Protecting the ‘lungs of West Africa’
‘When we eat chocolate, fried chicken or ice cream, or apply nail varnish, it has consequences across the ocean because one of the main ingredients of all these products is palm oil,’ says Alfred Brownell, one of West Africa’s leading environmental and human rights defenders. ‘Our desire for such things keeps the supply coming in, but destroys the forest and the communities who live in it. It causes the indigenous woman to be beaten and stripped naked and members of her community to be harassed, evicted and sent to prison,’ he adds, his voice breaking with emotion.
The 53-year-old Liberian environmental lawyer knows this firsthand – he took on the fight of that particular woman and the wider indigenous communities in Liberia’s Sinoe County to stop the destruction of the tropical rainforest – their home and sustenance.
His seven-year campaign succeeded in protecting over half a million acres of Liberia’s tropical rainforest from clear-cutting by a foreign palm-oil plantation developer, enabling indigenous communities to continue their stewardship of the forest. His methods also provide inspiration and hope to activists facing similar threats elsewhere.
But victory came at a heavy price: Brownell faced violence and death threats, and had to flee with his family to the US, where they now live in temporary exile. We spoke on Skype from Boston ahead of him winning the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa – the world’s most prestigious and largest financial award for grassroots environmental activists.
Liberia’s tropical forest makes up almost half of the Upper Guinean forest – one of the 25 most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet. ‘Once a blanket of green forests covered the whole of West and North Africa. Now only a tiny spot remains and that last part is in Liberia,’ says Brownell. These lush rainforests absorb CO2, acting as essential ‘carbon sinks’, and are a critical habitat for numerous endangered species – including chimpanzees, pygmy hippopotamuses and tree pangolins – and house West Africa’s largest population of elephants.
But these lungs of West Africa are acutely threatened by the government’s aggressive push for economic development. During her lengthy term, former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state, signed over 30 per cent of Liberia’s land to foreign investors. The state claimed land that is customarily held by indigenous peoples – but for which they have no deeds – as government property, making community forests vulnerable to destruction by massive agro-industrial and mining projects.
In 2010, Golden Veroleum (GVL) – an agro-industrial company based in Southeast Asia – signed a deal with the Liberian government for a 65-year lease of over 219,744 hectares of forested land to grow palm oil. The world’s most widely used vegetable oil and one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction, palm oil is found in thousands of everyday products such as margarine, biscuits and soap, and is also used in large amounts in biofuel.
I ask Brownell if he can understand President Sirleaf’s drive to raise income to help develop the country after a crippling civil war. ‘If economic development destroys every social and economic infrastructure, [then] what are you doing? Whose jobs are you creating?’ he replies, raising his voice in anger. ‘You are not investing in your people. You need to develop the country from the bottom up. Consider the real value of 202,342 hectares of pristine forest, the lungs of West Africa and the best technology to fight climate change. By giving it away, you are impoverishing the country and the world.’
To prepare the land, GVL cleared community forests and cultural sites without notice or adequate compensation – destroying farmland and sacred ground and polluting communities’ water supplies. When residents spoke out against the destruction, GVL colluded with government officials to harass, threaten and imprison them without charge.
‘These communities have lived sustainably in harmony with nature for centuries. They have used their ingenuity to develop this model to protect the forest. But palm-oil companies try to wipe all this out: the forest, the culture, the religious traditions of the people who live in it,’ he booms. ‘Centuries of history, knowledge are erased! That’s what it means to destroy the forest. We should learn from these people but, instead, we look down on them and bring destruction and violence upon them.’
It is an issue that fires up Brownell. As a founder, CEO and lead campaigner at Green Advocates (GA), Liberia’s first public-interest environmental law and human rights organization, he has worked for nearly two decades with poor rural communities to give them a voice in decisions affecting their natural resources. He has also established a network to connect community-based organizations throughout Liberia – the Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD) – to collaborate on environmental justice work.
In 2011, when indigenous leaders in Sinoe County begged for help, Brownell got to work. He knew that GVL depends on its certification with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – the global certification body – to sell its palm oil to major buyers, such as Unilever and Cargill.
In 2012, Brownell worked with community members to file a complaint with RSPO, detailing GVL’s environmental malpractice and disregard for community land rights. In response, RSPO placed a ‘stop work’ order on GVL – freezing any expansion of the palm-oil plantations and preventing any further forest clearance and harassment.
But the company appealed and persuaded Sinoe County and neighbouring communities to sign agreements to convert 13,354 hectares to plantations in exchange for jobs and other community benefits. When GVL failed to deliver on these promises, protests turned into violent clashes, and police ransacked homes and made arbitrary arrests. Some residents fled into the forests. Fifteen community members were held in custody – one of whom died under mysterious circumstances.
Brownell then mobilized global NGOs, watchdogs and the media to investigate and report GVL’s wrongdoings, prompting RSPO to run its own investigation. As a result, in July 2018, RSPO dismissed GVL’s appeal against the ‘stop work’ order. Brownell’s actions managed to protect 207,603 hectares – roughly 94 per cent of the forest leased to GVL.
His success made him some powerful enemies. Brownell says that government officials called him an enemy of the state and an economic saboteur, who is preventing investment in the country. He came under surveillance, received death threats, his office was burgled, colleagues were assaulted and police raided his home. Fearing for his life and liberty, he fled with his family to the US two years ago.
Brownell is currently a distinguished scholar and research associate professor in the School of Law at Northeastern University in Boston, teaching a course on human rights and global economy and training a new generation of activists. He is still actively involved in environmental advocacy in Liberia and hopes that the Goldman Environmental Prize will help him return to his homeland.
‘The prize belongs to all the indigenous people who have put their lives on the line to protect the forest, their culture and traditions,’ he says. ‘I am just the messenger. The real work is done by these incredible people. I hope the prize will draw more attention to their fight.’