A Liberian lawyer, who stopped the destruction of over half a million acres of the country’s tropical forests, has been awarded the prestigious Goldman Environment Prize.
Alfred Brownell, 53, was forced to flee Liberia and remains exiled in the United States after he mounted a campaign against Singapore-controlled Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), one of the world’s biggest palm oil producing companies.
But pursuing the case came at a hefty price for the lawyer who says he faced intimidation and death threats after his campaign
The Goldman Environment Prize will be presented Monday at a ceremony in San Francisco and is awarded annually to six grassroots activists from six different continents who have taken action and risked their lives to protect the planet.
“Brownell’s fearless activism in the face of intimidation, harassment, and death threats has protected 513,500 acres of Liberia’s threatened forests - about 94% of the forest leased to GVL,” the awarding body said in a statement.
Other winners of the top environment prize include South American activist Alberto Curamil and Ana Colovic Lesoska from North Macedonia who spent seven years campaigning against two large hydropower plants planned for the national park.
A struggling economy
In 2010, the Liberian government leased 543,600 acres of land to GVL to cultivate palm oil in Sinoe County in Liberia’s southwest in a bid to attract foreign direct investment into the country struggling to get back on its feet after years of a cold-civil war that depleted the nation’s economy.
But protests broke out against the company shortly after it began operation over allegations that GVL was clearing rainforests and it did not obtain people’s consent before taking over their land.
Residents complained their sacred sites, and ancestral graves were being wiped out in the process.
“The traditional leaders came to my office to intervene, that their farmlands were being wiped out. We saw how bulldozers were clearing their farms, tree crops, and palm oil plantation,” said Brownell.
CNN has made repeated attempts to obtain a comment from GVL but did not immediately receive a response.
Protecting endangered wildlife, forests
To stop the clearing of the forest land, Brownell worked with community members in October 2012 to file a complaint with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), prompting an investigation into the company’s operations in the disputed area.
RSPO’s complaints panel said GVL had failed to meet up to its obligations to the communities.
The global body placed a ‘stop work’ order on the company’s operations in Sinoe County and asked them to renegotiate its agreement in disputed areas.
For challenging the case, Brownell said his staff and associates were threatened with imprisonment. The face off with authorities reached fever pitch in 2016.
“My colleagues and staff were being harassed by officers in plainclothes. Some were sent to my home, and I had to stay in a safe house for days because there was a manhunt for me,” the activist said.
CNN contacted a spokesman for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was ruling the country at the time but was unable to obtain a comment immediately.
Overnight, Brownell says he was forced to abandon his home with his family and seek refuge in the United States.
However, he continues to fight for the conservation of rainforests in his home country, which are still under threat.
“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,” said Brownell, who is now a distinguished scholar in residence at Northeastern University in Boston.
More than 60 percent of Liberia’s 4.8 million people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.
GVL’s plantation is near Liberia’s rainforests covering more than half of the Upper Guinean Forest – a forest land spread from Sierra Leone to Nigeria.
It is home to a large population of elephants and endangered species such as tree pangolins, chimpanzees and pygmy hippos.
The lawyer hopes the Goldman prize recognition will inspire other civil societies and indigenous communities to continue the fight against injustices.
“Most governments have this idea that indigenous people are poor, miserable folks who need charity and jobs from foreign investors to change their lives, and that must change,” Brownell told CNN.
“These are people who already have farms and plantations, the government and investors must dialogue with them for sustainable business models to avoid conflict,” he added.