in Mozambique, UK

Envirotrade’s carbon trading project in Mozambique: “The N’hambita experiment has failed”

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The N'hambita experiment has failedEnvirotrade’s carbon trading project near the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique should be a success story. Its carbon credits are certified by the Plan Vivo Foundation. It is certified under the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance Standard. Yet the project is winding down and will close in four years, according to a report in the Mozambique Bulletin.

Envirotrade was set up in 2002 by Robin Birley and Philip Powell. Birley is a UK businessman. He inherited Annabel’s, London’s poshest nightclub from his father. The club is named after his mother, Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, who subsequently married Sir James Goldsmith.

Birley was president of the Mozambique Institute in the early 1990s, which supported RENAMO, the South African-backed force that systematically committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the civil war in Mozambique. When Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in the UK in 1998, Birley described Pinochet as “the underdog” and backed a fund for Pinochet’s luxurious bail residence in Wentworth, Surrey. Pinochet “has done an immense amount for Chile,” said Birley.

Powell is no longer involved in Envirotrade. He was a senator in South Africa and spokesperson for the Inkatha Freedom Party. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, Powell trained and armed a paramilitary unit that was involved in destabilising South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. He left South Africa in 1999. According to a 2003 report, the police had a warrant out for Powell’s arrest, relating to a stockpile of weapons obtained from Eugene de Kock, a colonel in the apartheid-era South African Police.

Despite the questionable background and politics of the founders of Envirotrade, the company’s project in Mozambique has received much praise. In 2006, it was cited in the Stern Review as “an example of the potential for a beneficial relationship between emissions reductions and poverty reduction.” But it’s revealing to look at Stern’s sources: a 2005 article by Richard Girling, a Sunday Times journalist, and the company itself.

A PR company called Only Connect Communication boasts Envirotrade among its clients. On its website Only Connect tells us that among the outcomes of its work for Envirotrade were,

Two Sunday Times Magazine investigative features by Richard Girling, the UK’s foremost, award-winning environmental journalist, charting the progress of Nhmabita, a small Mozambiquan community, from launch of the Envirotrade carbon forestry initiative, to today, four years on.

Robin Morgan, ex-editor of the Sunday Times is a “strategic partner” of Only Connect. When he left the Sunday Times in 2009, Morgan said,

“Newspapers have largely become the marketing arm of celebrity brands instead of doing journalism. We know that PRs are sending them photos they want used, that they are getting copy approval. It’s disgusting.”

After leaving the Sunday Times, Morgan set up a, er, PR company called Robin Morgan Media. Predictably enough, Girling’s reporting about Envirotrade was overwhelmingly positive. Here’s a sample:

“Birley has set up a private company, Envirotrade, to deal in carbon credits… It’s why the villagers of N’hambita are so energetically surrounding their mashambas with new saplings. It’s why researchers from the Institute of Atmospheric and Environmental Science at the University of Edinburgh are such regular visitors, measuring the height and girth of the trees, calculating biomass, growth rates and the absorption of carbon. Their conclusion is unequivocal. New planting at N’hambita will lock away 90 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare.”

Richard Girling

Another of the outcomes listed on Only Connect’s website is a 20-minute BBC World News Documentary. Award-winning environmental journalist Richard Girling also appears in this programme. Broadcast in September 2009, it is a thinly disguised PR film. Titled, “Taking the Credit”, the film was funded by the Africa Carbon Livelihood Trust. The managing director of the Trust was Charles Hall, who is also a chief executive of Envirotrade. In April 2010, the BBC ruled that the programme should not have been broadcast because of the links between Envirotrade and the Africa Carbon Livelihood Trust.

Between 2003 and 2008, Envirotrade’s project at N’hambita, near Gorongosa National Park, was part financed by a €1.59 million grant from the European Commission. In 2007, the Commission suspended the final payment of €450,000. A May 2008 report by ODI and Winrock International for the European Commission found “poor reporting”, and commented that “the area of greatest concern is the whole carbon aspect of the project”. A second report by Agreco Consortium found that forest inventory and biomass estimates were “insufficient”. The suspension was still in place when Taking the Credit was filmed, but no mention was made of any of this during the film.

