September 18, 2018 / 10:54 PM / in 3 months

Firestone reduces Liberia rubber wood output as low prices bite

DAKAR, Sept 18 (Reuters) - U.S.-based Firestone Natural Rubber has reduced production at its rubber wood factory in Liberia and is laying off 75 staff, the latest blow to the world’s largest natural rubber plantation and a major employer in the impoverished West African country.

In a statement on Tuesday, Firestone said the decision to scale back comes after “continued and unsustainable losses and the ongoing inability to compete with low cost producers in the global rubber wood market.”

Global rubber prices have fallen over 40 percent since January 2017 and are now only slightly above historic lows.

The slowdown in rubber wood output marks another blow for one of the world’s poorest countries that relies on rubber exports and whose two civil wars that ended in 2003 left the economy in ruins.

Firestone, a subsidiary of tire producer Bridgestone Americas, signed a 99-year contract with the Liberian government in 1926. Its plantation covers almost 200 square miles in a forested area east of the capital Monrovia and has provided much needed schooling and medical care to employees.

But cracks have emerged in recent years. It laid off over 400 workers in 2014 due to falling rubber prices. In August workers went on a brief strike demanding higher wages.

Liberian warlord Charles Taylor used the Firestone plantation as a base of operations throughout the first Liberian civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 1997 and ultimately killed more than 300,000 people. (Reporting By Edward McAllister; Writing by Cooper Inveen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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