Three years ago, Alfred Brownell fled his country under threat of violence. It was the culmination of decades of bearing witness to the mining, logging, and agribusiness interests that were destroying Liberia’s natural resources, which include a swath of tropical rainforest that is among the most biodiverse places on the planet.
In 2009, Brownell founded Green Advocates, a public-interest environmental law organization focused on ensuring that the income generated by the West African country’s agricultural and resource extraction operations benefits everyday Liberians, most of whom struggle endlessly to find enough to eat. Brownell, 54, now serves as Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Northeastern School of Law, in Boston. In April, he received the Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded annually to a handful of grassroots environmentalists working across the globe.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about how Liberia became so overrun by extractive industries and the steps its government can now take to ensure a brighter future for its citizens and natural resources.
Yale Environment 360: Liberia experienced two civil wars from 1989 to 2003. Was there a connection to the environment?
Alfred Brownell: What fueled the Liberian conflict was greed over the country’s natural resources: timber, diamonds, gold, rubber, iron ore. If you were to do a graphic, you would see that the major flash points were areas where you had dominant resources. In southeastern Liberia, those were the timber belts. The places where you had the diamond fields were highly contested. What really made the war come to an end was the cascading of United Nations Security Council sanctions on the country. Sanctions on timber, on diamonds, on arms shipments.
“There were complaints from communities, saying their land was being granted to companies without their consent.”
e360: What role did you play in exposing those connections?
Brownell: I was involved in investigating the companies and providing information about the major actors. I worked with Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Global Witness in lobbying for sanctions on timber, because the [Charles] Taylor government was using it to bring in arms and wage war. In 2003, we succeeded in getting sanctions on the forestry sector, and Taylor was indicted.
e360: When did the palm oil industry move in?
Brownell: When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took power in 2006, she tried to attract investment into Liberia. So the major mining and agricultural companies began coming in, the major oil and gas companies. There were complaints and protests from communities, saying their land was being granted to companies without their consent. Those issues drew our attention.
e360: You had worked on revising forestry laws and others related to community rights. So how were the palm oil companies, both based in Southeast Asia, able to get hundreds of thousands of acres of concessions?
Brownell: The government wasn’t respecting the laws that were on the books. The public land law mandates that before anyone can obtain rights to a deed, they must obtain the consent of communities. We went to the villages, and people could not say what was happening on their land. The palm companies had brought in 25-plus yellow [excavating] machines, and they were just clear-cutting the forest.
e360: The president was likely thinking, “We’ve just come out of two decades of war, our country is in a shambles, we need development, we need jobs. Maybe it’s a little painful in the short-run, but this is for the greater good down the line.” What do you say?
Brownell: You have to look at what has worked and what has not worked. This model of development that happened after the war, when Ellen [Johnson Sirleaf] took over, has not enriched Liberia. The companies have a responsibility as corporate citizens and the government has a responsibility to seek the best interests of the community.
e360: Was it a problem of ignorance or of people in government taking a payout?
Brownell: I would not say that it was ignorance. A lot of it was corruption. And a conceptualization of poor and indigenous people as primitive, as people who need to be saved. It goes back to your question about how Johnson Sirleaf said she was bringing development. No one went to these towns and villages and asked those people, “What kind of development do you need?” In whose interest do you bring development?
e360: How did you use the law to address the situation?
Brownell: Our first idea was to challenge the contracts in court, but it would have been a very long process. Then we found that the palm oil companies had signed on to a certification body called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in order to access investment. The RSPO requires its members to obtain free and prior informed consent of communities and indigenous people. It also insists that the companies not engage in deforestation. There were a series of principles and criteria, and the company was not following those, so we drew this to the attention of the country. When the government did not respond, we filed a complaint. The RSPO did an assessment and found that the complaint had merit and issued a stop order.
Then the problems started. The government realized the communities now had a voice. So the President came and said, “Stop this. You have no authority to challenge the investment we brought into the country. You are undermining the sovereignty of Liberia. Withdraw those complaints.” And the people said, “No, we cannot. We have a legal process. We want to negotiate with the companies.” The government was not happy. As we pursued the negotiations, the companies kept putting pressure on the government, the government kept putting pressure on the communities, and the whole situation of reprisals, of threats, of assassination attempts, and frivolous criminal charges escalated. I finally left the country because of these threats.
e360: Many criticize the RSPO for being an ineffective cover for industry.
Brownell: Those are very legitimate criticisms. When we filed our [first] complaint [against Malaysia-based Sime Darby], the RSPO had an independent assessor come and inspect the merits. I spent weeks following the assessor in the field. We documented, we took photos, and we insisted that at the end of the fieldwork, all the raw materials be available to all the parties, to make sure the final report was consistent with our findings. In the case of the other company, Golden Veroleum [Liberia’s largest palm oil company], the first mission from the RSPO tried to greenwash what was happening. We challenged them. We built partnerships with international NGOs, we encouraged media to come. The RSPO was then forced to hire an independent firm for a second verification mission.
“They tried to paste the Southeast Asian model [of oil palm plantations] into Liberia, and it didn’t work.”
e360: Where do the concessions stand now?
