By Chris Lang
David Nilsson arrived in Peru two years ago and promised indigenous communities billions of dollars in return for signing over the rights to their forests. This week, 60 Minutes Australia broadcast an investigation into Nilsson’s operations in Peru and elsewhere.
The highlight of the programme is when a 60 Minutes producer poses as a potential investor in Nilsson’s project in Peru and Nilsson (unaware that he is being filmed) describes the full extent of his scam. There have been several articles about Nilsson (here and here, for example) but this is the first time he’s been caught lying on camera.
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 explaims, “people can come through and harvest the rainforest there”. Once the trees are out of the way, “they can plant palm oil”.
Click on the image below to go to the 60 Minutes programme:
The Carbon Cowboy
Broadcast on 60 Minutes Australia, 8 July 2012
Liam Bartlett: If there’s a place in the world that time forgot, this is it. Peru. Birthplace of the mighty Inca civilisation. Land of lost cities and remote tribes. So how on earth did an Australian property developer end up here, promising billion dollar carbon deals to some of the poorest people on the planet?
Dan Pantone: They completely trusted him. And now they are left with nothing.
Liam Bartlett: His name is David Nilsson. He’s from Queensland and says he’s just here to help.
They’re putting their livelihoods, their tribes, their rainforests on the line. And you get 50% of all that. Not a bad deal for you but not too good for them, is it?
David Nilsson: Well, what else are they getting? Who else is giving them a better deal in the world?
Liam Bartlett: You’ve got to wonder what Peru has done to deserve this latest invasion. Five hundred years ago it was the Spanish conquistadors who came here in search of gold and silver. Later came the rubber barrons and then the loggers. But there’s a new breed of treasure hunter. They’re called carbon cowboys. And what they’re after is down there in the vast rainforests of the Amazon.
These immense jungles store a large part of the earth’s carbon dioxide and in the new world of carbon trading, whoever gets the rights to this captured carbon could make himself a very rich man indeed.
David Nilsson is out hunting. Roaming the Amazon in search of native tribes willing to sign over the rights to the carbon in their rainforest.
David Nilsson: We had a good trip. Everything’s signed up. Our mission’s accomplished.
Liam Bartlett: Nilsson’s carbon contracts give his company Amazon Holdings power of attorney handing him effective control of the rainforest for 200 years and half of all profits.
Dan Pantone: He told me that he was part aborigine from Australia and that he came from extreme poverty and he wanted to help the indigenous people here.
Liam Bartlett: Dan Pantone is an American scientist who’s spent years in the Amazon working with native tribes. When Nilsson arrived in Peru two years ago, he hired Pantone to introduce him to a remote tribe called the Matses, some of whom still live and hunt as their ancestors did.
Dan Pantone: He saw that they own a lot of land. They own about 450,000 hectares.
Liam Bartlett: When you first met him how did he describe his project?
Dan Pantone: Basically, he calculated how many billions of dollars the Matses are going to get from carbon credits. He actually had his calculator handy and the numbers he was showing for the Matses, he was showing billions of dollars.
Liam Bartlett: Mature trees like this are what carbon trading is all about. Over its lifetime, this will absorb about a ton of carbon dioxide. So big companies are happy to pay to protect these in order to release a ton of their own pollution into the atmosphere. They offset a ton of their pollution for a ton of carbon dioxide that’s absorbed by that tree. It’s called a carbon credit.
So when the Australian government says carbon is worth about A$23 a ton, and you start counting the number of trees in this jungle, well the maths is mind-boggling.
David Nilsson has been chasing this carbon fortune for years, from Papua New Guinea to the Philippines. Now this self professed carbon cowboy has set up base in Peru’s jungle city of Iquitos, a wild-west town if ever there was one.
He’s got a good lawyer, a young Peruvian girlfriend and boasts about his past as a successful property developer in Australia. Nilsson even boasts that he can divine underground water. But his real gift, it turns out, is divining ordinary human weakness.
Dan Pantone: He told me I was going to be a millionaire within a year.
Liam Bartlett: So what exactly was he after here?
Dan Pantone: The contract would be giving him virtually total control over their natural resources. Over their, not only their carbon, but their forests, virtually everything.
Liam Bartlett: Incredibly, David Nilsson has already convinced some tribes to sign away their rights. And Dan Pantone is taking me deeper into the Amazon to visit one such community. They are called the Yagua. They are dirt poor. Many can’t read or write. They have handed Nilsson half of all the carbon that’s in their forests.
Can you read this for me please?
Hegnay Iscaata signed the document put in front of him.
Translator: He’s saying he signed it, but he can’t read.
Liam Bartlett: He can’t read, at all?
Translator: He says he can’t read.
Liam Bartlett: Only a handful of Yagua refused to go along with Nilsson’s plan. One of them is a young leader, Angel Yaicate.
Did you sign that contract?
Angel Yaicate: No.
Liam Bartlett: Why not?
Translator: Because I knew it was a scam.
Liam Bartlett: It is scam. A monumental double-cross, and an environmental travesty. We’ve obtained an executive summary of the agreement, and incredibly, the main focus is actually logging. As part of the carbon deal, Nilsson’s company effectively owns the trees and plans to eventually log them. Even worse, he’ll replace them with environmentally disastrous palm oil plantations. Already, the colossal scale of logging by others is shockingly clear. But these are desperately poor people, who are easily manipulated, unaware that the supposedly independent lawyer advising them is actually David Nilsson’s lawyer.
