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“We Are the Firewall:” Alfred Brownell on Rights, Risk, and Resilience in Liberia

Alfred Brownell, Founder and Director of Green Advocates, a long-time grantee of the Fund for Global Human Rights based in Liberia. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

On October 10, more than 1.5 million Liberians—roughly a third of the population—voted in the third presidential election since the country’s civil war ended in 2003. The race featured 20 candidates vying to replace outgoing leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who became Africa’s first female president in 2005.

With no one winning over 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two candidates was slated for November 7th. However, allegations of fraud in the first round delayed the poll, which is only now being rescheduled. Meanwhile, Liberia’s citizens are anxiously awaiting the next chapter of their nation’s history. Their recent past includes 10 years of brutal dictatorship, 14 years of bloody civil conflict, a paralyzing Ebola outbreak, and another 14 years of fragile peace. It also includes countless stories of strength, rare courage, and resilience. Among these are the story of Alfred Brownell and his colleagues at Green Advocates, a long-time grantee of the Fund for Global Human Rights that works to protect Liberians’ natural resource rights.

Alfred has found himself watching Liberia’s election drama from afar. As the founder and director of Green Advocates, he was forced to flee his homeland in October 2016 due to threats on his life and liberty. He is currently a visiting Scholar at Northeastern University School of Law, where he is researching ways to develop a tool to rank how well governments protect the land rights of their citizens, especially poor communities and indigenous people. We recently sat down with Alfred to talk about the importance of natural resource rights to Liberia’s future, the threats he and his fellow human rights defenders face, and the role of funders in enabling this work.

Can you tell us about how Green Advocates was founded, and how it has grown since then?

Green Advocates was formally incorporated in 2000, but its roots stretch back to the mid-1990s, when I was studying law in Liberia’s capital. Through my studies, I hoped to address the disconnect between Liberia’s incredible natural resource wealth and the poverty in which most of her citizens lived—and continue to live. But I quickly realized that a law degree alone wasn’t going to be enough to protect our resources. We needed an organization. In this way, Green Advocates went from being an idea in my head, to an informal group of like-minded law students, to Liberia’s first public interest environmental law and human rights organization.

Seventeen years since its founding, Green Advocates has grown into a leading environmental and human rights group in Liberia. We contributed to the passage of some of the most progressive resource rights legislation in all of Africa. These laws contain key benefit-sharing arrangements between the government and communities. They also elevate customary land rights to the same status as private property rights.

Perhaps most importantly, we have helped establish in Liberia the principle of free prior and informed consent, which essentially gives local communities veto power over decisions by companies and government entities seeking to develop their land. Under this principle, communities can say “yes, we accept” or “no, we don’t accept.” Now codified in the laws of many countries in the region, this principle has its roots in policies and legislation we helped pass in Liberia.

Alfred leads a GIS mapping training for a local community in Liberia. Run by Green Advocates, these trainings teach communities how to identify the borders of their customary lands, helping them protect their resources from being exploited without their consent. Photo by Green Advocates

The Fund has been with Green Advocates from the beginning. Fifteen years ago, when we didn’t even have an office and I was completing my graduate degree in the United States, they made an initial investment into our organization. Since then, they have supported our work to protect Liberians’ rights to land, food, water, and other natural resources. In addition to litigation and policy advocacy, these efforts have included the establishment of three separate networks of local activists working to defend communities’ resource rights at the ground level.

Why are natural resource rights important, and how does Green Advocates help communities protect them?

In a country where most people live on less than $1 a day, land and waterways are critical to survival. Liberians gather food, medicinal herbs, and building materials from our forests, rivers, and oceans. Land also has cultural significance in Liberia, as even the most rural community has a designated burial ground where they can pray to their loved ones.

Despite this significance, the Liberian government has increasingly sold the rights to our resources to foreign investors and multinational corporations—particularly mining, agriculture, and oil companies. To give you an idea of the scope of this trend, the US Agency for International Development has estimated that as of 2013, over 50 percent of Liberia’s land had been granted to foreign investors. Local communities are rarely consulted before these deals are made or development begins.

