On 15 November 2016, Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein was arrested when he arrived at Tocumen International Airport in Panama. Monte Friesner, a Canadian who lives in Panama, filed a complaint about what Ornstein had written on his website about Friesner’s business practices. In Panama, defamation is a criminal offence.
In December 2012, Ornstein was convicted of criminal defamation in Panama, and sentenced to 20 months in jail. Why Ornstein has been arrested now, almost four years later, is anyone’s guess. The arrest came just before a major international conference on corruption started in Panama.
Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement that,
“Panamanian authorities should immediately release Okke Ornstein and work to remove outdated criminal defamation penalties from the legal code. Laws that send journalists to prison for something they write or broadcast violate international standards of free expression.”
Ornstein gave a TEDx Talk in Panama in 2014 in which he describes some of his work and the threats he faces because of Panama’s defamation laws:
About 11 minutes into his talk, Ornstein talks about a company called Silva Tree. He wrote about Silva Tree on his website, Bananama Republic. (In December 2015, two of the owners of Silva Tree, Patrick Visser and Keren Visser filed a civil complaint in the Netherlands, and in August 2016, Bananama Republic announced via its Facebook page that, “Our website has been closed down pending court procedures in the Netherlands”.)
REDD-Monitor wrote briefly about Silva Tree in April 2010, after a six-part investigation into carbon offsets in the Christian Science Monitor:
A tree-planting project in Panama, run by a company called Silva Tree, that promises investors profits from logging, when the trees are large enough. It also creates carbon credits, although it is not clear who will actually own the credits. Silva Tree claims that its project is certified under the Voluntary Carbon Standard, but it has so far only applied for certification. Silva Tree also claims to be planting large areas. “In fact, few trees have been planted,” the researchers found.
You can read the article on Christian Science Monitor about Silva Tree’s plantations in Panama, here. The article points out that Silva Tree claimed to be running a “certified carbon offset project”, when at the time it was not certified. In fact, Rainforest Alliance only validated the project as conforming to VCS standards in September 2011 – 15 months later.
In a company brochure, Silva Tree wrote the following response to the Christian Science Monitor article:
The Christian Science monitor did not fully understand the investment and did not allow us to comment or provide the right information before publishing. They make reference to us not having carbon credit status agreed for the project which is correct. If it is possible we will gain carbon certification and our intention is to reinvest any proceeds back into the local community. This is completely irrelevant to the investor as carbon credits form no part of their investment. They will not benefit if we gain the credits, they will not be asked to share our costs if we do not. We are in the process of suing them in the US.
The relevant part of the article was that at the time they visited (during the dry season) we did not have many hectares planted. We have 340 in the ground as at the end of August, and the new lab coming on stream has allowed us to increase our planting rate. We are in line with our planting schedule for the project.
It is important to remember that this project has undergone a high level of due diligence by SIPP companies, research companies, IFA networks and FSA regulated Citadel Trustee, none of whom have found any evidence to support the defamatory accusations made. We encourage anyone who wishes to do so, to speak directly to the legal department of Citadel.
Back in 2010, I’d never heard of Citadel Trustees. Re-reading this now, Citadel Trustees’ involvement is a huge red flag (along with the claims in Silva Tree’s brochure of 18.71% return per annum, and the high-risk advanced fee model of investing in plantations before the trees go in the ground, hoping for returns at some point in the future).
Citadel Trustees (now renamed as Highpoint Trustees) has appeared several times on REDD-Monitor, most recently because of the company’s role in EcoPlanet Bamboo’s “Bamboo Bonds” investment scheme. Like many other investment schemes that Citadel/Highpoint Trustees has been involved in, it is slowly falling apart, and the fund behind EcoPlanet Bamboo is currently going into liquidation.
Citadel Trustees was involved in various companies that sold carbon credits to retail investors in the UK. You can read more about Citadel Trustees’ role in these scams here:
The company’s registered office is 5 Priory Court, Tuscam Way, Camberley, Surrey, GU15 3YX, an address it shares with almost 300 other companies. Here’s the office on Google maps:
Highpoint Trustees’s website is currently not available. REDD-Monitor has been informed that Highpoint Trustees is going into liquidation (but so far, there is no mention of this on the Companies House website).
There are several companies related to Highpoint Trustees. In recent months, Highpoints directors have been busy changing the names of many of these companies. For example, a company currently called Badgers 1726 Limited, was until July 2016 called Highpoint Trustees 1726 Limited. And until April 2014, it was known as Citadel Trustees 1726.
And Emerald Knight
One of the companies pushing investments in Silva Tree was a boiler room operation called Emerald Knight. A 2010 report by the Campagna per la riforma della Banca Mondiale and Merian Research points out that Emerald Knight included, “Sustainable Forestry and Timber Investment Panama in its Latest Investments’ section”. This was Silva Tree’s plantation scheme.
In the carreers section on its website, Emerald Knight made little attempt to disguise the fact that it was running a boiler room. The company boasts of having,
“telesales professionals who, in combination with our full and comprehensive training, have the drive and ambition to apply their knowledge and skills in growing their own investors’ portfolio through the promotion and selling of international property investment opportunities over the telephone to a wide range of investors.”
Emerald Knight was a convincing enough scam to fool the Financial Times blog FT Advisor into running a series of posts written by employees of Emerald Knight. The posts were still on the FT Advisor blog when REDD-Monitor pointed out the error of its ways in April 2015. FT Advisor quietly removed the posts from its website at some point after that.
Silva Tree closes down
In December 2009, a company called Silva Tree (UK) Limited was registered at Companies House in London. The company directors were Lee Chapman, Maurice Sjerps, Keren Visser and Patricius Visser.
