rubber plantation in the world deliberately obfuscating corporate exploitation.
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Equivalent in size to the Isle of Man or the island of Singapore, the Harbel plantation in Liberia occupies nearly 1 percent of the country’s arable land. It was established in 1926, when leading producers in the East Indies colluded to restrict supplies and raise prices. A response campaign was organized by Henry Firestone, who lobbied directly to the government of Liberia with support from members of the United States Congress and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. An agreement was reached where Firestone would provide a $5 million loan to the Liberian government at 7% interest in exchange for a 99 year lease on up to 160,000 acres of unplanted land – a favorable outcome for the company, to be sure!
By 1932, Liberia would be spending nearly its entire national revenue paying towards the Firestone debt, which would not be repaid in full until 1952. Harbel and nearby Cavalla plantations were quickly established in the undeveloped interior, where the company would ultimately create much of the infrastructure necessary to begin full scale rubber production. This included construction of harbors, sawmills, brickmaking plants, farms, radio station, research facilities, schools, worker villages, and even a regional airport – Roberts Field. These “improvements” were forcefully instituted by the company to maintain control over its workers and increase profitability at a time when rubber accounted for as much as 95% of Liberia’s exports.
It’s in that environment of corporate exploitation that this map was created by Firestone employee Nickie Kohout in 1959. It shows the Harbel plantation divided into 45 separate divisions, most of which contain a Labor Village for housing local African workers. White employees lived in the nicer, more spacious Staff Houses. Several illustrated amenities, such as swimming pools and tennis courts, would have also only been available to select staff. The ongoing development pictured within the map contrasts sharply with the illustrations in the negative space around the border, which emphasize the exotic nature of the native tribespeople, flora and fauna of Liberia. Leaves from the rubber tree add a decorative element to the idyllic view, which effectively whitewashes the economic manipulation of an entire country by a private American company.
CHURCH, R. J. HARRISON. “The Firestone Rubber Plantations in Liberia.” Geography, vol. 54, no. 4, 1969, pp. 430–437. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40567142. Accessed 10 June 2020.
Publication Date: 1959
Author: Nickie Kohout
Sheet Width (in): 23.75
Sheet Height (in): 21.90
Condition Description: Slight waviness to the sheet from where the map was previously rolled, and faint discoloration from age. Pinholes in each corner and one small stain in the image below the legend. Near fine condition overall for this scarce map.