By Chris Lang
A US-based company called NIHT Inc has big REDD plans for the provinces of New Ireland and East New Britain in Papua New Guinea. So far, the NIHT Topaiyo REDD+ Project covering an area of 10,443 hectares of forest, has been registered by Verra. The project is in the south of the island of New Ireland. NIHT Inc plans to expand its operations, as the project description on Verra’s website explains:
What began as a traditional timber operation has been recognized as an opportunity with enormous carbon sequestering potential, and has evolved into a forest protection project that will provide substantial economic benefits to the people of Papua New Guinea. Through the avoidance of carrying out exploitative industrial commercial timber harvesting in the project area, the project expects to generate nearly 60 million tons of CO2 emissions reductions across the 30 year project lifetime, depending on the number and size of Project Activity Instances (PAIs) added to the project.
NIHT stands for New Ireland Hardwood Timber.
NIHT Inc’s first “Project Activity Instance” is carried out with the Kamlapar Incorporated Landowner Group in the Konoagil Rural Local Level Government (LLG). Here’s a map from the Project Description Document with New Ireland outlined in green, East New Britain in red, and the NIHT Topaiyo REDD+ Project coloured in blue:
Babida David Sepmat Gavara-Nanu is a criminal defence lawyer in Port Moresby. His family is from New Ireland, and he belongs to the first generation that had been raised in the city. He worked for 18 years in Papua New Guinea’s justice system and came across REDD in the early 2000s. Earlier this year, he completed his PhD research at Flinders University in Australia: “Carbon Fraud & Illicit Networks: Risks in REDD+”.
His PhD includes a detailed look at NIHT Inc’s REDD plans on New Ireland. Gavara-Nanu’s interviews were not carried out in the area of NIHT Inc’s first REDD project in Konoagil. His interviews with villagers were in the Sentral Niu Allan Rural LLG. NIHT Inc is planning to expand its operations in this area. His research is extremely revealing of how NIHT Inc is persuading clans to sign up to the company’s projects. There is no process of free, prior and informed consent in NIHT Inc’s interactions with the New Ireland Indigenous communities.
Gavara-Nanu carried out his fieldwork on the island of New Ireland between 2017 and 2019. He interviewed customary landowners, members of the police, and forestry officers. He reports that “the collected data yielded significant results … that show how an illicit network takes advantage of indigenous communities”. He describes the members of this network as “carbon cowboys”.
No process of free, prior and informed consent
Gavara-Nanu found that when he started his fieldwork in 2017, most people he spoke to had not heard the terms “REDD+” and “carbon trading”. By 2019, he found that many people had heard of “carbon trading”, without knowing how it worked. The term “REDD+” was still not known.
Here’s how one of the villagers explained his understanding of carbon trading to Gavara-Nanu:
“Maybe they come, they put up something like [a] capturing umbrella or something, to capture the air from the big trees. Then they store them up in tanks and then they sell this as oxygen.”
Another version involved “four winds”. Gavara-Nanu summarised this as follows: “These winds are what the developed countries are after. They will remove these winds from the trees to give to the developed world who need it because these countries have almost no good wind left.”
Before interviewing villagers, Gavara-Nanu obtained their consent to be interviewed. That involved explaining climate change, which he did by giving example of changes in the weather, such as heat waves and droughts, and explaining how these were connected to climate change. He had more difficulty explaining carbon trading. “It was difficult to explain carbon strictly scientifically and to do so from English to Tok Pisin was near impossible,” he writes.
In fact, it seems that the villagers have a pretty good understanding of the carbon trading scam. Gavara-Nanu writes that,
It became more complicated when I had to explain how the ‘white man’ has devised a method to calculate one tonne of carbon that they can sell or trade in order to allow them to continue to emit carbon — basically, to allow them to continue putting bad smoke into the air. The irony was not lost on the villagers. Some would ask: why would someone pay another person to simply make more bad smoke again?
The villagers talked about “Awareness” sessions during which representatives of NIHT Inc supposedly explained carbon trading and the REDD project. In one awareness session at Konos, a fight broke out between villagers who supported logging and those who wanted carbon trading.
