Alfred Brownell, a Liberian environmental lawyer and human rights activist, is one of six who have been named winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Alfred Brownell arrived in a remote Liberian village, the surrounding rainforest had been leveled by bulldozers. Burial grounds were uprooted, religious shrines were desecrated and a stream that people depended upon for water was polluted.
Brownell, an environmental lawyer and activist, blamed the devastation on the palm oil company Golden Veroleum Liberia. The company had been given a green light in 2010 by the government to expand in the country and was poised to turn more than 800 square miles of lush forest into palm oil plantations.
Brownell on Monday was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for exposing alleged abuse by the company and helping to prevent it from converting about 20 square miles of forest that is home to elephants, pygmy hippopotamuses and chimpanzees. He said he had to flee the country in 2016 when the government threatened to arrest him for his activism.
Though palm oil development remains a threat in Liberia, supporters say Brownell deserves credit for forcing companies to change the way they do business there.
“He has compelled the oil palm companies to undertake robust diligence,” said Francis Colee, head of programming for Green Advocates International, which Brownell founded. “Everywhere, the oil palm companies are now trying to uphold their international commitments or deforestation rules.”
A spokesman for the company, Randall Kaybee, acknowledged in a statement that “there have been lapses in following its own operating procedures, resulting in grievances among some communities and in the inadvertent clearance” of forest areas. He said measures have been put in place to address these problems.
Gregory Coleman, who now heads Liberia’s Bureau of Concessions, said authorities are working to avoid the kinds of problems that arose with Golden Veroleum.
“A green Liberia is the ultimate goal of this government,” he said, “and we have agreed to halt all expansions until we can line up all the requirements in accordance to international best practices.”
Brownell is one of six grassroots environmental activists to receive $200,000 Goldman prizes, created in 1989 by the late San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman. The other winners are:
- Linda Garcia, of Vancouver, Washington, who rallied communities to prevent construction of North America’s largest oil terminal.
- Ana Colovic Lesoska, of North Macedonia, whose seven-year campaign kept hydroelectric projects from being built in the country’s largest national park.
- Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, of Mongolia, who led the fight to create the 2,800-square-mile Tost Tosonbumba Nature Reserve, the country’s only federal reserve for snow leopard conservation.
- Jacqueline Evans, of the Cook Islands, whose work led to the conservation and sustainable management of the islands’ 763,000 square miles of ocean territory and creation of 15 marine protected areas.
- Alberto Curamil, of Chile, a jailed indigenous activist whose protesting was credited for halting two hydroelectric projects and protecting a critical ecosystem surrounding the Cautin River.