Protecting the "Lungs of West Africa" - An Interview with Alfred Brownell
April 12, 2022

Filling “Lungs” with Corporate Smoke

Known as the “lungs of West Africa,” Liberia’s forests represent ancestrally sacred lands to local Indigenous communities, serving as the region’s largest source of carbon sinks, a source of livelihood, and a green fortress protecting villagers from the advancing Sahara Desert’s scorching heat. Liberia is graced with scenic oceans, beautiful white sand beaches, and a diverse ecosystem populated by 2,000 kinds of flowering plants, 1,000 different insects, 240 varieties of trees, and 150 diverse mammal species. For more than four decades, the Liberian landscape has garnered international attention for another reason. Multinational corporations eagerly stripped these rich forests bare, and replaced them with palm oil plantations. The pursuit of palm oil also took off in other places around the world, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Colombia, and Nigeria. Palm oil is now the world’s most-used vegetable oil, and is found in food, cosmetics, biofuel, and numerous other commodities. The palm oil industry is successful in engineering big increases in global demand for their product, and this is driving their expansion in West Africa. As a result, political and economic tensions are growing between the Liberian government and the palm oil industry on one side, and Indigenous peoples and rural communities on the other. 

To understand the dynamics shaping Liberia today we sat down with Alfred Brownell, a Fellow with the Global Center for Climate Justice, Associate Research Professor, northeastern University School of Law, current Tom and Andi Bernstein Human Rights Fellow at the Yale Law School and 2019 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa in recognition of his work with Green Advocates, Liberia's only non-profit environmental law organization. Under Brownell's leadership, Green Advocates stopped palm oil companies from bulldozing over rural communities' land rights and clear-cutting more than 500,000 acres of forest.

Disagreements and elite greed regarding land and natural resources led to a “terrible civil war in Liberia from 1989 to 1996, where over 250,000 persons died and a million were displaced,” says Brownell.  In 2006, the post-civil war government made economic development their priority, striving “to drive investment, build revenue, improve infrastructure, and create employment.” Their aggressive strategy for Liberia included turning over its natural resources to foreign investors by claiming lands held by Indigenous peoples as public land. Soon, 30 percent of Liberia’s land was signed over to these outside investors and, as Brownell says, “over $20 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) in oil, gas mining, agriculture, and logging infrastructure flowed into post war Liberia without the appropriate absorptive capacity.” Corporations like the investment holding company Sime Darby, and Singaporean palm oil company Golden Agri Resources (GAR), were the beneficiaries of large land deals for palm oil, amounting to almost one million acres. Although both corporations are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international network that certifies companies for their sustainable palm oil production, they proceeded to operate on Liberian lands without the consent of affected communities and disregarded their professed commitments to “no deforestation.” 

Protect West Africa from Corporate Cravings Graphic by Taha Adams

Enter the Activist Lawyer

Raised in Robertsport, Liberia, Alfred Brownell was profoundly disturbed with the actions of both his government and foreign corporations that were bulldozing the land of his childhood. Leading a sustainable lifestyle was instilled in Brownell at a young age, fundamentally influencing his lifetime work. “As a kid, I had no idea that the things I was doing were involved in protecting nature. We're trained to grow and harvest honey, berries, and wildlife, and harvest only old wood for fuel. We're not trained to go and destroy everything,” he says. As a self-proclaimed “activist lawyer” who embraces the nexus of environmental rights and human rights, Brownell became inspired to use his legal education to address systemic inequities, ensure rights, and defend the victims of resource exploitation in his homeland. 

Indigenous communities bear the greatest burden of the corporate invasion of Liberia, as witnessed in the granting of massive “concessions” of their land by the government. These same Indigenous communities were not consulted, or given a voice, about these land grabs. Brownell reflects upon a conversation with a village chief who was not even warned that his forestlands were about to be taken over and destroyed: “They were farming in the village one day, and the next it got very loud… the community chief and his wife said they thought it was the end of the world because the trees were crashing and falling, wildlife and birds were flying away, desperately trying  to escape the loud noise.” In addition to unjustly appropriating the land, the palm oil companies re-engineered the flow of rivers, streams, and creeks to circumvent villages and instead irrigate their monocrop plantations. Brownell scorns the palm oil industry’s propaganda that land is simply a resource “to exploit and extract.” Such a view undermines “centuries of culture, of tradition, of values, of ways of life, of livelihoods — this land is also a home for people who have lived there and managed it for centuries,” he says. 

