By Chris Lang
On 11 January 2021, REDD-Monitor wrote about Plant-for-the-Planet’s dubious claims about its tree planting operations in Mexico. The post was based in part on an article in the German newspaper the Zeit by Hannah Knuth and Tin Fischer.
On 26 January 2021, Helge Bork of Plant-for-the-Planet wrote to REDD-Monitor:
We have become aware of your reporting on Plant-for-the-Planet and would like to talk to you.
Please let us know how we can reach you by phone.
I replied on 29 January 2021, suggesting a call sometime the following week. The reply came half-an-hour later: “Frithjof, Felix’ father and founder of the Plant-for-the-Planet Foundation, will contact you on Monday at 10 am [European Central Time].”
On 1 February 2021, I replied, pointing out that I hadn’t realised I would be talking to Frithjof Finkbeiner. I explained that I would be happy to talk to Finkbeiner, but would prefer our conversation to be on the record.
I sent a series of question for Frithjof Finkbeiner and asked for a reply within two weeks.
I added that, “If you would prefer more time in order to answer the questions properly, that’s fine.” (My position on deadlines is borrowed from Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”)
Helge Bork wrote back thanking me for “entering into dialogue and sending detailed questions”. She cancelled the 10 am call. “We’ll do our best to get back to you with the answers within the set timeframe,” she wrote.
On 15 February 2021, Bork wrote again, just as the two week deadline went whooshing by:
We have found that we need more time to answer your questions thoroughly. Felix is currently on his way back to Europe after spending several months in Mexico for research and building a team of Mexican scientists.
We plan to answer your questions by 8 March and hope that this is not too late.
Of course it’s not too late. REDD-Monitor looks forward to posting Frithjof and/or Felix Finkbeiner’s replies in full and unedited as soon as they arrive. In the meantime, here are REDD-Monitor’s questions:
- The ETH-Zürich paper (Bastin et al. 2019) published in Science magazine described “global tree restoration as our most effective climate change solution to date”. There were several critical responses to this paper – also published in Science. Friedlingstein et al., for example, conclude that, “Bastin et al. strongly overestimate the potential of forest restoration to mitigate climate change. The claim that global tree restoration is our most effective climate change solution is simply incorrect scientifically and dangerously misleading.”
Bastin et al. have subsequently published an Erratum acknowledging that, “climate change is an extremely complex problem with no simple fix and that it will require a full combination of approaches”. The authors have deleted the sentence from their paper about tree planting being “the most effective climate change solution”.
Yet the front page of Plant-for-the-Planet’s website states that, “Trees are one of the most powerful tools against the climate crisis.” How do you respond to the criticism that Plant-for-the-Planet is promoting a false solution to the climate crisis?
- Why did Plant-for-the-Planet choose an area of land on the Yucatán Peninsula for its tree planting project? In the “Frequently Asked Questions” section of the website, Plant-for-the-Planet states that areas in Kenya, Tanzania, Lesotho, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico were considered and that “After weighing up many criteria, the decision was made in favour of the federal state of Campeche [on the Yucatán Peninsula].” What, exactly, were the criteria you used to reach this decision? Could you send me a copy of these criteria? Who actually made the decision to buy the plots of land on the Yucatán Peninsula?
- How did Plant-for-the-Planet choose which plots of land to buy in Campeche? How much more land is Plant-for-the-Planet planning to buy on the Yucatán Peninsula? I understand that Ranchos 2, 4, 5, and 6 are regulated by agricultural law, and Ranchos 1 and 3 by Mexican property law. Please explain the implications of this and please describe the process of getting permission for the forestry operations that Plant-for-the-Planet is engaged in, for each of the plots of land. Can you show legal certificates for the ownership of, and activities carried out on, each of the land plots?
- Did Plant-for-the-Planet carry out a process of free, prior and informed consent with the local communities before buying each of the plots of land? If so, what did this process look like, and who carried it out? Was it documented in any way? Did Plant-for-the-Planet discuss its proposals with the National Forestry Commission of Mexico (CONAFOR) before buying the plots of land? Has Plant-for-the-Planet entered into discussions with CONAFOR since buying the plots of land?
- What were the plots of land used for before Plant-for-the-Planet bought them? Who owned the plots of land?
- Plant-for-the-Planet has started a tree planting trial near the small village of Constitución. How is this trial funded? How was the purchase of the plot of land funded? The trial is being carried out under the guidance of Imperial College, London and ETH-Zürich. Why did Plant-for-the-Planet choose to work with those institutions, rather than working with forest researchers based in universities and research institutions in Mexico?
- Before deciding to plant trees on the plots of land, did Plant-for-the-Planet carry out research into the possibility of natural regeneration on these plots? If so, who carried out this research, and was any of it published? Could you please send me copies of this research.
- One of the plots of land that Plant-for-the-Planet bought (Rancho 3) is inside the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. I understand Plant-for-the-Planet does not yet have permission to plant trees on this plot of land, and an ecological assessment to determine whether it makes sense to plant tree here has still not been carried out. Why, then, did Plant-for-the-Planet buy this plot of land?
