Deforestation. Palm oil. Mining. Oil and gas drilling. Although the tribes that call the Amazon home have lived in peace with the planet for centuries, first world problems have been delivered to their doorstep. In what seems like a cruel joke, scam artists operating under the guide of carbon offset salesmen are targeting the Amazon’s most primitive tribes in an attempt to exploit its natural resource.
An Australian “businessman” named David Nilsson is wanted by the Peruvian court under suspicion of swindling tribes into giving away the rights to their ancient lands. His hustle? Pretending to be a trader of carbon offset credits, worth top dollar to the world’s largest polluters, Nilsson convinces tribal leaders to sign contracts that actually grant Nilsson rights to the land and all of its resources, carbon-related and otherwise.
It didn’t take long for profit-hungry corporations, out of resources to exploit in their own countries, to turn their greedy eyes on the vastly untouched Amazon. Together they have decimated acres of pristine rain forest to make room for commercial agriculture and mining operations, dammed rivers and dumped billions of gallons of toxic wastewater. Somehow, Nilsson’s scheme seems even more sinister, since it facilitates environmental destruction under the guise of preventing it.
In an undercover investigation by Australian 60 minutes, Nilsson claims to have three million hectares of forest in Peru under a 200 year contract. The carbon contract runs for 25 years, after which, Nilsson explains, “people can come through and harvest the rainforest there.” Once the trees are out of the way, “they can plant palm oil.”
Isolated tribes living in primitive villages are not-surprisingly dazzled by Nilsson’s promises of wealth, good jobs and protection of the forest. Many have signed his contracts, even though they can’t read or write. If they could, they might have noticed a curious clause that forbids the tribes from showing the contract to any outside parties, like a lawyer.
In the few cases when a community member has sensed that something is fishy, the potential shame and loss has forced tribal leaders into denial. Those who acknowledge the scam are shunned by the community, left to seek assistance from the distant government on their own.
Recently, efforts of the people’s defender in Iquitos have yielded some progress. Nilsson has left Peru and cannot return thanks to a court-issued warrant. Sadly, this does little for the tribes that have already fallen for his tactics. Many have yet to see a penny in payment for their land, and the promised construction jobs never materialized
If there is a silver lining, it may be that Nilsson’s scheme puts a much-needed spotlight on the dubious nature of the international carbon credit system.
Lizbeth Castro, the local ombudsman, says the carbon market is not well regulated in Peru. Her institution has sent the case to the Committee for Indigenous People in Peru’s congress to push for strong legislation that will protect the land and their owners.
The committee’s president, Congressman Victor Grandez, has asked the Ministries of Environment and Culture to fight against Nilsson. “Nilsson is only one of many carbon cowboys that will arrive in the Amazon rainforest, looking for riches while damaging the environment,” he says.
Image via Thinkstock