Realizing the absence of laws or regulatory regimes capable of holding both state and corporate actors accountable, Brownell accomplished a seemingly “impossible task,” and pioneered a new framework for environmental law within Liberia’s legal system. As a law student in 1997, Brownell founded Green Advocates International (GAI), a Liberian-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that represents local communities, seeking to protect their environmental and human rights and investigate the government's abuse of the country’s natural resources. Since establishing GAI, Brownell and his team have fought against a host of injustices, including land grabs, pollution, and unfair labor practices. These successes include the temporary protection of six million acres of forest from development by palm oil companies. They have also hindered palm oil companies from bulldozing over rural communities' land rights and clear-cutting more than 500,000 acres of forest.

 Brownell has played a key role in establishing several networks and coalitions that protect Indigenous land, and give voices to those most impacted by unsustainable and unjust corporate practices. These organizations work to combat land grabs, deforestation, the climate crisis, environmentally destructive foreign investment, pollution, unjust labor practices, and the commodification and exploitation of Indigenous land. Recognizing that their strength lay in numbers, Brownell co-established the Alliance for Rural Democracy, the largest solidarity movement in Liberia. It consists of local communities, rural women dependent upon the land and natural resources, informal sector entrepreneurs and workers, and emerging labor unions – all working together to support and empower rural and Indigenous peoples in Liberia and West Africa. He is the vision bearer behind the organization of the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform, the West African version of the Alliance for Rural Democracy, a network of environmental and human rights defenders; indigenous, urban slums and squatter communities; communities affected by the operations of multinational corporations; and bloggers, labor unions and poor informal entrepreneurs on the frontline of corporate investments in West Africa. He also co-organized the Public Interest Lawyers Initiative for West Africa (PILIWA) to help defend the rights of West Africans and ensure corporate and governmental accountability. Though indigenous entrepreneurs are demonstrating ingenious ways that humanity can sustainably use resources in a self-sufficient manner, Brownell believes that women in rural communities are essential in the discussions regarding land and resource management. Wanting to embrace the voices of all led to the establishment of the Natural Resources Women Platform. This organization recognizes that the support and leadership of women, in addition to Indigenous leadership, is key to illuminating alternatives to the extractive industry now plaguing the continent. 

The Risk was Worth it

As grassroots movements to prevent deforestation and Indigenous land-grabbing increased in size and power in the early 2000s, so did the risk. The Liberian government deemed Brownell’s advocacy “devious,” and responded to his organizing efforts by threatening to revoke his license to practice law and charge him with sedition. They also threatened to send him to jail for economic sabotage, and called GAI a “super-state structure undermining the sovereignty of the country.” Following repeated death threats and more, Brownell and his immediate family were forced to flee Liberia, in 2016, first to another country and then to the United States. But Brownell does not regret his actions: “What is more important than defending the planet and its people? My life comes from the Earth; therefore, it is worth my life to defend it and its people…I believe that I was protecting the eye, lungs and heart of the planet in the tradition of our ancestors. And this was their home. This was our sacred tradition- a multi-generational responsibility to protect the earth preserving the custodial legacies of our ancestors that have co-existed with nature, meeting the sustainable needs of this generation and not compromising the habitability and livelihoods of future generations.” 

In 2019, Brownell received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, considered the “Green Nobel Prize,” which honors the achievements and leadership of grassroots environmental activists acting in the face of tremendous human rights abuses and dangers to their personal safety. However, when asked what the Goldman Prize means to him, he humbly responds “I’m just a messenger,” and that we should instead place Indigenous communities in the spotlight. “The focus should be on them. These are the real heroes. These are the first responders and FIREWALLS that we need to empower,” he says. Brownell lauds the practices of Indigenous communities for “mastering and developing a process where their sustainable livelihood activities have coexisted with nature, the result of that being preserved biodiversity and cultural diversity.” He professes that “Indigenous people in Liberia and across the globe provide lessons on what we can do, as human beings, to survive on our planet’s resources and sustain it. These frontline communities and defenders put their lives on the line in order for us to breathe clean air and drink pure water, and so it's our responsibility to look at all the necessary aspects of meaningful social change: governance, enforcement, and mass movement formation,” he says. Our work at the Global Center for Climate Justice is to support the courageous work of advocates such as Alfred Brownell, and the grassroots organizations and movements all over the world struggling against state and corporate abuses of both people and nature.  Join us in this effort!

Christina Schlegel and Daniel Faber helped to conduct this interview of Alfred Brownell.

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