By Kevin Murray
A well-known human rights and environmental lawyer in his native Liberia, Brownell has always done work that raised eyebrows. He came of age in a country wracked by not one, but two bloody civil wars. He took a law degree in hopes of being able to do something to address the injustices he saw in his country.
His experience as a law student at the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, University of Liberia, kindled what was to become a lifelong interest in Liberia’s environment. In 1997, while still a student, that interest led him to form Green Advocates, the first Liberian nongovernmental organization dedicated to environmental law.
When Alfred moved to New Orleans in early 2001 to seek an LL.M degree from Tulane University, his plan was to eventually return and work for the Liberian Government Environmental Protection Agency. Brownell was already the co-author of Liberia’s framework environmental laws.
Brownell returned to Liberia in 2004, it was not so clear that working with the government was the best way to addresses the injustice that he saw everywhere. “Looking at the human rights violations all across Liberia, I decided that I needed to find a way to directly help the people who were suffering from those violations the most. At that time, work in government was just not going to be the way to do that. I decided to make it my priority to develop Green Advocates into the organization that Liberia needed.”
Alfred and his colleagues slowly started to build a reputation as a public interest law organization that would take on situations that other lawyers preferred to avoid. Between 2004 and 2006, Green Advocates was involved in a number of major events that brought local, national and international attention to the work of the organization. These included:
- Blocking a land grab by the subsidiary of European multinational, SOCFIN, parent company of the Liberian Agriculture company
- Petitioning Liberia’s Supreme Court to stop the sale of iron ore stockpiles to a Chinese company;
- Addressing child labor and other scandalous labor conditions on rubber plantations operated by Bridgestone/Firestone; and
- Demanding (and achieving) the cancellation of illegal timber concessions negotiated by the government of Charles Taylor.
After the Bridgestone/Firestone case, Brownell and his colleagues continued to work on important cases in Liberia, but also became deeply involved in international human rights advocacy.
Around 2009, the Green Advocates office began to receive inquiries from villagers who were being displaced as the result of big land deals between the Liberian government and outside investors interested in establishing large-scale agricultural and mining operations in Liberia. The government was brushing aside the customary arrangements through which these communities had gained access to land for generations, in favor of lucrative leases to these multinational corporations. Many of the most important land acquisitions were designed to allow foreign companies set up palm oil plantations.
“What could we do? We knew that the amounts of money changing hands in these deals would make it dangerous to oppose them, but we also knew that these concessions were illegal and immoral. With people showing up at our offices in Monrovia every day to ask for help, we had no choice but to get involved.”
In addition to using judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to slow or stop these deals, Green Advocates joined an international discussion about how palm oil might be cultivated in a manner sustainable in social, economic and environmental terms. While this work has gained Green Advocates accolades around the world, it made them important and dangerous enemies at home.
Kevin Murray is Executive Director of the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy at Northeastern University School of Law