Opinion

This Liberian lawyer has withstood presidents, multinationals and militias – FrontPageAfrica

This article is part of an editorial partnership with the Fund for International Human Rights.

Twenty-two years ago Alfred Brownell might see an issue. The government of his country, Liberia, was awarding contracts for the exploitation of pure assets without consulting native communities; forest and mineral assets have been being taken away with no questions asked.


By Wade Williams


“It was at a time when a very notorious company called OTC and many other companies were cutting down the forest for timber and no benefit was going back to the people,” Brownell says.

Then a regulation scholar in the capital, Monrovia, Brownell challenged President Charles Taylor and his government on the operations of OTC – the Oriental Timber Company. The company was later found to be involved in arms smuggling, Taylor is in prison for conflict crimes and crimes towards humanity – and Alfred Brownell has just been awarded the African Goldman Environmental Prize for 2019 at a ceremony in San Francisco.

Brownell’s organisation, Inexperienced Advocates, has turn into a household identify in Liberia as a champion of customary rights to land and natural assets for indigenous communities. He is serving to hundreds of people around the nation to struggle multinational corporations and regain their rights.

Sowing seeds

In 2003 when the conflict to oust Taylor was raging in Monrovia, Brownell had simply graduated with a degree in Environmental Regulation from Tulane Regulation Faculty in New Orleans, Louisiana, the earlier yr. Green Advocates was nonetheless an concept and Brownell had no money – solely a imaginative and prescient..

The Fund for International Human Rights gave Green Advocates its first seed cash in 2003 of $10,000 after Brownell returned to Liberia following the ouster of Taylor and Green Advocates started operations from a tiny workplace in Monrovia.

“Our very reason for being is taking those smart risks”
John Kabia, The Fund for International Human Rights

“We did not have a bank account; we were not a formal organisation,” recollects Brownell.

“The Fund for Global Human Rights had a lot of confidence in me. They awarded me the grant even without a formal structure in place.”

John Kabia works for The Fund for International Human Rights as programme officer for thematic initiatives. He has worked intently with Green Advocates through the years and says that the shortage of a monitor report meant that the Fund was taking a danger, however it was a danger value taking.

“We feel at the Fund that our very reason for being is taking those smart risks, because that is the only way you can identify and support new and emerging actors and new ideas,” he says.

He says it is convenient for worldwide donor organisations to help teams they already know. The edge for approving help is about very excessive, making it troublesome for small and emerging groups like Green Advocates to realize recognition and help to advance their work. Nevertheless, seed funding can present an organisation the required credibility and opportunities it wants to attract help from different funders and partners.

“Often times if people are given the opportunity and investment to turn their ideas into reality, you’d be amazed by what they can do. I think the example is Alfred and Green Advocates,” he says.

“Seeing how Alfred and the communities have mobilised and successfully pushed for major policy and legal reform is impressive. I think that type of smart risk-taking is what many other donors and development partners should be taking on.”

But for such risks to be sustainable, Kabia famous that it’s crucial for seed funding not to be a one-off, short-term help. “Change doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “Long-term and capacity-building support needs to accompany an initial seed grant in order for promising organisations to thrive and reach their full potential.”

Massive concessions, huge authorities

Back in 2003, Liberia was simply rising from battle and Brownell knew that the nation lacked experience on land and pure assets governance.

“It was sad to see a country with a natural-resource-endowed economy [where] its lawyers were not learning anything about natural resources or environmental laws,” says Brownell. “I said we have to use the law to help our people.”

“When I graduated, we worked to set up Green Advocates to provide support to the poor, marginalised, vulnerable, who had no voice. To focus our effort on creating policies to protect people through advocacy and campaigning for regulations.”

In 2005, Brownell partnered with over a dozen different local organisations and took on the transitional authorities of Liberia headed by the late Charles Gyude Bryant. It was the first post-war problem to the federal government of Liberia by rights teams. The federal government had awarded contracts to a Chinese company for the shipment of iron ore from the port of Buchanan towards the needs of the residents. A subpoena was issued by the Supreme Courtroom of Liberia to cease it, however the government defied the courtroom and shipped the ore anyway.