Despite working so hard on its PR communications, Envirotrade has failed to sell enough carbon credits to make the project viable. In addition to the money from the European Commission and sales of carbon credits, Birley has sunk US$2 million of his own money into the project. The money has seen some benefits for local communities in N’hambita, but it seems unlikely that these benefits will continue.

A recent article by Via Campesina highlights the problems for farmers involved with Envirotrade’s project. Villagers in N’hambita are in effect paid for seven years to plant and conserve trees, but sign a contract to do so for 99 years. “It is the farmer’s obligation to continue to care for the plants which they own, even after the seven year period covered by this contract”, states a clause in the contract. Perhaps even more controversially Envirotrade sells the 99 years of carbon credits up front, in some case even before the trees are planted, according to Mozambique Bulletin. António Serra, National Director for Envirotrade in Mozambique, told Via Campesina that,

“If a farmer passes away during the contract period, the contract, all the rights contained therein but also all the obligations, are transferred to their legitimate/legal heirs (children).”

Even with this arrangement, the money is not reaching the project. Plan Vivo’s 2011 annual report (pdf file, 2.1 MB) of the project states that “As in previous years, lack of funds was the greatest challenge of 2011.” The sales of carbon credits raised only 42% of the operational expenses of the project, leading to problems transporting and paying for seedlings, monitoring and liaising with the communities. In 2011, the project laid off 11 staff members out of a total of 48. Envirotrade has not issued any new contracts to farmers for the past three years.

Envirotrade’s António Serra is clear about the problems with relying on carbon credits for local farmers. He told Via Campesina that,

“Carbon trading is not there to make anyone rich. The market itself shows that there are many costs involved. This is not going to make communities wealthy. Individuals need to have other sources of income.”

Some farmers have stopped planting trees. In some cases Envirotrade stopped payments to farmers, without explaining why. Via Campesina found that communication between the company and farmers was problematic, to say the least. Envirotrade’s National Carbon Manager, forest engineer Aristides Muhate, explained why farmers did not understand the concept of carbon trading and REDD: “Information exists on different levels. There’s no reason why we should waste time explaining complicated concepts to the farmers.”

The Mozambique Bulletin reports that on 6 June 2012 a group of angry peasants met in Pungue village. They had not received their annual payment from Envirotrade. In the first three years payments were made at the beginning of the year, but for the last three years payments have been delayed. One of the villagers comments, “They are taking our money. We work hard, but in vain. They are buying expensive cars while we are suffering here in the bush.” In 2011, Envirotrade handed out a total of US$90,000 to 1,415 families. That’s an average of just US$63 per family.

In 2010, Charles Hall, Envirotrade’s chief executive, told the Observer:

“The business model for Envirotrade frankly remains to be proven. The fact that this can be made into a sustainable business on the basis of selling carbon offsets remains to be seen.”

Two years later, the Mozambique Bulletin comments that “The N’hambita experiment has failed and the Gorongosa project is winding down, and will close in four years.” Most farmers that the Bulletin spoke to said they would cut down the trees and sell the wood in the future. Some said they would do so as soon as the project finishes.
 


UPDATE – 14 July 2012: See also Charles Hall’s response to this post – “Response from Envirotrade: “The Nhambita project … has not failed”.
 

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  1. What will happen to the carbon credits from N’Hambita that Envirotrade HAS managed to sell? In carbon terms, presumably they will be valueless if no-one is still checking that all the trees have not been cut down again?

    Maybe the buyers of the credits will demand their money back??

  2. @TreeFellas (#1) – Good point. I’m sure we’ll be hearing soon from Plan Vivo about how they intend to deal with this little problem. Presumably the pollution that has been released by the companies buying the carbon credits will be carefully returned to the chimney stacks as well.