- Plant-for-the-Planet’s Frequently Asked Questions on its website include the statement that, “You need to know: A biosphere reserve in Mexico is not comparable with a biosphere reserve in Germany. This named biosphere reserve Calakmul is primarily available on paper. There is still illegal hunting and much clearing in some areas.” How will buying a plot of land inside the Biosphere Reserve help to address illegal hunting and clearing of forest in the Biosphere Reserve?
- The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), in a 2016 brochure titled, “Biosphere Reserves – inspiring action for Agenda 2030”, describes the UNESCO biosphere reserves as “an ideal instrument to support partner countries in their efforts towards conservation and sustainable use of their biodiversity and to identify sustainable pathways for development”. How do you explain the dramatic difference between Plant-for-the-Planet’s and BMZ’s points of view on biosphere reserves?
- The Selva Maya Programme run by the German development agency GIZ includes the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Has Plant-for-the-Planet had any contact with GIZ about its work in Calakmul Biosphere Reserve? Or with the director of the biosphere reserve? Or with any of the conservation organisations working to protect the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve? Or with local communities and Indigenous Peoples living in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve? If so, what were the outcomes of these discussions, and how did they influence Plant-for-the-Planet’s decision to buy a plot of land inside the biosphere reserve?
- In the recent Zeit article about Plant-for-the-Planet, Hannah Knuth and Tin Fischer write that Karolin Finkbeiner set up a company in Mexico with Raúl Negrete Cetina in 2002. What is the name of this company, and what exactly does it do? Cetina also set up Plant-for-the-Planet A.C. in Mexico. What is Cetina’s role in Plant-for-the-Planet A.C.?
- In addition to the Plant-for-the-Planet Foundation which is registered in Germany, Plant-for-the-Planet has a company called Plant-for-the-Planet UK, that was registered in the UK on 30 May 2012. Could you please explain what this company does and why you set it up? (I note that the most recent accounts filed with Companies House show assets and reserves of £0 for 2019.) I understand that Šimon Michalčík, one of the directors of Plant-for-the-Planet UK, founded Plant-for-the-Planet in Czechia. There are also the following companies: Plant-for-the-Planet Aschaffenburg e.V.; Plant-for-the-Planet Initiative e.V.; Plant-for-the-Planet Service GmbH; Plant-for-the-Planet Wipperfürth e.V.; Plant-for-the-Planet Stiftung Schweiz; and Plant-for-the-Planet U.S. How many Plant-for-the-Planet companies are there in total? What are all these companies for? How are the various companies coordinated and governed?
- The Zeit article also reports that in 1994, several of your companies went bankrupt, and you later became insolvent. By 2003, according to the Zeit, you had private debts of almost €3.9 million. Could you please comment on this – which companies went bankrupt, and how did you amount such large private debts?
- In the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of the website, Plant-for-the-Planet states that, “Reforestation as official CO2 compensation makes little sense.” Elsewhere, the Plant-for-the-Planet website acknowledges that, “On their own, trees cannot solve the climate crisis. We must also drastically cut global carbon emissions by ending the use of fossil fuels, reducing meat consumption and more. Restoring forests can never be a substitute for reducing emissions.”
Yet Plant-for-the-Planet’s website includes a page titled, “Become Climate Neutral Now!” That page states, “The Plant-for-the-Planet Certificate – more than climate neutral: We plant trees on the Yucatán Peninsula which capture CO2 and have valuable co-benefits for the sustainable development for the people on-site.” And another page on Plant-for-the-Planet’s website tells us that, “A potential way to offset your greenhouse gas emissions is planting trees. Our promise: We care for the trees planted for carbon neutrality until the to be compensated amount of CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and the carbon is stored in the wood. That is what our on-site forest engineers and the scientists at the Crowther Lab, ETH Zürich, who monitor our project, stand for.”
Offsetting allows emissions from burning fossil fuels to continue – offsets are the excuse that polluting industries, such as the oil industry and the aviation industry, are using to continue polluting. The information on Plant-for-the-Planet’s website about offsets is contradictory and confusing. Could you please explain exactly what Plant-for-the-Planet’s position is on carbon offsets and on leaving fossil fuels in the ground? Does Plant-for-the-Planet claim that by paying for trees to be planted on the Yucatán Peninsula a company can say that it is “Carbon Neutral”?
- Plant-for-the-Planet’s website states that the Crowther Lab monitors Plant-for-the-Planet’s tree planting operations in Campeche. Could you please send copies of the monitoring reports produced by the Crowther Lab. Why do you not make these reports publicly available via the Plant-for-the-Planet website?
- I understand that Plant-for-the-Planet buys Certified Emission Reduction credits and retires them on behalf of companies wanting to offset their emissions. From which projects does Plant-for-the-Planet buy carbon credits, and how much does Plant-for-the-Planet charge companies per carbon credit?
- The Plant-for-the-Planet website lists 12 people who work in the organisation’s “Corporate Partnerships Team”. Could you please explain what it means to become a corporate partner of Plant-for-the-Planet. More than 30 companies are listed as partners on the website, and very many more as supporters. Please explain the difference between partners and supporters. Do you worry that Plant-for-the-Planet is greenwashing companies by allowing them to associate with your organisation while continuing to pollute?