Legal fights and threats to his life: an environmental activist in self-exile

Why We Wrote This

When your work endangers your life, how far do you go to pursue your goals? Alfred Brownell won the African ‘Green Nobel’ by using the law to preserve the environment and land rights.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Attorney and activist Alfred Brownell tears up in his office at Northeastern University in Boston. He speaks about seeing gravesites and shrines in Liberia that were destroyed by clear-cutting. Mr. Brownell received a Goldman Environmental Prize on April 29.

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When he was a child living along the Atlantic coast in a small village in Liberia, Alfred Brownell’s friends would set traps for birds on the beach. He recalls his first act of saving nature was to set those birds free. “And I got into trouble with that. ... I got beaten up sometimes,” he says.

It was an early foray into the real danger Mr. Brownell has often faced while working for the interests of those with less of a voice. From child labor on plantations to illegal logging concessions, the scope of Mr. Brownell’s advocacy is grounded in a strong conviction in social justice.

In April, Mr. Brownell won a Goldman Environmental Prize for using his expertise in the law to protect land rights for people in Liberia and preserve their environments, in one of the world’s vulnerable biodiversity hot spots. Mr. Brownell now lives and teaches in the United States but says, “There’s nothing more I want to do now than be in Liberia. I want to be on the ground doing this work.”

Alfred Brownell’s work has made him many powerful enemies. So when he and his family stepped off a plane in the United States on the coldest day of 2016, back home in Liberia he was a wanted man.

In more than two decades of work as an environmental law activist, Mr. Brownell has tangled with a succession of governments and multinational corporations in his country. As Liberia has sought development of its natural resources, Mr. Brownell has educated communities about their land rights and obliged companies to reform malpractice. In April he was awarded a “Green Nobel,” the Goldman Environmental Prize. But despite threats to his safety at home, Mr. Brownell wants to go back.

“There’s nothing more I want to do now than be in Liberia,” he says in his office at Northeastern University in Boston, where he is a visiting scholar teaching human rights and environmental law. “I want to be on the ground doing this work.”  

Mr. Brownell took up one cause at the insistence of a community leader who in 2011 nearly begged him to visit part of the 543,600 acres that the country’s largest palm oil producer had leased from the government. New trees were planted for the world’s most commonly produced vegetable oil, an ingredient in half the everyday packaged products that Americans buy.

After arriving in the Butaw district of Sinoe County, Mr. Brownell saw that the land had likely been “cut completely bare, like a barber giving you a clean shave,” he says. Instead of primary forest, where native tree species thrive, there had grown “a vast expanse of palm, as far as the eyes can see in the horizon.”

He met villagers who were traumatized; gravesites and shrines were bulldozed to make way for palm trees. More than just ecological loss in a biodiversity hot spot, the destruction of forests was also bringing an end to a way of life for the indigenous people.

“You should see how the palm companies desecrated those shrines, tore them apart, and put in oil palm,” Mr. Brownell says, voice shaking, tears streaming down his face. The government believes oil palm companies bring in investment and development, Mr. Brownell says. But “a chief told me he was afraid to die – because he didn’t know when he went to his ancestors what he would tell them about this land that was passed to him.”

In 2012, Mr. Brownell and his nonprofit, Green Advocates, helped disaffected locals file their first complaint to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which certifies the production of palm oil to ensure sustainable practices around the world. The complaint claimed that the palm-oil plantation developer Golden Veroleum Liberia had forcefully displaced people without adequate compensation, destroyed burial grounds, and polluted the drinking water. It prompted RSPO to place a stop work order on GVL, freezing land development in the disputed areas. GVL lost an appeal of the decision in July 2018.

Since Mr. Brownell was awarded the Green Nobel on April 29, GVL has pushed back on media reports that Mr. Brownell has protected virtually all of the concession from development. A spokesman for the Goldman Prize says that “we are happy to rebut all of their claims.” For his part, with an intimate knowledge of the case since Green Advocates filed its first complaint against the company, Mr. Brownell says that GVL’s response is “an attempt to lie itself out of a deal that is bad for the environment and bad for business.”

A social justice streak

From child labor on plantations to illegal logging concessions, the scope of Mr. Brownell’s advocacy is grounded in a strong conviction in social justice. When he was a child, living along the Atlantic coast in a small village called Robertsport, Mr. Brownell’s friends would set traps for birds on the beach. He recalls his first act of saving nature was to set those birds free. “And I got into trouble with that. ... I got beaten up sometimes.”

At university, his peers jeered at him because of his rural background, but they stopped when Mr. Brownell was at the head of the class. “As I studied law, I started looking outside and seeing the inequality, the exclusions, the discriminations, the impoverishment, the disenfranchisement,” he says. “What is the purpose of this education if we’re not going to do something for the poor?”

As a young graduate, he helped write the government’s framework environmental policies to protect and conserve parts of the Upper Guinean forests in Liberia. But he later founded Green Advocates as a vehicle through which to fight legal battles – battles that have also resulted in personal danger. In 2014, Mr. Brownell was stopped near an inspection site in the forest by a mob of more than 100 men armed with machetes and guns. A local chief intervened on Mr. Brownell’s behalf and saved his life.

“Alfred has real connection with the community and created organizations which continue to be very active,” says Kevin Murray, who was part of an international network of lawyers and human rights advocates that brought Mr. Brownell to the U.S. from Liberia.

Mr. Brownell’s departure for the U.S. in December 2016 was precipitated by a police raid on the Green Advocates office in Monrovia and the arrests of some of the staff. After Mr. Brownell’s narrow escape from Liberia, police also went to his house, where his uncle was staying, beat him, and threw him in jail.

“I see the threat is personal, yes, but I think those taking great risks are ... those who lost the land, who’s losing that history, those who face police brutality; they are the ones facing the challenges,” he says. “I’m actually the messenger trying to pass on the story so people can see what it is, and what the challenges are; they can find a way to help and support those people.”

Mr. Brownell could have lived a life of privilege as a trained lawyer in Liberia, says Mr. Murray. But “rather than become a wealthy person, he decided to use that to make a difference in people’s lives.”

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