  3. “YOU CAN PUT LIPSTICK ON A PIG….IT’S STILL A PIG.”
    THE CARBON TRADING IDEA, THE CREATION OF CARBON OFFSETTS, THE CREATION OF A MECHANISM TO PAY FOR PERMISSION TO POLLUTE, ARE BRAINCHILDS OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE NO INTEREST IN PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT.
    TURNS OUT, THE PEOPLE WHO GET INVOLVED IN SETTING THESE 90 TO 100 YEAR DEALS IN MOTION WITH THE POOREST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD, USING DUBIOUS LEGAL REPRESENTATION AND HAVING VERY LITTLE CLEAN HUMAN RIGHTS RECORDS, CARE NITHER FOR THEIR CONTRACT PARTNERS, NOR FOR THE ENVIRONMENT. THE ONLY THING THEY REPRESENT TRUTHFULLY IS, THAT THERE IS A PRICE TO PAY FOR THEIR INVILVEMENT, ON BOTH ENDS OF THE DEAL.
    ALL HAS THE PEDIGREE OF “GETTING SOMETHING FOR NOTHING”, BASED ON THE KNOWLEDGE THAT THE WORLD NEEDS PROTECTION FROM POLLUTERS AND IT MAKES FOR GOOD PR TO SHOW THAT SOMETHING IS BEING DONE.
    IT IS ALL A FRAUD.
    IT IS THE DUTY OF INDIVIDUAL COUNTRIES, TO REGULATE AND ENFORCE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION. IT IS THEIR DUTY TO ENTER INTO TRADE AGREEMENTS TO PARTNER WITH OTHER COUNTRIES AND TO PREVENT POLLUTER FLIGHT INTO UNDERREGULATED COUNTRIES THE WAY IT IS DONE WITH SUPERTANKER REGISTRATION. THE GOVERNMENTS ARE ALSO LIMITED LIABILITY CORPORATIONS, AS IS THE WORLD BANK, AS IS THE FEDERAL RESERVE, ASIS THE WWF, ETC.AND BY THEIR NATURE, THEY ARE IN PARTNERSHIP.
    THE PEOPLE AND THE ENVIRONMENT ARE “THE OTHER SIDE”. UNLESS WE, THE PEOPLE STOP FINANCING THESE GOVERNMENTS AND STOP SPONSORING THE POLLUTERS BY PURCHASING THEIR PRODUCTS, WE WILL ONLY READ MORE SAD STORIES ABOUT DEALS GONE BAD.
    YOY CAN PUT LIPSTICK ON A PIG, IT IS STILL A PIG.

  4. carbon trading possibly be an opportunity for the poor despite the problem in implementation. But my question is: why ct is not promoted in every nation?

  5. I’ve only recently (accidentally) landed on this website and to be honest has never realised how many people are actually against this project. Well, for starters I have a lot to tell especially because I lived in Nhambita while all of this was going on and to be frank this company not only shredded so many family lives but also my own included. From the start they conned almost everyone working under them and nevertheless we all were blinded, thinking all of this Carbon thing is a good thing and that Envirotrade is looking after the people and their welfare. Meanwhile, Envirotrade was clever enough to slowly demolish bit by bit everyone’s safe haven – Nhambita – without us realising what we have gotten ourselves into. Looking back today, I realised someone had to speak up earlier, perhaps I’m too late now but Robin Berley, Phillip Powel and Anotio Serra can go and tell someone else their sop stories…Robin and Phillip may be out and finished with Envirotrade but they planted the seed and then realised what they’ve established and started are to big of a deal and they are too weak to stand up and admit that they are the ones who started everything and now we are the ones who sit and suffer. And Antonio you are as low as everyone else. If anyone think I’m harsh to say all of this, trust me I have more to say. Not because I’m a horrible person, I’m simply tired of seeing things such as cars, homes, including family being taken away because of some people to scared of playing a fare game and standing up admitting that we have done nothing wrong but to look after the welfare of the people. We’ve given up everything in order to give those people more of a life and then we ended up exactly where they are. I hope everyone understand and if not then a visit to Nhambita – to my family – would be a good idea – there you’ll find the real truth about envirotrade….thanks…