Defending the Environment in Liberia

Alfred Brownell, founder of Liberia`s first public interest environmental law organization, recently visited E-LAW U.S. Alfred contacted E-LAW U.S. last year for advice on forming an organization to provide free legal services to Liberian communities harmed by excessive timber cutting. E-LAW U.S. connected Alfred to like-minded attorneys in Africa and around the world who have formed strong organizations to help local communities protect the environment and public health. Fifteen attorneys now volunteer their time at Alfred`s organization, Green Advocates, based in Monrovia.

Alfred Brownell
Alfred L. Brownell, Liberia

What are the environmental challenges facing Liberia? Liberia is richly endowed with natural resources. Unfortunately, uncontrolled exploitation of these resources has failed to improve the lives of most Liberians and the natural environment is nearing the point of collapse. Mining concessions that once supported thriving communities are now ghost towns with enormous craters, mine tailings and sludge deposited in nearby rivers. Industrial operations have polluted the environment without regard for the health and safety of local people. In Liberia, the forest is exceptionally diverse, with large populations of many species that are nearly extinct outside the country. Sadly, multinational and Liberian timber companies threaten these ancient and pristine forests. What effect has civil war had on Liberia`s environment? Civil war has utterly decimated the nation`s economy, political institutions, infrastructure and social fabric. Today, 11 years into the conflict, the country remains in disarray. Donors have been wary to provide assistance and investors are few. Companies that have invested are flouting Liberia`s human rights and environmental laws. Interestingly (after more than 2 billion dollars spent on humanitarian and peace efforts in a conflict that has cost more than 250,000 lives and displaced more than 1.5 million people) Liberia, its people and the war have been written off as history and forgotten by the international community. The conflict has spilled over into Sierra Leone and Guinea and is now a regional crisis. The international community should not be waiting for another CNN documentary, like "Cry Freetown," before taking action to stop the human carnage. The ongoing war is a direct threat to our personal safety and conservation programs in the region. It provides cover and infrastructure for illegal and illicit trading in endangered species in the conflict areas. There is an urgent need to find a peaceful solution to this crisis. How did you become interested in environmental issues? I was born in Robertsport, a small fishing town in western Liberia, halfway between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Piso, Liberia`s largest natural lake. I grew up with an appreciation for this region`s migratory birds, waterfowl and sea turtles. I later moved to Monrovia and pursued degrees in agriculture and law at the University of Liberia. It was at law school that I realized Liberia`s virtual absence of laws to protect and manage the environment. Existing laws are outright confusing, conflicting, overlapping or economically driven. I saw that citizens and indigenous peoples were not afforded any right to challenge government actions that adversely affect their environment and health. Tribal lands are deeded out to timber concessions without compensation to tribal peoples or respect for local customs and practices. The country`s continuing civil war has literally destroyed almost all laws and existing regulations on the environment. With the absence of records, most government agencies rely on the knowledge of elderly employees! All of this was shocking to me and inspired my interest in environmental law. What is Green Advocates? Green Advocates was formed by graduating lawyers at the University of Liberia. We started with five lawyers and quickly grew to 15. The interest of law students has been overwhelming. Our biggest need is formal training in environmental advocacy, litigation and protection. Communities need help protecting their rights to communal forests and other lands. Green Advocates wants to fill the void. We see our role as strengthening the rule of law. This is critical in a nation where tribal lands are deeded to multinational timber concessions and rural people have no access to adequate legal representation. What are your plans for the year ahead? Green Advocates will embark on a massive public awareness campaign on the sustainable use, benefits and protection of the environment. We will pursue several cases testing the independence of the judiciary system in Liberia and we`ll continue to seek Liberia`s compliance with international environmental agreements. Green Advocates, along with other groups and individuals, led a successful campaign for the ratification of the Convention on Biodiversity. We are engaged in a similar campaign for the Climate Change Convention. How has E-LAW helped you and Green Advocates? Green Advocates helped the Government of Liberia draft a comprehensive environmental policy and legislation for sustainable management of the environment and natural resources. Through the E-LAW network, we conducted an international peer review of the draft, and received comments and suggestions from public interest lawyers all over the world. That framework law is now being debated and discussed by the government. We foresee the law providing for citizen suits and environmental impact assessments (EIAs). E-LAW also provided valuable information and advice on an effective organizational structure for Green Advocates. E-LAW linked us with lawyers from other countries with similar experiences and constraints. The lawyers at Green Advocates volunteer their services and undertake considerable risk as they challenge corporations and government. E-LAW gives us hope, courage and the strength to persevere as we carry out this important work. Web Resources about Liberia

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An interview with Alfred Brownell, founder of Liberia`s first public interest environmental law organization. Alfred recently visited E-LAW U.S. and shared his thoughts on the development of environmental law in Liberia.