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Goldman Prize-winning Liberian human rights lawyer protests at BlackRock

Hours before the Goldman Prize ceremony in San Francisco, activists descend on BlackRock’s West Coast HQ to demand the firm dump deforestation from its portfolios

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Alfred Brownell, a Liberian human rights lawyer and recipient of the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa, and a group of environmental activists protested at the San Francisco headquarters of global asset manager BlackRock this morning. With music and theatrics, including a dozen hippos wearing trench coats and signs, the group urged the firm to stop financing rainforest destruction around the world. (Photos available here.)

“BlackRock is complicit when it funds massive deforestation, dirty coal and suffocating fossil fuel that undermine critical ecosystems and endangered species,” said Brownell, Founder of Green Advocates International. “The company aids and abets crimes when it hides the criminalization, stigmatization and murder of Indigenous Peoples and rights defenders.”

BlackRock is among the top institutional investors in the “forest-risk commodities” palm oil, paper, beef, soy and timber, which are responsible for the bulk of the world’s deforestation. BlackRock investees Golden Agri Resources (GAR) and Sime Darby control a combined 1.5 million acres of land in Liberia and their palm oil operations have sparked popular resistance in the country.

“BlackRock looks the other way while its clients engage in the daylight theft of Indigenous Peoples’ customary lands and devastate the largest carbon sink in West Africa along with centuries of history, culture and ways of life,” Brownell continued. Brownell is receiving the Goldman Environmental Prize for his role in defending Liberia’s forests from oil palm plantations owned by Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum Liberia, a subsidiary of GAR.

“Rainforest destruction at the scale and pace it’s happening is only possible due to financing by global banks and investors like BlackRock,” said Jeff Conant, Senior International Forests Program Manager with Friends of the Earth Action, which is leading a campaign with Friends of the Earth groups from Liberia, Indonesia and the Netherlands to pressure financiers to defund deforestation. “BlackRock and other investors have a choice: use your enormous financial leverage to help us transition to a livable future for all, or get out.”

As Brownell and dozens of supporters surprised BlackRock at its San Francisco headquarters, protestors visited BlackRock offices in New York and Amsterdam to deliver copies of a letter from Mr. Brownell to BlackRock CEO Larry Fink. Referring to Mr. Fink’s widely noted call for businesses to have a “social purpose,” the letter argues that BlackRock’s investees in Liberia are undermining the social good rather than strengthening it. 

“Agro industrial plantations are wiping out unique habitats in the last remaining rainforest in West Africa,” said James G. Otto, Community Rights and Corporate Governance Coordinator at Sustainable Development Institute/Friends of the Earth Liberia. “Financial institutions like BlackRock should be held accountable as they fund companies like Golden Veroleum Liberia which continue to perpetrate the destruction.”

BlackRock’s extensive holdings in oil, coal and gas and failure to use its shareholder power have come under fire from a broad climate-focused campaign called “BlackRock’s Big Problem.”

The firm is also the third largest shareholder of Bunge and Archer Daniels Midland, huge agribusiness traders with large deforestation footprints in Brazil.

“Asset managers and banks in the U.S. and the E. U. are invested in forest destruction from Indonesia to the Amazon,” said Moira Birss, Finance Campaign Director at Amazon Watch, whose report Complicity in Destruction exposes the links between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and the global financiers of agribusiness. “We say to BlackRock, will you continue to risk your clients’ money on the destruction of the Amazon, or will you be responsible?”

Photos of the demonstrations are available for download here.

On-the-ground contact: Jeff Conant, Friends of the Earth Action, (575) 770-2829
Communications contact:
Erin Jensen, Friends of the Earth Action, (202) 222-0722, ejensen@foe.org