Alfred Brownell almost lost his life defending the rights of forest communities in his native Liberia. He escaped the country in 2016, and now works as a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Northeastern University's School of Law in Boston, Massachusetts. But the forest and villages back home are not far from his mind.
Liberia's Upper Guinea Forest is the largest intact forest in West Africa. According to Brownell, the ecosystem is home to 2,000 kinds of flowering plants, 1,000 different insects, 240 varieties of trees and 150 mammals (including the region's iconic but endangered pygmy hippopotamus).
"The forest is a biodiversity hotspot," he explained. "It's a carbon sink reservoir and thus the lungs of the region."
The forest also provides livelihoods and ecosystem services, such as food and water, for thousands of West African people. Now multinational businesses have their eyes on the forest too. Palm oil — found in food, cosmetics and biofuel — is the world's most-used vegetable oil. Demand for this ubiquitous ingredient is driving the industry's expansion in West Africa, often onto land held by indigenous peoples and rural communities.
Standing Up to Powerful Interests
It was 2009 when palm oil companies ventured in to the Upper Guinea Forest. That's when Sime Darby signed a 63-year concession to develop more than 500,000 acres of land into oil palm and rubber plantations.
"Sime Darby and Golden Agri Resources (GAR) were awarded large land deals for palm oil, amounting to almost one million acres," Brownell said.
Both corporations are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international network of companies, investors and NGOs that certifies producers of sustainable palm oil. Yet despite RSPO's criteria, Sime Darby and GAR subsidiary Golden Veroleum encroached on Liberia's forests without consent from the local communities.
Brownell said in the months following the companies' entry, Green Advocates received complaints from affected communities about human rights and environmental abuses by the corporations. They alleged that they faced harassment and intimidation, and that several sacred sites were desecrated. His organization sprung into action.
In 2011, Green Advocates provided legal counsel to the villagers and partnered with other NGOs to file a community complaint to RSPO's grievance system, a mechanism to address complaints against member companies. They first raised a complaint against Sime Darby for failing to adhere to RSPO principles. RSPO issued a stop order, mandating that the company consult with affected communities and obtain their consent before operating on their land.
In 2012, Green Advocates filed a second complaint, this time against Golden Veroleum. RSPO issued another stop order, ordering the company to negotiate a settlement with affected communities.
Corruption and Coercion Pose Barriers to Environmental Justice
It was then that Green Advocates and villagers faced retaliation. Brownell said the Liberian government, rather than helping the community members, criminalized them. The police harassed, arrested and imprisoned several leaders and activists, one of whom died in prison. Brownell said some community members eventually had to flee into the forest for over a year, while their villages transformed into ghost towns with elite police units standing watch.
"I was lucky," Brownell noted. "Many defenders are not that lucky."
Brownell says that when he led a team from RSPO on a fact-finding mission, a private security company hired by Golden Veroleum "threatened to kill me, tear off my heart, and use my skull as a mug," prompting his family's departure from Liberia. "I escaped an assassination attempt on my life, but nothing was more troubling and disturbing than when poor villagers evicted from their land also had to face the brutality of elite police forces," he said.
In 2016, the government issued warrants for Green Advocates staff's arrests. The office was forced to shut down from October 2016 to March 2017, only reopening after an international campaign by other human rights and environmental organizations and a lawsuit filed by Green Advocates lawyers.
Brownell and his team went into hiding during this time, but still they pursued the Upper Guinea Forest communities' complaints against Golden Veroleum. At the end of RSPO's fact-finding mission, the organization affirmed its order for the palm oil company to stop its operations in Liberia. Complaints against Golden Veroleum were still being filed last August. In February, Golden Veroleum was removed from the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.
Both companies continue to operate in Liberia, although Sime Darby has considered exiting the country. Sime Darby has so far cleared and planted 25,946 acres, while Golden Veroleum cleared 123,552 acres. Brownell's work saved a corner of the Upper Guinea Forest for now, but the kind of corruption Green Advocates faced is a common barrier preventing Liberians from accessing environmental justice. Golden Veroleum has even attempted to withdraw from the RSPO; threatening areas that are now protected.
"There are few pro bono or public interest lawyers, followed by funders' lack of interest in funding lawyers to challenge the government," Brownell said. "Private funders need to increase funding to public interest lawyers and their organizations."
Defending Environmental Defenders
The threats Brownell faced are hardly unique. More than 200 people were killed in 2017 while defending their land and environment, according to Global Witness.
"I feel a deep sense of duty and obligation to represent the voices of those martyrs," Brownell said. "What is more important than defending the planet and its people? My life comes from the Earth; therefore it is worth my life to defend it and its people."