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This year's Goldman Environmental Prize winner says the battle for land rights in Liberia is just getting underway
In 2016, I fled my native Liberia to avoid being arrested. My organization Green Advocates had recently filed a complaint before the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) against Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), one of the world’s biggest palm oil producing companies, for attempting to clear more than 500,000 hectares of rainforest without the consent of the local communities who live on and protect those lands.
Liberian forests act as essential carbon sinks and are one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet. They are home to numerous endangered species - from chimpanzees to pygmy hippopotamuses - and the local communities and Indigenous Peoples who customarily own and manage these forests are the last line of defense for these vital resources.
The RSPO ruled in favor of the communities, preventing GVL from clear cutting the forests and protecting both people and planet. The decision represented a major victory for the struggle against land grabbing and for communities’ rights.
But that victory came at great personal cost to my staff and to me, as we encountered legal harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence for confronting the powerful interests that stood to benefit from dispossessing communities and destroying forests.
The government of Liberia issued not just one warrant for my arrest but three—and not just for me, but for the entire staff of Green Advocates—all without specifying any crimes. This led to a massive man hunt with colleagues fleeing and going underground. I fled to the United States for my safety. I have not been able to return home since.
As a lawyer who has represented communities defending their rights, I was familiar with this tactic of silencing the defenders. Many community leaders have been arrested on trumped up charges—or no charges at all—in an attempt to weaken their communities’ resistance.
Benedict Manewah, the leader of the Indigenous Butaw Kru peoples, has been imprisoned up to four times on frivolous criminal charges. Ma Anna Tue, a grandmother and the Indigenous Women Butaw Kru leader, was beaten, stripped naked and taken to prison.
I was deeply saddened to be driven from my home—the place where I felt my work was most needed. But I found, unexpectedly, that my voice became more powerful in exile. This year’s Goldman Environmental Prize in recognition of Green Advocates’ work is proof that we will not be silenced.
But the larger struggle in Liberia is just beginning.
Land grabbing remains pervasive, with large swathes of the country’s rainforests and rural areas given over to oil palm and other commodities without communities’ consent. And the courageous civil society and community leaders who have joined me in calling for an end to these abuses, face similarly severe consequences for speaking out: beatings, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment and retaliation against family members.
It is not enough to fight back against the violence and criminalization—as vital as that work is. We must also demand the recognition of communities’ rights to land and resources.
Recognizing rights is not only the right thing to do. It also protects them against violence and criminalization, strengthens community livelihoods, and protects vital natural resources. Where rights are secure, climate and development outcome improve.
Green Advocates has been working on this for well over a decade now. Back in 2006, we pushed for incorporation of communities’ rights in Liberia’s National Forestry Reform Law.
Liberia had recently emerged from two civil wars that had devastated rural areas, with insecure land rights a root cause of the violence. Ensuring that the country’s post-conflict reconstruction recognized communities’ customary land rights was—and is—essential to prevent a backslide into localized land conflict that could ultimately undermine peace.
For the past decade, we’ve pushed for the passage of a progressive Land Rights Bill (LRB) to formally recognize communities’ rights, fighting off a watered down version in 2017 and eventually securing passage of a law that truly recognized community rights, which President George Weah signed into law last September.
This was a critical moment: the law protects community lands at the same level as individual land ownership and requires community consent for projects on their lands. It also equally recognizes the rights of women, youth and minority groups, and sets quotas for women’s leadership.
We now face another vital inflection point in our struggle to secure community rights: the implementation of the LRB.
This will require sustained and flexible investments in community-driven and designed business and development models, which have co-existed with nature for decades and are built from the bottom up with community innovation and creativity.
But with the right support from the international community, I am confident we can secure a more prosperous future for the people of Liberia.
Alfred Brownell is the recipient of the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize and founder of Green Advocates an NGO and academic at Northeastern University School of Law
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