Here’s the registered office on Google maps:
In March 2012, Silva Tree announced in its newsletter that,
As a result of expansion as well as its ongoing success, Silva Tree has adapted its corporate structure to accommodate international growth, institutional investment and exciting new partnerships by joining the Sustainable Capital Group.
And in July 2012, Silva Tree (UK) Limited went into voluntary liquidation.
Only a few traces of Sustainable Capital Group remain. A LinkedIn page. A blog (the most recent post was on 12 April 2013). The company’s websites, that were registered to a British Virgin Islands address, have gone.
Silva Tree’s response to REDD-Monitor: “Please remove this article from your website”
Ten days after posting 82 words about Silva Tree, REDD-Monitor received an email from Keren Katz (Visser) at Silva Tree:
From: Keren Katz email@example.com
Date: 31 October 2010
We have come across the following article, posted on your site: http://redd-monitor.org/2010/04/21/blowing-smoke-a-new-investigation-into-fraudulent-carbon-offsets/
The original article came from the Christian Science Monitor, and has been replicated on your website. We have requested that the CSM retract this article with a public apology, and are in the process of taking legal action against them for defamation.
To clarify our true position, the Princess Project is currently being validated by the Rainforest Alliance for VCS Carbon credits. When the CSM visited the project, it was at an earlier stage of development but the project’s PDD was written and it was being certified as a carbon offset project. The CSM’s claim that Silva Tree are somehow being dishonest about their activities is ridiculous and defamatory. We have proof which has been submitted to American and Panamanian authorities that the information printed in the CSM, including quotes by associates of Silva Tree, have been deliberately twisted or changed to support the article’s agenda, and that the overall message of the article about our company is untrue.
We would like to ask you to please remove this article from your website, as it mis-represents our company’s activities and intentions. We are an organisation that facilitates sustainable development and poverty alleviation in developing countries. The more bad press we get, the less we can help people in need. To see for yourself what kind of work we do, please look at our online photo diary http://www.silvatree.com/photo-diary.html. Our Carbon offset project PDD is also available from our homepage as are a variety of resources that prove that we are both a genuine Carbon offset project and that we bring important benefits to local communities. The presence of this article on your blog is damaging to our organisation, and I hope that you will help us by removing it.
Many thanks in advance,
I wrote back, pointing out that I’d briefly summarised the Christian Science Monitor article, not replicated it. I asked which part of the paragraph I’d posted on REDD-Monitor, “mis-represents” Silva Tree’s “activities and intentions” or is “damaging” to Katz’s company. I noted that the Christian Science Monitor article was still available. And I asked for an interview.
Here’s Katz’s hilarious response:
From: Keren Katz firstname.lastname@example.org
Date: 1 November 2010 at 11:27
Subject: RE: redd-monitor
To: Chris Lang email@example.com
Thank you for the reply.
More than anything, the damage is done by promoting the CSM article, but the sentence “promises investors profits from logging” has the feeling of “logging” as an illegal of unethical practice. What we do is sustainable forestry. We do cut the trees down, but not without maintaining Carbon stocks in the project and allowing the trees to re-sprout, we are certainly not “logging”. Secondly, the sentence “’In fact, few trees have been planted“ is inaccurate. We have planted over 220,000 trees to date, I believe that is more than “a few”. In total, the project will have 1500 hectares planted, or over a million trees once it is complete. This of course cannot be done in one go as it is logistically impossible. The CSM journalists visited the project in its infancy and were very aware of this before they arrived. Silva Tree is developing its own micro-propagation laboratory in order to make sufficient seedlings for the project, as shipping them from the US proved to be time-consuming. Finally, the mention of our company as a part of what is clearly not a positive report, gives the impression that we are doing something wrong.
The CSM article is indeed still available, we are currently taking legal action againts the CSM to have it removed and to reclaim damages caused by it. We have given evidence against them and are waiting for the court hearing, which we expect any day.
We are an honest organisation trying to develop an environmental project with benefits to local communities, and we have been attacked by the CSM to fit into their 6-part piece about fraudulent Carbon projects. We are not falsely pretending to be certified, all our materials clearly state the stage of development that we are at. The CSM took our brochure, which contains a large section about the status of the Carbon project in terms of certification, and on the same page where this is explained, we have a bullet point which makes a part of our page design that says “VCS certified project”, and this has been taken our of context to make us look bad. They called and asked the receptionist of our UK marketing and admin company, a separate company to Silva Tree Panama, about the status of our certification and she answered that as far as she knows, it is done. The CSM were fully aware that the receptionist at an admin company would not know aything abou our VCS project and used this against us. This is despite the fact that all the relevant people that were interviewed explained the status accurately, despite the fact that I sent a statement in writing about the status of our certification process and conducted a telephone interview explaining that all our investors are fully aware of the certification status.
As I am sure you can understand, after our experience with the CSM, we are disinclined to give more interviews. I was contact by Sara Llana when she offered to do a positive piece about our project and the “wonderful work we were doing” in Panama. She then proceeded to twist and change all that we said into making us look like a dishonest organisation. Her article has cost us a great deal in reputation and revenue, it is defammatory and most importantly inaccurate. Even though I personally answered her questions by email, she interviewed some people that had nothing to do with Silva Tree and quoted them, in some cases actually changing their words, and ignoring the answers I officially presented to her. Since then, I have been very wary of giving interviews, even by email, for this reason. I am sure that REDD-monitor is highly ethical and would not do this, but that is what I thought about the CSM.
I would appreciate your assistance is rectifying the damage that has been done by the CSM article, even just by removing the small reference to us on your site. This has been an uphill battle for us, and one which we do not deserve. Any help you are able to give is greatly appreciated.