Protecting the ‘lungs of West Africa’

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Protecting the ‘lungs of West Africa’


Veronique Mistiaen speaks to environmental defender Alfred Brownell about the serious threat of palm-oil companies to the people of Sinoe County, Liberia, and their rich rainforests.

‘When we eat chocolate, fried chicken or ice cream, or put on nail varnish, this has effects across the ocean because one of the main ingredients of all these products is palm oil,’ says Alfred Brownell. He is one of the most important defenders of the environment and human rights in West Africa. ‘Because we want all these things, they keep selling it to us. But it destroys the forest and the communities who live in it. Because of palm oil, indigenous women are beaten and stripped naked and people have to leave their homes and go to prison,’ he adds with emotion.

Alfred knows this because he was the lawyer fighting for that woman and the indigenous communities in Sinoe, Liberia. They wanted to stop the destruction of the tropical rainforest – their home and where they get their food.

In his seven-year campaign, he was successful in protecting over half a million acres of Liberia’s tropical rainforest. A foreign palm-oil plantation developer wanted to cut the forest, but he stopped them, so the indigenous communities continue to look after it. What he did gives inspiration and hope to activists fighting against similar threats in other places.

But it was so difficult: Brownell faced violence and death threats, and had to leave Liberia and go with his family to live in the US. We spoke on Skype from Boston before he won the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa – the biggest prize in the world for grassroots environmental activists.

Liberia’s tropical forest is almost half of the Upper Guinean forest. This is one of the 25 most important places for biodiversity in the world. ‘In the past, all West and North Africa was covered in green forest. Now there’s only a small forest – and that’s in Liberia,’ says Brownell. These rich rainforests take in the CO2 we produce and they are a very important home for many endangered species – including chimpanzees, pygmy hippopotamuses and tree pangolins – and West Africa’s largest population of elephants live there.

But there is a big threat to these lungs of West Africa. The government wants economic development. When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (the first female head of state in Africa) was president, she sold 30 per cent of Liberia’s land to foreign investors. The government said that the land that indigenous people live on (but have no paperwork for) belongs to them. So the forests could be destroyed by big projects of industrial farming and mining.

In 2010, Golden Veroleum (GVL) – an agro-industrial company based in Southeast Asia – agreed to rent more than 291,744 hectares of forest from the Liberian government – to grow palm oil. Palm oil is the vegetable oil people use most in the world. And it is one of the biggest reasons for the destruction of the rainforest. It is found in thousands of everyday products such as margarine, biscuits and soap, and is also used a lot in biofuel.

Brownell can understand why President Sirleaf wanted to get money after the civil war. But if economic development destroys all the social and economic systems, it goes against the people. They need to think of the real value of 202,342 hectares of pure forest, the lungs of West Africa and the best technology to fight climate change. If the government gives this away, they make the country and the world poorer.

To prepare the land, GVL cleared community forests and cultural sites and did not tell the local people or pay them enough compensation. They destroyed farmland and sacred areas and made the water dirty. When local people complained, GVL and the government officials made threats and put them in prison.

Brownell started Green Advocates (GA), the first public-interest environmental and human rights organisation in Liberia. 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) – so they can work together on environmental justice.

In 2011, indigenous leaders in Sinoe County asked for help, Brownell started working. He knew that GVL needs certification from the global Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to sell its palm oil to big companies, such as Unilever and Cargill.

In 2012, Brownell worked with community members to complain to RSPO about GVL’s bad effects on the environment and lack of respect for community land rights. So RSPO ordered GVL to stop work. They could not plant any more palm oil or cut any more forest.


Alfred Brownell in the Northeastern University library in Boston, US.PHOTO: GOLDMAN ENVIRONMENTAL PRIZE

GVL then appealed and got more land from other local areas in exchange for jobs and other community benefits. When GVL didn’t do as they had promised, protests turned into fighting. Police destroyed houses and arrested people. People ran into the forests. Fifteen people were arrests and one died.

Brownell then got lots of international attention and GVL’s appeal was cancelled. Brownell saved 207,603 hectares of forest from destruction – about 94 per cent of the forest GVL had leased. Because he was successful, he got some powerful enemies. Brownell says that government officials called him an enemy of the state, stopping people investing in Liberia. He had death threats, police searched his home and attacked his colleagues. He was afraid for his life and freedom, so he left with his family to the US two years ago.

Brownell is now a research associate professor in the School of Law at Northeastern University in Boston. He teaches a course on human rights and global economy and he is training young activists. He is still fighting for the environment in Liberia and he hopes that the Goldman Environmental Prize will help him return to his homeland.

‘The prize belongs to all the indigenous people who have risked their lives 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 get more attention to their fight.’


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)