Brownell and others reviewing the Sime Darby operation in Grand Cape Mount County | Green Advocates. All rights reserved.

After successfully difficult a authorities contract to ship iron ore from the port of Buchanan towards the needs of local individuals, Brownell and Inexperienced Advocates started to increase their work. Both the government and the companies that profited from concessions to take advantage of Liberia’s natural assets began to see them as a menace. Green Advocates was involved in large public sensitisation about land rights throughout the nation, and began taking over corporations as big because the US tyre and rubber multinational Firestone, the Malaysian palm oil big Sime Darby and Golden Agri-Assets, the world’s largest oil palm conglomerate – to not mention the federal government of Liberia itself.

One of many largest instances concerned Firestone, Liberia’s largest and oldest rubber concession-holder. For 75 years it had dumped all its waste into the Farmington River locally of Owens Grove. That blatantly violated Liberian legal guidelines prohibiting the discharge of waste into the water system. Green Advocates filed complaints that led Firestone to create a waste remedy facility after virtually a century of operations. The organisation additionally partnered with other rights teams in a US lawsuit that accused Firestone of using youngster labour. After six years of litigation Firestone gained that case, however considerably the decide ruled that corporations may be sued in the US for human rights abuses outdoors the country. In addition, Firestone was pressured to introduce reforms that addressed the basis causes of child labour in its plantation. This included decreasing the quotas for staff, to stop them having to deliver their youngsters to work, and constructing extra faculties inside its concession area.

Doing it for the individuals

By this time Brownell was at odds with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had develop into president in 2006. As Africa’s first elected female head of state she had gained admirers all over the world; in 2011 she shared the Nobel Peace Prize. But her international eulogists turned a blind eye to some dubious actions at house: by 2010 her authorities had awarded large amounts of land to agriculture corporations via a ‘backdoor’ scheme, despite agreeing to landmark land reform.

“You’re talking about 300,000 hectares of forest land without consulting the people” says Brownell. “There was no mapping or surveying to know where the land was, who grew what on the land or what the cultural impact was on the people.”

“They took away our land. They took away our traditional educational institutions. Everything has been damaged by the company.” –
Massa P. Toure, Pure Assets Ladies Platform

Massa P. Toure of the Natural Assets Ladies Platform knows what that influence seems like, nevertheless. She lives in Grand Cape Mount, a western county the place Sime Darby operates. She needed to abandon her ancestral house of Johnson City and move to a different city about two hours away because of the palm oil firm’s enlargement.

Toure’s life and that of her group has drastically changed because the coming of Sime Darby. She stated the group has lost its id. The mother of 4, who can also be a widow, stated that native individuals weren’t consulted earlier than the corporate got here.

“They took away our land. They took away our traditional educational institutions. Everything has been damaged by the company,” she says.

Brownell educating the area people tips on how to determine the borders of their customary lands, helping them shield their assets from exploitation | Inexperienced Advocates. All rights reserved.

“We did not know anything about rights, until Green Advocates came and started having meetings and talking to us about these rights. Green Advocates helped us understand land rights and women’s rights to land.”

She says that ladies who work for Sime Darby can’t complain about working circumstances for worry of dropping their jobs and harassed the significance of organisations like Inexperienced Advocates in pushing corporations to respect individuals’s rights.

Brownell says that Green Advocates’ first grant from the Fund for International Human Rights, and the organisation’s ongoing help over 16 years, has given other funders confidence to offer revenue that has supported other tasks. For example, Green Advocates has additionally gone on to determine the Alliance for Rural Democracy and the Pure Assets Ladies Platform, and was key to the formation of the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Useful resource Rights and Governance Platform, which now covers eight west African nations.

The battle will get actual

As Brownell was preventing to help communities understand their rights to the land and push corporations to reform and make insurance policies that might benefit the local population within the concession areas, he additionally faced a battle of his own. A battle for personal security.

Brownell and his employees got here close to demise on several events whereas on their many trips in rural areas. On one occasion, in Tarjuwon, Sinoe County, individuals had complained that Golden Veroleum Liberia had decided to assemble an oil mill on a website that was used for annual spiritual worship. They resisted and Green Advocates was referred to as in to help. Brownell and his colleagues went to Sinoe to see what was occurring. On their solution to the world, the group came underneath assault from militia that Brownell believes have been working for the company.

