Monrovia – Cllr. Alfred Brownell, a lead environmental campaigner with the Green Advocates, has won the 2019 Goldman Prize. He’s the third Liberian to land the world’s topmost environmental award.
By James Harding Giahyue, New Narratives Senior Correspondent
The awarding body of the Goldman Prize recognized Brownell’s advocacy on oil palm concessionaires’ allegation of land grab, deforestation and forest degradations in southeastern Liberia.
“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 Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL),” it said in a statement.
Michael Abedi-Lartey, GVL’s Sustainability Manager said Brownell winning the award was “a welcoming news” but declined to comment further.
Brownell was among six people who received the award on Monday at an elaborate ceremony in San Francisco, United States of America.
The other five recipients of the award include 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.
The Goldman Environmental Prize has since 1990 recognized the efforts of people on each of six continents of the earth for “outstanding grassroots environmental achievements”.
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Palm oil concessionaires have acquired nearly 600,000 hectares of land beginning 2009 in Liberia as the country struggled to recover from 14-years of civil war. They were a good chunk of US$16 billion of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Liberia during the administration of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
But rural communities paid a huge price. Farmlands were cleared, secret forests brought down and sacred sites desecrated.
“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,” recalls Brownell, as he explained about the Butaw incident at the ceremony in the US.
In 2012, Brownell worked with communities in Butaw, Sinoe and lodged a complaint against Gold Veroleum Liberia (GVL) for alleged land grab.
This led the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)—the global oil palm watchdog—to place a stay order on GVL’s oil palm development in Sinoe. GVL signed a 65-year agreement with Liberia in 2010 to development 220,000 hectares of land in Sinoe, Grand Kru, River Cess, River Gee, and Maryland.
It was the second time Brownell had taken such matters to the RSPO for rural communities. He had in 2010 filed a similar complaint against Sime Darby, which signed a 63-year concession with Liberia for 220,000 hectares of land covering Bomi, Grand Cape Mount, Gbarpolu and Bong Counties. That complaint led to the Malaysian company paying damages to and giving the communities more benefits.
Francis Colee of Green Advocates told FrontPage Africa that the award “appropriately reflects Alfred’s struggle to secure land rights and protect historically underrepresented communities affected by large-scale land acquisitions for mining, agricultural and forestry concessions.”
Colee dedicated the award to rural communities. “We are particularly thankful to all communities throughout Liberia, more specifically Sinoe and Grand Cape Mount Counties, that stood up to challenge the paradigm of development that trivializes and ignores the human consequences of land acquisitions by corporate investors and the government of Liberia,” Colee said.
Success did not come on a silver platter. Brownell’s life was threatened on a number of occasions.
In one incident in June 2014, a mob of GVL workers attacked the vehicle Brownell and his colleagues in the Tarjuwon District. “They threatened to cut off my head, to eat my heart and drink out of my skull,” he told the Guardian. “They began a war dance around the car. They were drinking and said they would cannibalize me,” he added.
Brownell has been living on asylum in the Untied States since 2016. He ran into trouble with the administration of former President Sirleaf after over his alleged refusal to join the Government of Liberia’s legal team in the case of Guus Kouwenhoven, the Dutchman who smuggled arms for former President Charles Taylor as part of a timber deal.
Speaking while in hiding through Alloycious David, Green Advocates representative, Brownell said his issue with the government was more than a disagreement over the case involving Kouwenhoven.
“I was warned to find a secured place for me and my families as there were plans to go to my home and harass my family,” he told FrontPage Africa through David then. “I was informed by neighbors that plain clothes men were asking questions about my whereabouts and issuing threats that they would get me and teach me a lesson. I was also warned to cut of my phone as my conversation was being monitored.”
However, Brownell said he was willing to come home after more than two years in the States. “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,” he said. “We need to find a way to engage with them so I can go home.”
Two other Liberians have won the Goldman Prize: Alexander Peal and Silas Siakor. Peal won the award in 2000 for helping to establish the Sapo National Park as well as the Forestry Development Authority (FDA). Siakor clinched the award in 2006 after his advocacy against the use of timber money to fund Taylor’s war that was dubbed “conflict timber”.
“I am not surprised by the news, because he is one of the most deserving environmental activists on the continent,” Siakor told FrontPage Africa. “Hopefully, the prize will once again shine the spotlight on the myriad governance issues, human rights abuses, and environmental concerns related to oil palm plantation expansion on the continent.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as of a Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding is provided by the American World Jewish Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.