Can he tell me the lawyer’s name please?
Translator: Walter Cambero. That’s David Nilsson’s lawyer.
Liam Bartlett: David Nilsson is now back in Australia, hunting for investors to pay big money for his slice of the Amazon. What he doesn’t realize at this pitch is that the would-be investor is a 60 Minutes producer and we’re in the room next door.
David Nilsson: Okay, I’ve got these three million hectares.
Producer: Right. How did you come across? Sorry, say again?
David Nilsson: Nearly three million hectares.
Liam Bartlett: David Nilsson does not have three million hectares of rainforest, or anything like it. But that doesn’t stop him from promising a fortune for would-be investors.
David Nilsson: It’s going to be billions.
Producer: Beg your pardon?
David Nilsson: Billions. I just, I’m scared to quote it, because it’s fucking huge, put it that way.
Liam Bartlett: And David Nilsson all but brags about plans to ultimately cut down the rainforests, once the 25-year carbon deal expires.
David Nilsson: My contracts are 200-year contracts, etched in stone, so when the carbon’s gone, people can come through and harvest the rainforest there. We’d have a forest management plan they can reforest, they can plant palm oil, they can cut all the timber. No one can stop them. No one can stop them.
Producer: But by doing this carbon plan, you’re stopping that happening?
David Nilsson: Yeah, but the carbon plan only goes for 25 years. The contracts still run and there’s enough timber there to supply the world down there. China will love it.
Liam Bartlett: Time, we decide, to have a word with Mr Nilsson.
David Nilsson: Yes.
Liam Bartlett: Liam Bartlett, 60 Minutes.
David Nilsson: G’day mate, how are you doing?
Liam Bartlett: No not your day, is it?
David Nilsson: No mate, not my day, nope.
Liam Bartlett: Telling some more tall stories, trying to get someone to part with their money.
David Nilsson: No, mate, no. No, I’m not mate, no. It’s no scam.
Liam Bartlett: It’s no scam?
David Nilsson: No. The person that started the scam, Dr Pantone, we’ve taken legal proceedings against him.
Liam Bartlett: We know all about Dan Pantone.
David Nilsson: And hang on, and he’s under house arrest.
Liam Bartlett: No, he’s not under house arrest, that’s a lie. That’s your first lie, to me. You’ve told plenty in the last hour, haven’t you?
David Nilsson: Well, this is what I’ve been doing.
Liam Bartlett: Running around telling lies?
David Nilsson: No. Interview finished. Please turn that camera off.
Liam Bartlett: Well, it’s not going off, because we want some answers about the Amazon tribes that you’ve been dealing with.
David Nilsson: I’ve nothing more to say.
Liam Bartlett: What these Amazon tribes didn’t know, couldn’t know, was the long trail of people who’ve trusted David Nilsson and lost money. Just ask the investors who put money into one of his projects here at Clairview, in North Queensland, in the early 1990s.
It’s a beautiful spot, and it seemed a great investment. David Nilsson was selling 5-acre lots, up here in the ridge, here for A$70,000 apiece, and he had plenty of takers. But one buyer from Nauru became suspicious when she failed to receive a rates notices from the local council. That’s when the penny dropped. As the Queensland Parliament was later told, those lots didn’t exist, never had. But Nilsson banked the money anyway and the investors never saw it again.
Leo Keke: He’s very convincing, very, very convincing.
Liam Bartlett: Leo Keke is a senior barrister from Nauru. He was one of the investors who thought he was buying land at Nilsson’s Clairview development.
What did you end up with?
Leo Keke: I end up with nothing. A lot of us, all of us, end up with nothing. So really, he’s a conniving scum.
Liam Bartlett: David Nilsson has done well for himself, and hopes to do very well out of his carbon deals with the Amazon tribes who have trusted in him. At this formal signing ceremony, the audience is told their agreement is supposedly with “a company of the United Nations”. So, you’ve got to ask, do they really know who or what they’re dealing with, or that David Nilsson actually plans to log their forests?
You’re tying this forest up for 200 years. 200 years. And you plan to log it.
David Nilsson: No, I don’t.
Liam Bartlett: Plant palm oil plantations on it.
David Nilsson: No, I don’t.
Liam Bartlett: You’re just to – sir, your own words. We have you on tape.
David Nilsson: Well.
Liam Bartlett: After 25 years, when the carbon’s finished, you’re going to log the whole lot. I mean, have you no shame?
David Nilsson: Ah, mate.
Liam Bartlett: Have you no shame?
It’s clear many Yagua now bitterly regret signing this toxic deal, but feel powerless to undo it.
Dan Pantone: They opened up their homes to him. He slept in their homes. And trusted him, they completely trusted him. Now, this hurts them permanently. We’re talking about permanent damage here.
Liam Bartlett: Meanwhile, the other tribe in Nilsson’s sights, the Matses, have held out against his grand plans. They won’t sign, at least for now.
David Nilsson: I’m not ripping them off.
Liam Bartlett: But it seems nothing will stop David Nilsson trying to sell his dodgy bundle of signatures to the highest bidder.
You were just boasting that you’ve got control for 200 years.
David Nilsson: No, no, I said, listen, goodbye. Thank you very much gentlemen.