Through education, litigation, and advocacy, Green Advocates helps communities defend their land and waterways from exploitation. We explain the value of their land and water rights, teach them how to manage their resources, help them build legal cases against actors trying to steal or exploit those resources, and push to ensure communal land concerns are reflected in government policies and legislation.

Our supporters always like to hear about the impact our grantees are having. Is there a particular success story that stands out in your memory?

One of our very first advocacy campaigns targeted Bridgestone, the tire company. Bridgestone owns Firestone Natural Rubber Company, which has been operating a rubber plantation in Liberia since 1926. Green Advocates was investigating several issues involving the company, but primarily their involvement in some serious environmental pollution.

Our investigation revealed that for more than 75 years, Firestone had dumped all their waste into a local river, despite the complaints of nearby communities. These communities depended on the river for fish, drinking water, and water to wash clothes and dishes. With support from the Fund, we mobilized our staff and civil society partners to draw attention to the situation. Armed with complaints from the communities, we took the case to the Environmental Protection Agency, which ordered Firestone to stop the direct flow of harmful waste into the river. The company then built a multimillion-dollar treatment facility to clean up the waste before dumping it—a huge win for the local people.

We’ve also helped curb child labor on the Firestone plantation. We found that the company was assigning quotas to their workers, and when they couldn’t meet them, the workers were sending their children to tap the rubber. The company knew about this, making them complicit in children’s rights violations. We launched a campaign that ultimately led to a lawsuit in the U.S. against Firestone’s parent company, Bridgestone. The combination of public pressure and legal action forced Bridgestone to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for child labor.

Our most recent victory involves Sime Darby, a Malaysian-owned company with a large palm oil plantation in northwestern Liberia. Years ago we launched a sustained advocacy campaign to expose the negative environmental and human rights impact of Sime Darby’s development policies, which were leading to dangerous levels of deforestation, as well as land grabs. Our work paid off last month, when Sime Darby announced that their approach in Liberia is not sustainable, and that they would revisit their plans to account for conservation and human rights concerns. They even committed to a zero tolerance policy for deforestation and will stop planting in certain areas in order to protect primary forests and respect communal land rights.

Aaron Abban (center, red shirt), the Administrator and Head of Green Advocates’ Community Rights Initiative, during a field training in rural Liberia. Photo by Green Advocates

I’d like to shift gears a little bit. I know in late 2016 Green Advocates staff were forced to flee their offices. Have they been able to return to work?

Yes, we have partially reopened—though I am still here in the United States, at least for the time being. We had to shut down in late 2016 due to escalating harassment, including threats of arrest and raids on our office. These attacks came from the top levels of government—powerful people who didn’t like what we were doing, and were particularly unhappy with me for refusing to join the government legal team in a high-profile case involving the owner of a timber company.

In the early 2000s, I had investigated the timber company’s violations of United Nations Security Council’s sanctions on Liberia, its use of private militias that recruited child soldiers, and its involvement in other human rights abuses. I shared this information with the Dutch government in 2005. The Government of Liberia tried to use this prior investigative human rights work as a pretext to attack, threaten, and have me arrested for my current work. Specifically, they were unhappy with my work to stop major oil palm companies from grabbing the land of communities and local people, as well my efforts to protect the last remaining portion of the upper Guinea forest—which is effectively the lungs of West and North Africa.

Having already survived an attempt on my life in 2014, this situation wasn’t new for me. Nor was it new for my colleagues and fellow environmental activists. Our work regularly puts us at odds with companies and government officials at all levels. These actors stand to turn a profit from development deals, and we stand in their way by demanding they consider the voices of those who will be most affected. But this harassment hit all new levels in 2016, when it seemed every one of us was under attack. Many of us, including myself, were forced to flee the country. Fortunately, the Fund and several other organizations in Europe and the US provided the support we needed to stay safe, which allowed us to maintain our dignity.

Can you tell us more about how the Fund and other groups helped keep you and your colleagues safe?

