Alfred Brownell thought he had breathed his last.
The Liberian attorney's work to stop the construction of a massive palm oil plantation in one of his country’s last remaining rainforests had enraged the company that wanted to build it. Now they wanted to have him killed.
So, Brownell, trapped in a car by a gang of company thugs and facing a roadblock of giant logs, sat and waited to die.
“Some of the leaders came to the car and said, ‘Today is going to be your end. You’re never going to stop this company anymore. We are going to eat your heart. We're going to take out your heart and eat it.'"
“Some of the leaders came to the car and said, ‘Today is going to be your end. You’re never going to stop this company anymore. We are going to eat your heart. We're going to take out your heart and eat it,’” Brownell says. "And then someone says, ‘In fact, my boss is waiting for your skull. He's going to turn it into a mug. He’s going to drink his palm wine from your skull.’
“The colleagues who were in my car had all given up,” he continues. “Some of the folks in the vehicle had already fainted. So I didn't know what to do. I just kept praying. … And I was just waiting for my time.”
Only a dispute with a local chief and a fracas that broke out among the attackers themselves saved him. In the chaos, Brownell’s car managed to escape and bring him to another village, where for days Brownell moved from house to house under cover of darkness.
Ultimately, Brownell prevailed against the company, but at a great personal cost: He and his family were forced to flee Liberia with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Now, Brownell’s courage has been recognized with a 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize. And he would do it again, he says.
“What more of an honor is there than to fight for this planet, to fight for this forest, to fight for a way of life of people who are preserving it,” Brownell says. “It's a life worth giving. If no one is prepared to lay their life down, to fight to preserve Mother Nature, to protect this planet, to ensure that generations unborn will come and have a safe and healthy environment, and clean water and soil that is not poisoned by agrochemicals and species in nature that are protected, that allow for generations unborn to perpetually and continually serve — if you're not able to give your life for that, then what cause are you able to stand up for?
“The sort of threat we now face, because of the way our forests and landscape are being destroyed, that is now warming of our planet, that is now creating the sort of challenges that the world now faces — drought, flood, forest fires, mass migration, poverty, and conflict. If the world and the planet are not worth the battle, if you are not able to stand up and allow yourself to be counted, and put your life on the line to fight for that, what else are you prepared to give your life up for? What is the meaning of your life? What is the meaning of your purpose on this planet?”
Liberia’s Upper Guinean rainforest is the largest in the region. Nicknamed the “lungs of West and North Africa,” it is a huge carbon sink and a biodiversity hotspot. Most importantly, the forest is home to many Indigenous people.
Entire villages and shrines bulldozed
“It represents their history, their culture, their tradition, their way of life,” Brownell says. “They refer to the forest as their supermarket. This is where they go and get the food. They refer to the forest as their pharmacy. This is where they go and have its medicinal plants. They refer to the forest as their university. This is where they teach the young people about the way of the tribes and the culture; how to become farmers — sustainable farmers; how to develop Indigenous business enterprises.”
But, in a multi-billion dollar deal, the Liberian government signed away about 800,000 acres of the rainforest to a company called Golden Veroleum Liberia, without consulting local communities and without even mapping the area, Brownell says. Claiming authority from the government, the company began evicting people from their land and clearing the forest.
“I have seen entire towns and villages completely bulldozed by these companies. ... I have seen streams and creeks poisoned. I've seen people’s shrines — religious sites, their gods — desecrated. I have seen burial grounds of their great warriors, their tribal chiefs, those who established their towns and villages desecrated. … So, I had to act.”
When Brownell heard about the plan and visited the area, he was shocked. “I have seen entire towns and villages completely bulldozed by these companies,” he describes. “I have seen streams and creeks poisoned. I've seen people’s shrines — religious sites, their gods — desecrated. I have seen burial grounds of their great warriors, their tribal chiefs, those who established their towns and villages desecrated. … So, I had to act.”
Thinking perhaps the government was unaware of the destruction, Brownell and other activists informed government officials, going from one ministry and agency to another to complain. They organized massive press conferences to draw attention to the situation. No one cared, he says.
“This was not a venture that was intended to fail,” Brownell says. “It was too big to fail. This was intended to transform Liberia into a desert of oil palm. So we had to find a way to organize.”
The plan was to challenge the government’s grant of the land rights, on the basis that it had no authority to lease them to a transnational corporation on land that Indigenous people have existed on and occupied for centuries before the existence of Liberia. But given the government’s involvement and given that they had already ignored all of the activist’s pleas, Brownell felt sure they would not have prevailed in court. So, he found another way.
He learned that Golden Veroleum belongs to an international consortium of businesses called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The Roundtable is a certification body that ensures palm oil companies are engaged in sustainable production and marketing.
And certification is not just about a label, Brownell discovered. Without certification, many palm oil companies are not able to obtain financing for their projects. Banks, investors, shareholders, suppliers and, increasingly, consumers want to know a company has been certified by the Roundtable before a project can move forward.
“So we filed a complaint,” Brownell says. “We actually said, ‘We are open to an independent assessment and verification of the allegations we made.’ And they took the bait.”