On group lands | Green Advocates. All rights reserved.

The lads, dressed in company safety uniforms, had arrange a roadblock. They have been ex-combatants armed with machetes and sticks, in response to Brownell. Brownell and his colleagues resigned themselves to dying – until the intervention of the town chief.

“I had given up and was just praying to God. I had no idea how we were going to get out of there because we were completely surrounded by these men,” he says.

“We knew that the attack against us in Tarjuwon was not just the company. We think the government was also very complicit in those attacks to try to eliminate us,” he says. Brownell says the Liberian government has been behind several attacks, and felt his organisation was standing in the best way of its improvement goals. The federal government didn’t take kindly to Inexperienced Advocates making an attempt to enlighten individuals on their proper to the land and natural assets.

Francis Colee is head of programmes at Green Advocates and has labored on a number of courtroom instances on land rights issues brought towards the Liberian authorities. He says the federal government typically brands the organisation as anti-development, however its focus is to ensure good investment that protects the rights of people and not alter their livelihood.

“We have argued that it is good that we have investment, but we have also argued that we need to ensure a delicate balance between the protection of human rights, the environment and the investment,” says Colee.

“In most cases, what we have seen is that the project-targeted communities end up becoming worse off than they were before the coming of the investment.”

In 2016, the government accused Brownell of refusing to help give testimony in the trial of the Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven, the previous head of the Oriental Timber Company – Brownell’s first case. The Green Advocates office in Monrovia was raided and ransacked by plain-clothes cops. A number of the employees have been arrested. The police even went to his residence and arrested his uncle when Brownell himself could not be found.

“It was a ploy to get me. They use the criminal justice system to threaten people,” he says.

“They made Liberia very unsafe for me when they started threatening me and so I was forced to flee with my family to come [to the US]. President Sirleaf has directly threatened me, in my face, ‘I will charge you with sedition’.”

In line with Brownell, on this photograph President Sirleaf is threatening that he could possibly be charged with economic sabotage and revocation of his license to apply regulation | Inexperienced Advocates. All rights reserved.

In a strongly worded letter to the president of Liberia, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders condemned the attacks on Brownell, and by means of the help of the Fund for International Human Rights and other groups he fled the nation together with his wife and youngsters. He now serves as an associate research professor at Northeastern University Faculty of Regulation in Boston. Inexperienced Advocates’ work in Liberia continues, even with Brownell in the US, via help from a workforce of devoted local activists and Inexperienced Advocates employees.

Land rights eventually

Despite the challenges, Inexperienced Advocates has helped ensure Liberia passed sweeping land reform legislation in 2018. Native communities now have the unique proper to possess and use land for different purposes, and to lease it.

However there’s nonetheless an extended method to go when it comes to actual influence on land rights regardless of these reforms, says Simpson Snoh, who represents the Alliance for Rural Democracy, a Liberian non-governmental body working intently with Green Advocates. Inexperienced Advocates is within the strategy of taking the message to the individuals, and helping to translate legal guidelines into action.

“After years of securing rights for its community partners,” says Brownell, “Green Advocates is currently exploring options for translating these rights into economic opportunities to address not just the bread-and-butter issues these communities face, but a business and development model that can co-exist with nature.”

“All these years the government had lied” –
Alfred Brownell

Snoh says that with funding, local organisations can transfer shortly to assist communities which are dealing with critical human rights abuses from multinational corporations and governments. This is as a result of community-based teams greatest understand the wants of the communities extra and what the issues are.

Brownell echoes Snoh’s sentiments. He believes that international funders ought to have the ability to guess their money on native organisations like Green Advocates, simply as The Fund for International Human Rights did when the organisation was still simply an concept. He feels Inexperienced Advocates has been capable of enlighten the individuals on their primary human right – the best to personal land.

“The government’s perception that there was free land or open spaces where they could give concessions to companies was a complete false assumption. All these years the government had lied,” he says.

“The future of Liberia is never ever going to be with massive foreign investment through transnational corporations coming to Liberia. Liberia’s future comes from its own people.”

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