Northeastern scholar, Liberian land rights lawyer, awarded Biden chair appointment that will ensure his safety

Alfred Brownell recently received an award that will ensure his safety and protect his legal work in perpetuity. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

A year and a half after the Liberian government and powerful palm oil companies forcefully drove Alfred Brownell out of the country for fighting to conserve the forestland those companies were going to clearcut, Brownell is still working to protect critical land rights around the world.

“They made a big mistake when they drove me out of Liberia,” said Brownell, who is now a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Northeastern’s School of Law. “They thought it would be business as usual, that I would be finished, but what they did was empower someone in the United States.”

Brownell has been creating a land security index that ranks how well governments are protecting land rights for their citizens. He recently received an award that will ensure his safety, protect his legal work in perpetuity, and help him continue that work.

“It’s a huge honor,” said Brownell, who is the first to hold the Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund Beau Biden Chair. The chair was created in 2016 to honor the legacy of Beau Biden, the former attorney general of Delaware. The son of former Vice President Joe Biden, Beau died in 2015 from brain cancer.

Alfred Brownell speaks to Jill Biden at The Metropolitan Club in New York City after she recognized him for his work during the annual gala for the Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund. Photo courtesy of the Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund.

“Alfred Brownell honors Beau’s legacy through his scholarship and activism in the fields of human rights, environmental law, and indigenous land rights—courageous work that put Alfred’s life, family, colleagues, and career in danger in Liberia,” said Mark Angelson, who chairs the Scholar Rescue Fund.

Brownell said that protecting native forests is at the root of nearly every global conflict we currently face, including the threats posed by climate change, the plight of millions of refugees fleeing violence in waves of mass migration, and geopolitical tensions that have all the stability of a high-wire act.

“You cannot address these larger issues without addressing land rights,” he said.

Brownell has dedicated his life to fighting to protect land rights. After he graduated from law school, he helped write framework environmental policies designed to conserve Liberia’s piece of the Upper Guinean forests, which Brownell described as “the lungs of West and North Africa.” The policies were also designed to protect the people living near the forest land, whose livelihoods depend upon it.

Brownell  soon found himself facing down the Liberian government and a wall of powerful palm oil companies seeking to clearcut part of the Upper Guinean forests for profit. In 2014, this tension exploded, and Brownell was attacked for his work. Two years later, the government led a statewide manhunt for Brownell, but he, his wife, and their two young children escaped with help from an international network of lawyers and human rights advocates. He’s been teaching at Northeastern since he arrived in December 2016.

Brownell has continued to help his colleagues in Liberia with legal work, notching some important victories against multi-million dollar palm oil companies along the way.

Students who have taken his class, which focuses on human rights and the environment, have gone on to volunteer their legal skills to help the communities immediately affected by deforestation, Brownell said. One former student volunteered in Nigeria in late October, where he spent time talking to people who live near the Upper Guinean forest. Because of his high profile, this in-person work is too dangerous for Brownell to do himself, he said.  

Brownell’s passion for protecting vulnerable populations by defending their land rights is evident in the way his voice cracks when he’s talking about his work. It’s evident in the way he talks about the Beau Biden Chair.

Brownell said the award has motivated him to shine a light on the work of human rights lawyers across the globe. “Land-right defenders are persecuted and killed all the time. Four of my colleagues around the globe will be killed each week,” he said, citing a statistic from Global Witness, the human rights watchdog organization.

“This work is for all of humanity,” he said. “Who else is going to pick up the struggle? We don’t have a choice.”