The Roundtable came to Liberia to investigate and “they found that we were right,” Brownell says. “Every single bit.”
When the Roundtable found that Golden Veroleum had paid local people only a tiny percentage of the market value for the orange trees they counted on to help support themselves, it instructed the company to stop further clearing, sit down and negotiate with the villagers, and develop a work plan with the consent of the communities.
But the company did none of these things, Brownell says. They continued to take land and they pressured the Liberian government to put a stop to Brownell’s investigation of their compliance. That’s when the threats started.
“We were being labeled as anti-country, anti-development, anti-investment,” he says. “My very citizenship was being questioned, that I was not a patriotic Liberian. How dare I challenge an investment that will build the infrastructure and generate revenue and create employment.”
Nevertheless, he and his colleagues continued to report to the certification body that Golden Veroleum was not following their order. They organized the first fact-finding mission ever done by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to ensure that one of its members was following their instructions.
'We're not going to allow you to touch our lawyer'
When the Roundtable team came to Liberia, the activists took them to a place called Tarjuowon, in Sinoe County, where Golden Veroleum had decided to build a mill on a site known as Palloh Hill.
“This was a shrine, a religious site of the Blogbo people in Sinoe Tarjuowon, the Indigenous people, who every year would go and pray and pay homage to their ancestors. ... It was so revered; it was so sacred. And this was where the company decided that they would make the site for their mills.”
“This was a shrine, a religious site of the Blogbo people in Sinoe Tarjuowon, the Indigenous people, who every year would go and pray and pay homage to their ancestors,” Brownell explains. “It was so revered; it was so sacred. And this was where the company decided that they would make the site for their mills.”
The locals decided to show this to the fact-finding mission. When they entered the site, they witnessed the earth-moving equipment that was tearing down the shrines.
“When I turned around to look at these community people, some folks just dropped on the soil,” Brownell says. “People were just crying, they were just crying. They just couldn't believe that their religious site, their shrine, had been completely torn apart."
Even as they were doing this inspection, Golden Veroleum and “maybe some actors in the government” decided that Brownell and his group had gone too far. “That would have been the day I was taking my last breath,” Brownell says.
On the journey back from this operation area, he and the group encountered the roadblock and the angry gang that planned to kill him. When they managed to escape, they went to a village in Buto, where the original campaign had begun.
“The company guys tried to chase us out there and the Buto people came and said, ‘We're not going to allow you to touch our lawyer,’” Brownell says. “We stayed there for about five days, protected by the Indigenous people.”
A few months after Brownell made it safely home, his office was burglarized and documents and financial records stolen. Unfamiliar vehicles started following him. Then, five years of the organization’s bank records were stolen. Stories were written in the media accusing Brownell of using donor money as a personal slush fund.
“But I continued to persevere,” Brownell says. “And to be honest with you, I felt that it was worth the fight. It was worth the battle. If I faced the same attack again, I would go on.”
After a raid on his office by the police, however, Brownell felt he could no longer put his family through any more danger.
“I left Liberia, just in one suit, the day my office was attacked by the police,” he says. “I was not able to go back to my office, nor to my home. My family left in just the clothes they had on. I had to grab my kids. Friends had to help me to take my wife and my kids along with me out of the country and quickly fly me to a third country before I came to the US.”
The Liberian government felt they had won a great victory and believed they could go back to business as usual, but as it turns out, Brownell, says, his removal was their biggest mistake. Brownell was offered a job at Northeastern University in Boston. From there, he was able to continue the fight, in some ways more effectively than before.
"When I came to Northeastern University, they offered me a refuge and gave me a platform, a desk to continue my work in dignity,” he explains. "Here in the US, I had a platform; I had a group of students who were ... supporting with research; I had professors who were assisting me; I had an office, I had 24-hour electricity, I had 24-hour high-speed internet. So, I could sit down and tell the story. I could sit down and continue to put pressure on the certification body.”
And in August of 2018, a year and a half later, when Golden Veroleum launched its appeal against the complaint, they lost.
Goldman Environmental Prize
Lucky to be alive
Brownell says that, unlike other activists he has known, he is lucky to be alive. But he wants the rest of the world to know what this fight is about.
“[Palm oil] is an ingredient that you wouldn't even notice if you walk into your supermarket or grocery store or you bought a bottle of soap... or you went into McDonald's and bought your fast food or you went to Kentucky Fried Chicken and [got] your fries and chicken or if you're someone who loves lipstick ... or you love ice creams,” he says. “You have no idea that palm oil is all over you. It's all over you."
“While you are ... enjoying the flavor that [palm oil] brings and the happiness and joy that it brings to you and your family on this side of the world, it is raining destruction on another side of the world."
“And while you are enjoying this, both beautifying yourself and enjoying the flavor that [palm oil] brings and the happiness and joy that it brings to you and your family on this side of the world, it is raining destruction on another side of the world,” he continues. “While you were beautifying yourself as a lady, there were women who were being flogged, who were being stripped naked and chained in prison.”
“There was a history, there was a culture, there was a religion, there were the shrines of people who have been desecrated,” he says. “This is what the palm oil was doing to that country.”