Local resistance as Australian “carbon cowboy” divides and pressures isolated Matsés tribe to sign over rights to their forests.
The Amazon is on the front line of the offsetting industry, where a price placed on carbon sequestered in trees has made even the most isolated forests a valuable commodity. Carbon prospectors are descending on less-developed tropical countries which, in their forests, can hold the highest amounts of carbon.
Buying forests, prospectors sell carbon credits to developed countries to compensate for their own emissions. An inevitable consequence of the new money in the depths of the forests, is that some prospectors will look to take advantage of poorly developed local regulations to reach it.
David John Nilsson, the latest in a line of so-called “carbon cowboys,” arrived in Peru in 2010. Nilsson approached the remote Matsés tribe who live on the border between Peru and Brazil, living subsitently and still hunting with bows and arrows. Nilsson offered its leaders huge amounts of money in return for them handing him legal entitlement to their 420,000 hectares of conserved tropical forest. The Matsés were torn into disagreement over Nilsson, who by bribing various community leaders, had garnered their support to sign a radically debilitating contract.
Local organisations AIDESEP (Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon) and COICA (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin) are clamouring for Nilsson’s expulsion from the country. Peru’s governmental agencies – unable to intervene under current Peruvian legislation – are frantically trying to educate the tribe about the implications of such an agreement.
As early as 2007 there were warnings that the controversial carbon credit industry may risk being discredited by rogue operators such as Nilsson. A move in Britain the same year attempted to set up a vetting system to design an easily identifiable ‘quality mark’ to prove to firms their offsets were actually making a difference and not causing harm. One official speaking to The Guardian, however, said the industry was ‘just like the Wild West – full of cowboys.’
Some countries such as Britain have since developed their own systems to identify and prosecute bogus carbon trading firms. But legislation within the countries where carbon credits are generated is struggling to keep up with the demand.
Peru’s first carbon cowboy
On April 15 Nilsson arranged a meeting with Matsés tribal leaders, complete with a power-point presentation, on the intricacies of the carbon industry. He presented a contract written in English, explaining the idea as a community development project where the Matsés would begin taking responsibility for the capital on their land when money began coming in.
Nilsson has a long track record of perpetrating other scams and fleeing to his native Australia. Since the case came to their attention, AIDESEP have amassed an impressive amount of evidence on his previous fraudulent operations in Australia, Nauru, Fiji, Malaysia, Philippines, and Hong Kong.
A Queensland Parliamentary Record from November 14, 1996 places him in court for defrauding the people of Nauru, the world’s smallest island state, out of more than 1 million dollars. Leo Keke, former Minister of Justice on the island, said in a statement how “he arrived at the island armed with sophisticated documents of titles of land owned by a company … of which he [was] the major or sole owner.”
Nilsson conducted a workshop in Nauru on the investment and how foreigners could circumvent Australia’s requirements buying land in Australia. “He was very persuasive and manipulative with his connivance and collusion,” said Keke in a statement he intends to send to Interpol, recommending jail for Nilsson for perpetrating fraud on the people.
Since the meeting in Peru, members of the community concerned about the contract brought the case to Peru’s Office for the Defender of the People. Daniel Jiménez Huamán, a Matsés representative in opposition of the contract told a local newspaper how Nilsson said he would share 50% of the profits, saying they would earn “billions of dollars” by allowing him to sell carbon certificates on their behalf.
Nilsson’s company – Carbon Sustainable Resources Limited – has an address in Hong Kong and a website currently “under development.” There is no office, however. He instead has a “virtual office” contract with a call-centre employee to take messages for him. He has so far been unreachable for comment.
“If Nilsson gets them to sign a contract and gets a power of attorney over [the Matsés] forest and carbon, I have no doubt that it will be disastrous for the Matsés people,” said another former associate of Nilsson’s, who did not wish to be named. “The very survival of a unique indigenous culture is at stake.”
Old trick on a new deck of cards: carbon projects, Peruvian law and indigenous peoples.
Tricking indigenous peoples into signing destructive contracts is one of the oldest tricks in the book, says AIDESEP spokesman Edson Rosales. But this scheme has one significant difference: it is the first time in Peru anyone has ever appeared under the guise of supporting climate change.
Carbon sales have already been placed on huge expanses of the Amazon, Rosales explains. “In practise, the new trading system will have the same impact on indigenous peoples as the rubber boom,” Rosales says, referring to a time when indigenous Amazonians were subjected to slave conditions, working up to 22 hours on rubber plantations each day. “I think this is going to be the same – environmental remediation and carbon sales is the catch-word today, comparible to the petrol, comparible to rubber – always affecting the indigenous people.”
A history of similar abuses within other industries like mining, forestry and hydrocarbon mean these sectors are now regulated within a tight framework of state supervision. This is the first time in Peru this kind of company has entered indigenous under the guise of carbon rights or oxygen stocks, Rosales explains.
To operate in indigenous territories in other sectors, companies must have prior agreement with the community, which in turn must be passed by state authorities. “The issue of carbon credits is very new in Peru,” explains Alicia Abanto, head of the indigenous peoples’ programme at the Office for the Defender of the People. “So far on this, we have no regulatory framework. Neither is there a framework for fiscal supervision.”
Under current Peruvian law, therefore, Nilsson’s sole obligation is to earn two-thirds’ support among the Matsés community leaders, substantiating the signing of a legally binding document that would give his company complete power of attorney over 420,000 hectares of conserved forests and carbon stocks, as well as the intellectual and cultural life of the Matsés people.
More disturbing still is the absence in Peru of any kind of political strategy to protect indigenous peoples. A recent report by OecoAmazonia’s Maria Emilia Coelho explains how only Brazil and Ecuador give official assistance to this sort of group. The Peruvian state’s incapacity to control logging activities in the Amazon, coupled with an absence of state agencies to implement public policies with an assigned budget and legislation, leave it’s indigenous people among the most vulnerable in all the Amazon.
The ones who benefit from these new markets are supposed to be indigenous communities, as they’re the ones who conserve the forest, Rosales explains. “But at no moment has anyone said that they actually came third in the line. In between money goes into many pockets, but none actually reaches them. This is the real danger at present.”