Liberian environmental activist Alfred Lahai Gbabai Brownell had to flee his home country in 2016 after he sued the government-supported company Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) to protect half-a-million acres of tropical forest. According to reports the government had granted a 65-year lease on about 2 200 square kilometers (850 square miles) of the land, located in Sinoe County, to Golden Veroleum Liberia in 2010. The Southeast Asia-based agro-industrial company was planning to use the land for palm oil plantations.
Apparently Brownell and his team collated legal evidence to demonstrate GVL’s malpractices, which included the intimidation and harassment of local residents, the destruction of forest land and homes, and the desecration of graves and sacred sites, as a result of the lease. He then went on to found Green Advocates International, Liberia’s first environmental law non-governmental organisation.
Brownell’s activities subsequently caught the attention of the international regulatory organisation Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which called for the cessation of the development on the land. Although this was a great win, it came at great personal cost when Brownell and his family were forced to flee the country due to arbitrary arrests, attacks and intimidation tactics.
Recalling one incident, Brownell told The Guardian newspaper, “They threatened to cut off my head, to eat my heart and drink out of my skull. They began a war dance around the car. They were drinking and said they would cannibalise me.” He was saved by the chief of the local village.
The activist landed on his feet, however, becoming Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Northeastern University School of Law Programme on Human Rights and the Global Economy in Boston, USA.
“They made a mistake when they chased me out of Liberia. We have been able to fight this case more than before because I now operate without fear or terror,” he was quoted by the CNN.
Goldman Environmental Prize 2019
This year is the 30th anniversary of the Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the Green Nobel Prize. The annual award honours grassroots environmental heroes from six continental regions: Europe, Asia, North America, Central and South America, Africa, and islands and island nations.
Brownell was among six people who received the award this year in San Francisco, USA. The other five recipients of the award were Bayara Agvaantseren of Mongolia, Alberto Curamil of Chile, Ana Colovic Lesoska of North Macedonia, Jacqueline Evans of Cook Islands and Linda Garcia of the United States of America, reports the Liberian daily newspaper Front Page Africa.
Susie Gelman, president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, said in a statement, “I am so moved and inspired by these six environmental trailblazers. Each of them has selflessly stood up to stop injustice, become a leader when leadership was critical, and vanquished powerful adversaries who would desecrate our planet. These are six ordinary, yet extraordinary, human beings who remind us that we all have a role in protecting the Earth.”
Commenting on Brownell specifically, the organisers said, “Under threat of violence, environmental lawyer and activist Alfred Brownell stopped the clear-cutting of Liberia’s tropical forests by palm oil plantation developers. His campaign protected 513 500 acres of primary forest that constitute one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, enabling indigenous communities to continue their stewardship of the forest.”
In response to receiving the prestigious award, the environmentalist said, “I hope this award will help change the minds of people in Liberia so we find more allies to speak to the government and the company. We need to find a way to engage with them so I can go home,” he said.
“It’s not just a struggle to protect remote towns and villages, or just to protect their sacred sites, or just to protect their land and their crops, their way of life, their culture, their religion,” Brownell said of his campaign. “It’s also about protecting these important forests in West Africa, which are producing oxygen and absorbing carbon and, in essence, making an enormous contribution in the mitigation of climate change.”