When our office was under attack by the government, our staff had to go into hiding. As a result, we didn’t have access to our bank accounts, didn’t have access to any monthly salaries or allowances. We couldn’t feed our families or communicate with one another. The Fund and the other groups stepped in to ensure we had the financial support to access transportation, buy food for our families, and seek medical attention.

Alfred Brownell (left) and Francis Colee (right) of Green Advocates posing for a picture with David Mattingly, VP of Programs at the Fund for Global Human Rights. This picture was taken during an international land rights conference hosted by Alfred at Northeastern University on December 7 and 8. Photo by David Mattingly

These organizations knew that we were already compromised, so they found very creative ways of getting money to us. They thought outside the box, and that allowed us to not only survive, but to also take legal action against the government. Despite our precarious situation, our lawyers in Liberia were able to go to court and challenge the warrants issued for us. Make no mistake, the government wanted to completely shut down Green Advocates. Without the Fund and the other groups, it would’ve been a complete disaster. A major human rights organization would have closed, and that firewall that protects local communities and indigenous peoples would have been destroyed.

Do you feel secure at the office now? What are some of the ongoing threats facing Green Advocates?

I can’t speak about the specific security measures we are taking, but I can say that the security issues remain acute, and that both our staff and our community clients are still being targeted with harassment.

Do you have any advice for donors interested in supporting groups like Green Advocates?

Fund our security needs. A lot of donors will not give grants to support our security, even though our lack of sufficient security undermines the projects they support. Say, for example, we get a grant to run a land rights training program in a community. If the donor won’t include funds for the security implications of that work, we may not be able to execute it.

We’ve also seen a lot more attacks against women land rights defenders in Liberia. The last thing we want to do is send women in our network into vulnerable situations. In the absence of sufficient security equipment and protocols, these women have been arrested, beaten, and stripped naked by the police. An appropriate communications system, for example, would help mitigate some of this so they can call for help when they feel threatened.

Radiatu Sheriff, Financial Officer for Green Advocates and head of the organization’s affiliated Natural Resource WOMEN Platform, teaches a community about climate change and human rights. Photo by Green Advocates

Is there anything else you want to say to our community of supporters, either about your work or the work of human rights defenders more broadly?

I have heard concerns that after decades of supporting global human rights work, some funders are growing fatigued and frustrated that the human rights situation is not improving. Some are questioning whether their investment is paying off and whether they should continue funding human rights work, especially in the global south. Well I have news for them!

Human rights is not a dollar and cents issue. What value do you place, what price should you pay, for preventing a war crime or genocide? Who can put on a price tag on the numerous campaigns, trainings, and interventions that international, national, and local human rights organizations have mounted—efforts that have helped educate a broad range of national and international stakeholders about protecting, defending, and respecting human rights, and remedying human rights violations?

When donors think about the challenges we face, it’s important to look at the actors involved. It’s basically a David and Goliath situation; but as Green Advocates has shown, with the right passion, commitment, and tools, David can win. An example is our anti-child labor and environmental pollution campaign in Liberia. Compare Green Advocates to Bridgestone, which owns Firestone plantation. This company has $26.4 billion in annual sales—that’s even bigger than the Government of Liberia—but we were able to stand up to them and give them a run for their money. Even though there are still serious human rights and environmental issues, Firestone plantation is better than what it was in 2005.

Yet people still say that they don’t see human rights violations being stopped. But just consider if we didn’t intervene, what would have happened? Where would we be? Bridgestone spent millions on a waste treatment facility. Bridgestone promulgated a zero-tolerance policy for child labor. Bridgestone was forced to build new workers housing, expand the school system from 9th grade to 12th grade for children of employees, agreed to allow workers democratically elect their union leaders, reduced workers quotas, etc. Please tell me, what is the price tag for this?

That’s why investing in human rights work is so important. In Liberia, by investing in human rights, you’re actually investing in conflict resolution. Imagine if Bridgestone’s Firestone plantation had continued to dump waste into the river, and continued to use child labor. There would have been unrest, local communities would have gotten angry and attacked the company. And that conflict could have led to another war. Funders must remember: we are the firewall.