Based on a September 2018 interview with a villager in Dampet, Gavara-Nanu describes the “requirement for carbon trading membership” as follows:
[A]t the awareness session it was announced that villagers who signed up to the carbon trading scheme must organise 50 or more of their own clan members to join. They must then organise each clan members’ identification photos to be taken, in order to apply for their national identity cards. Thereafter they must open bank accounts, then have their land surveyed and finally incorporate their land groups. This all had to be done within two weeks as the documents were to be submitted to the group to take to Kokopo, in the East New Britain Province where they would meet with the American. The villagers were then told that the American would fly back to America with their documents but that he would return ‘soon’. Upon his return to PNG, all the villagers’ bank accounts would be credited with large sums of money.
The villager’s clan had spent about US$1,500 in total, including for travel to Kavieng and arranging for the bank to send four representatives to the village to open bank accounts for the villagers. That’s a large sum of money for the villagers.
Gavara-Nanu returned to New Ireland in January 2019 and met the same villager, who told him that her clan had decided to go ahead with registering for carbon trading with NIHT Inc. At this point, they had still not met anyone from the US-based company NIHT Inc.
February 2019: NIHT Inc turn up in Konos
In February 2019, three representatives of NIHT Inc gave an awareness session in Konos: Phil Baquie; Steve Strauss; and Bob Strauss.
This was NIHT Inc’s first visit to the area, according to Gavara-Nanu’s research. Many villagers told him “they had never heard of nor seen NIHT before that day”. The three men from NIHT Inc did not explain REDD+. Neither did they hand out any brochures or leaflets to explain the scheme.
Instead, they had brought a printed list of the names of all the clans in the area. NIHT Inc said that they only needed two senior clan members to sign the form to bind the entire clan to the agreement.
Gavara-Nanu interviewed the chairman and vice-chairman of the landowner group that was partnering with NIHT Inc. They had been carrying out the awareness sessions for carbon trading in Sentral Niu Allan Rural LLG.
“Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly,” Gavara-Nanu writes, “after almost two years of promoting carbon trading to other villagers, they were waiting for the carbon trading concept to be properly explained to them by the Americans.”
The chairman of the landowners group told Gavara-Nanu that NIHT Inc had explained to him that there are four types of wind: green, blue, red, and yellow. The blue wind was the most valuable and was only found in the forests of central New Ireland.
Rumours of carbon riches
“NIHT has made large promises to the villagers and fuelled huge expectations about the supposed windfall,” Gavara-Nanu writes. Most villagers wanted to believe they could earn large amounts of money without damaging their natural environment. Rumours were circulating about clans getting as much as US$30 million from carbon trading.
Villagers in Dampet have heard rumours about villagers in the south of the island becoming rich from carbon trading. One story was about a man who stopped working at the Simberi gold mine and instead went back to his village to collect his monthly carbon payment.
The chairman of the landowners group told Gavara-Nanu that in February 2019 Strauss and Baquie told him they had a cheque for him and his clan for US$4 million. But the clan had not yet completed the 14 steps needed by NIHT Inc “for acceptance as a viable carbon project”. So NIHT Inc would take the cheque back with them to the US.
Strauss and Baquie claimed to have given US$13 million to clans in Konoagil in the south of the island, and US$8 million to landowners in Bougainville. NIHT Inc also claimed to have given a cheque for millions of dollars to the Laragat clan. (Gavara-Nanu spoke to the Konos Police Station Commander, who told him that a Laragat clan member said they did not receive any money from NIHT Inc.)
Meanwhile the chairman of the landowners group said that NIHT Inc was promoting logging the landowners’ forests, promising that royalties would be paid before the logs are shipped overseas. The landowners were quite happy about the logging because NIHT Inc had promised they would get 70% of the money from the sale of the logs. And NIHT Inc promised that it would provide chainsaws and portable sawmills for the villagers to saw the logs into planks.
NIHT Inc would ship containers to central New Ireland. The villagers would load the containers with planks in their own time, then NIHT Inc would export the containers. All expenses would be paid by NIHT Inc.
NIHT Inc also said it would buy a hotel in Rabaul in East New Britain. That would be the company’s PNG headquarters. NIHT Inc would open an office in Konos and employ local people. And NIHT Inc would open a bank in Rabaul – to facilitate the transfer of huge sums of money from the US.
CORRECTION – 17 November 2020: Changed the word “with” to “without” in this sentence: “Most villagers wanted to believe they could earn large amounts of money without damaging their natural environment.”
Added the word “promoting” to this sentence: “Meanwhile the chairman of the landowners group said that NIHT Inc was promoting logging the landowners’ forests…”.