IIE-SRF fellow Alfred Brownell has never been one to back down in the face of great adversity. An expert in environmental law and human rights, he has tirelessly defended communities in his native Liberia by creating conservation policies and educating populations on their rights as citizens in order to protect their land from deforestation and development by the government and government-controlled industries such as mining and logging. Brownell’s expertise perfectly aligns with one of the program’s focus areas – land rights. He is currently focused on creating a Land Tenure Security Index, while also working with faculty and teaching and mentoring students. Northeastern’s PHRGE has plans to become a permanent relocation site for legal practitioners who are facing threats due to the nature of their work, with Brownell paving the way for scholars who continue to make their voices heard despite pressure from those who wish to silence them.
“You don’t need guns to kill people,” said Alfred Brownell, a scholar of environmental law, attorney, and human rights defender. “When you take food from a village by destroying farm lands and cash crops, you are starving its people. If you destroy their grave sites, poison their drinking water, obliterate their cultural heritage, divert their rivers, streams and creeks, there is no doubt you are removing an ethnically defined population from their land.”
Brownell has for many years been on the front lines of defending local communities' land ownership and stake in the profits from extraction activities in his native Liberia. Recognized internationally as the face of community organizing in Liberia, he has worked to strengthen legal protections for local communities and the environment. He is the founder and director of Green Advocates International, Liberia’s only not-for-profit environmental law organization, which monitors rights violations and educates local communities on customary land and property rights. Brownell understands the land-grabbing dynamic all too well. He and Green Advocates became involved in a number of cases in which global corporations were found to be involved in practices that violated the rights of their workers, including children. He also took on cases in which government land concessions posed a threat to the rights of rural communities and to northwest Africa’s largest forest block, the Upper Guinea Forest, which Brownell refers to as the Lungs of North and West Africa. Green Advocates played a critical role in supporting these communities and in crafting basic environmental laws.
Threats from the Liberian government, often supported by multinational corporations, posed a security risk for Brownell and his family. As a result, in 2016, the Program on Human Rights in the Global Economy (PHRGE) at the Northeastern University School of Law invited him to Boston as a visiting research scholar, in partnership with IIE-SRF. Thanks to this partnership, Brownell continues to put forth his expertise in environmental law and natural resource rights and extend his wealth of knowledge and human rights advocacy to the campus and international community. He is currently working with researchers to explore the validity of a Tenure Security Index, a data-based tool that would measure and rank how governments recognize, formalize, and secure the land rights of their citizens.
Brownell is the inaugural occupant of the IIE-SRF Beau Biden Chair. In 2019, Brownell received the Goldman Prize for his environmental activism in Liberia.