One of the interesting things about visiting a place like Liberia is that one cannot run or hide from the blessing (and definitely curse) of the abundant natural resources that are available. It's something that I never even thought about as a kid but it's literally all around you here! While there is obviously the whole diamond opportunity, one cannot forget good ol' gold, timber, hydropower, iron ore, rubber and most recently oil.
As a kid rubber and iron ore were the main resources that held any meaning in my world and coming back here has brought back memories while also allowing me to see the extraction of natural resources through adult eyes. While I was in Buchanan, it was very interesting to a glimpse of the iron ore business in action. As a kid, this was done by the Liberia-American Swedish Minerals Company or LAMCO as everyone called it. The company started in Liberia in the late 1950s and ran operations straight through the early 1990s when it had to stop operations because of the war.
This company was at the very root of why I grew up in Buchanan in the the first place (i.e. my mom worked for the company) and why my entire sense of Buchanan is linked to the company (e.g. we lived in company residential housing, went to the company school, etc.). My friends were all children whose parents worked for the company and came from many places already Sweden was heavily represented.
As a kid, I had no clue as to why the company was there nor could I link iron ore to just about every aspect of how we live our lives (ummm just a reminder: iron ore is the main component in good ol' steel so imagine how much steel is including in the construction of just buildings around the world...not to mention all your old ships, etc.), but I did know that it was important. Today the company ArcelorMittal has taken over operations in this area while other companies that are known for their work in natural resource extraction and producing are also staking their presences here.
Equally important as iron ore, rubber and particularly Firestone, has a very salient place in my memory. If you have ever had to buy tires for a car, you'll know that Firestone tires was always an option. The company has been around just about forever, forging a close relationship with Henry Ford back in the day. Their presence in Liberia started in the 1920s and the company continues to have a major presence here today.
One always knew when you were approaching Firestone (and therefore were close to Monrovia) because you could smell the processing of rubber (which really stinks). What I had forgotten and was reminded off on this trip, was just how much of a plantation it really is. As you approach Firestone, you pass a gated area and the entire landscape in front of you changes. The grass is no longer wild and looks even greener than outside the plantation, rubber trees are all properly lined with their cups attached to capture the dripping sap, the road is paved and there are even sidewalks (clearly a rarity in this native land of mine)! There are housing units for the rubber tappers, schools, a hospital, grocery store and more. In fact, the whole operation makes the LAMCO area appear like they are only "playing" in the game while Firestone has clearly mastered the game! As we drove along, my nose was on full alert for the smell, and while it wasn't as overwhelming as I remember it, as we passed the processing area the stench of rubber was hard to miss, bringing back more nostalgia.
As an adult, what now stands out is how much the presence of these companies tell about the other side of the story. In U.S. history, I learned about the various American tycoons who made their fortunes on railroads, steel factories, etc. In the news, American communities continue to lament the bygone era of manufacturing where, just like here, everyone they knew worked for one or two factories (not to mention the simple fact that these companies provided jobs for low skilled workers). Well, just like those communities, Liberian communities (and those communities in so many parts of the world where natural resources are extracted) also have a long tale to tell about life on their end of that value chain. While communities on both side of the chain may not always be able to relate to each other, their fates are always linked.