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Fueling Liberia's future with hope

Once exposed to the nation's worst brutality, former aid worker David Parker has returned to run a business.

By Tristan McConnellCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2008

Expat on a mission: David Parker's company plans to invest up to $10 million to revamp a palm-oil plantation.

Tugela Ridley

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Buchanan, Liberia

David Parker has seen the worst of Liberia. As a young aid worker who arrived in Monrovia 12 years ago, he got to know the warlords, mercenaries, child soldiers, and businesspeople who kept the brutal conflict here running on and off for more than two decades.

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Given the choice, many who have witnessed the horrors of Liberia at war would get away and stay away. But in 2006, Mr. Parker and his Liberian wife came back – with high hopes for the country. In the intervening years, Parker had soured on what he saw as the waste of self-serving bureaucracies. "A billion dollars a year [the United Nations] spends here and we haven't even got decent roads," he points out as he bumps over the potholes in his 4-by-4.

So this time, he is in Liberia for business, to rebuild the country through investment rather than donations.

"There is an opportunity for Liberia to pull itself out of decades of economic disaster," says the Briton. His company, Equatorial BioFuels (EBF), has taken over the 36,000-acre Palm Bay plantation and plans to invest up to $10 million initially to rehabilitate the estate and begin producing palm oil industrially again. This places Parker, EBF's chief operating officer, among the first wave of private investors willing to put money into a post-war, democratic Liberia.

But first, the past has to be dealt with. Last month ,Parker handed over $85,000 to 522 former plantation employees to settle grievances dating back to 1980, long before he or his company set foot in Liberia. The sums may not sound like much, but most of Liberia's estimated 3.6 million people earn only $130 a year. Judging by the smiles on the aging workers' faces as they collected their checks, the money was welcome.

"We want to start with a clean slate," says Parker, who argues that with his development background and hard-earned local knowledge comes sensitivity toward the needs of the people that other businessmen might lack.

Credibility from years as an aid worker

Parker's job as an aid worker with the European Union required him to talk to people from across the political spectrum. He called up then-President Charles Taylor. He went to rural areas to begin disarming rebels – at a time when most international staff would not leave their fortified compounds in Monrovia. In 2003, as American troops on ships off the coast watched the city's final bloody siege, Parker was on the ground directing the evacuation of foreign nationals. It was not until the first UN peacekeepers arrived months later that he left, ending a seven-year stint.

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