Brownell: Sime Darby had 220,000 hectares of concessions. As I speak, they have managed to clear only 10,500 hectares. The company tried to negotiate with the communities. The negotiation was going on, and there was a question about high carbon stock areas. And it became clear that in the areas where they wanted to pursue their operations, there are areas of high carbon stock, so clearing them would be in violation of RSPO principles.
e360: They must be losing a lot of money.
Brownell: Of course! They tried to paste the Southeast Asian model [of oil palm plantations] into Liberia, and it didn’t work. Now Sime Darby has some 200,000 hectares of stranded assets that it cannot claim. I am really wondering what is it they continue to tell their shareholders, their banks.
e360: There must be some people in the community who are happy to have jobs.
Brownell: You will always find some people who will support the elites who are benefitting. But if you go to a community and there are 300 farmers, and you took all their farmland, and you hire 50 of them, there are 250 left who don’t have a job, who have lost everything. The company is unable to hire all the people whose land was taken. That kind of business model is not sustainable.
e360: When I was there, I went to a clearing in the woods where people were processing palm oil with a very primitive machine. It could have been 200 years ago. Isn’t there something to be said for a modern mill and refinery?
Brownell: That is exactly what’s wrong with the narratives that come up. It’s the kind of conceptualization of indigenous people that is a major problem. Because people see that and think, “Oh, these are primitive people, and these are not enterprising processes.” But that is what the conversation should be around. You should integrate those kinds of enterprises, of young people who have set up an indigenous mill. What kind of premium should you give to this? Because those people have not destroyed the forest, have not destroyed their culture, their history. What is wrong with working with those folks to improve that kind of business model? To add value, to ensure that they can extract more oil? Not going and replacing that, and kicking them out.
Would you be more satisfied if you went and bought a lipstick, and you knew that it came from the kind of business that respected farmers’ rights? Would you pay more for something that enabled people to remain on the land, and all their history was respected?
e360: What should an American consumer do?
Brownell: When you buy a bar of soap, a lipstick, an ice cream, ask the companies where they are sourcing their palm oil. Insist that there’s better labeling, so that when you see this stuff, you know it’s come from a sustainable source.
e360: Before the awards ceremony in San Francisco, you protested in front of the headquarters of the investment management corporation BlackRock. Why?
Brownell: BlackRock has a contract for social purpose. The question was, ‘If this is what you believe in, then why are you investing in Golden Agri Resources [parent company of Golden Veroleum], which is carrying on this annihilation in my country?’ I would ask them to be more proactive. I would hope that the top executive of BlackRock would go to Liberia and see what Golden Agri is doing there.
e360: Universities are divesting from fossil fuels. Is palm oil in that conversation?
Brownell: We’re hoping that divestment from deforestation will happen very soon. We see how it is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why we are asking BlackRock to re-think that. I’d like to see the investments they make be much more sustainable, in line with their own social platforms.
e360: What about targeting the young people who are out on the front lines?
Brownell: My students are very energized. I am also involved with a number of high school students, and this is very much on the top of their minds. I’m part of a church group, the Unitarian Universalist church, where people are interested. In my neighborhood [in Boston], there’s a women’s group, the Mothers of Nature, who are very concerned. There’s a whole movement forming around defunding deforestation and land grabbing, and ensuring that investment is not only sustainable, but respects rights.
“Some NGOs asked the government directly if they would guarantee my security. I am still waiting to hear.”
e360: Developing country governments like those of Indonesia and Malaysia make the argument that the West has destroyed its forests and used fossil fuels to power its economy, now it’s their turn. Given the global importance of Liberia’s forests, are there efforts to secure international funding to keep them intact?
Brownell: It’s an important conversation we need to have. I tell my students, “We want to keep the forest in the ground. But can you decide now, that this holiday, instead of going to the Cayman Islands or the Bahamas or Paris, can you travel to Liberia? Can you go to the villages and spend some time in what I call an indigenous Airbnb? Go spend your tourist dollars on them, so that they don’t have to destroy the forest.”
e360: Has anything changed under the new president, George Weah [who was elected in 2017]?
Brownell: They have something called the Pro-Poor Agenda. But what does Pro-Poor Agenda mean if not investing in the people? If not respecting their land rights and developing their small businesses? Those 500 farmers in the village that they want to displace and give their land to these investors? Don’t displace them; invest in them. We need an innovative process that will allow for that balance of economic development with sustainability. Just imagine if we build a premium market on the [palm oil processing operation] that you saw in that village. Imagine if the food those people have developed was distributed around the world, in major hotels. The government needs to pursue the kind of development that will empower communities, so that you don’t have overseas assistance that provides millions and millions in development assistance and most of it ends up with high-paid consultants who go in and assess, and then the assessment of the assessment, and the assessment of the assessment of the assessment…
e360: Do you feel like you can return to Liberia, or will you still be under threat?
Brownell: Some NGOs asked the government directly if they would guarantee my security. I am still waiting to hear. But eventually I’m going to get to Liberia. There is no way anyone can stop us from protecting the largest carbon sink in the region, from being part of the critical conversation that we need to have. I was hoping the government would embrace this [Goldman] award as a positive development for the country and a time to re-think how it’s going to manage its resources. How it’s going to become a global leader in addressing climate change and use this gift that god has given Liberia, these forests, to play a serious role in West Africa. The President could use this award to draw attention and rebrand the country, given how it has been a pariah nation for so long, as the most sustainable in the region.