By Chris Lang
Felix Finkbeiner, the 23-year-old tree-planting wunderkind, and his organisation Plant-for-the-Planet are in the news again. Last week, the German magazine Stern reported on Plant-for-the-Planet’s tree planting operations in Mexico. As a result of the research, the Stern‘s publishing house Gruner + Jahr has suspended its support for Plant-for-the-Planet.
Joachim Rienhardt, journalist with the Stern, visited Plant-for-the-Planet’s tree planting operations on the Yucatán Peninsula, in Mexico. He reports on the flooding that has drowned out a large area of Plant-for-the-Planet’s trees:
A few thin trees stand on the land. Only dry sticks with stunted branches poke out of the water: dead catalpa trees as far as the eye can see. What looked like a lake at the end of January 2021 was the first planted area. It has been flooded, about two metres deep, for more than half a year. “We can only see how many trees will survive when the water has gone,” says Finkbeiner. He is worried that almost all of them are lost.
In December 2020, the Zeit reported on the problems that Plant-for-the-Planet was facing in Yucatán. Before that article appeared, Plant-for-the-Planet claimed on its website to have “mastered” the flooding problem.
Finkbeiner tells the Stern that the problem was the language barrier. The workers in Mexico only speak Spanish, and the news of the flooding didn’t reach Germany. “That was shit, of course,” Finkbeiner says.
The Stern reports that the fruit drinks manufacturer Eckes-Granini has also pulled out of supporting Plant-for-the-Planet. A company spokesperson told the Stern that the company wanted “to avoid possible damage to its image”.
Rienhardt comments that, “In the meantime, it is about the credibility of the foundation, which has collected €27 million in donations to date.”
Frithjof Finkbeiner: the “Steve Jobs of the eco-scene”
In 2001, Frithjof Finkbeiner, Felix’s father, founded Tankah Enterprise in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, together with Raúl Negrete Cetina, a property agent. Tankah Enterprise bought 51 hectares of land in Tulum, then a quiet tourist resort. The land cost €1.3 million. Today Tulum is booming and the land is worth more than €100 million.
In 1994, several of Frithjof Finkbeiners companies went bankrupt. The Stern reports that according to his own statements, Finkbeiner still has about €3.5 million in private debt.
But Finkbeiner’s wife, Karolin, comes from an entrepreneurial family. That’s where the money came from for Tankah Enterprise. And the German company Finkbeiner Familien KG owns properties that bring in millions in rent.
Rienhardt spoke to a former Plant-for-the-Planet employee, who he gives the pseudonym Robert Brumm – he fears for his professional survival if he were to give his real name. He describes his involvement in Plant-for-the-Planet as a “black spot” in his career.
Brumm remembers a drink at which Frithjof Finkbeiner described himself as the “Steve Jobs of the eco-scene”.
Brumm doesn’t doubt Finkbeiner’s good intentions. But the longer he worked for him the more doubts he had about the Foundation and the way it operates.
Brumm tells the Stern about a payment of €100,000 to a school director in Malaysia. The payment took place shortly before the end of a two-year period in which earmarked donations had to be allocated. “He then reported a corresponding number of trees planted, send a photo and a certificate signed by the village mayor,” Brumm says. “No one ever checked this.”
The Plant-for-the-Planet Foundation was registered in November 2011. Frithjof Finkbeiner was founder and chairman until Felix was 18-years-old.
In addition to Finkbeiner, only two people are on the board: Sagar Aryal, a Nepalese activist, and Michael Durach, a friend of the family and Germany’s largest mustard manufacturer. The Board of Trustees consists only of Felix’s sister Franziska and their mother Karolin, according to Frithjof Finkbeiner.
Brumm says that,
The family always has the majority, and the right of veto on factual issues. This means that there is no discussion. They want total power. The Finkbeiners have what they consider to be a 100% world improvement idea. And they want to see it come true.
Finkbeiner tells the Stern that the structure is deliberate:
If I withdraw, there is a great risk that everything will break. I have to stick with it until the idea has developed. It is important that we determine the direction. There is a lot of heart and soul in it.
In Mexico, Plant for the Planet Asociación Civil was founded in 2013. The association’s three founders are its only members: Frithjof Finkbeiner, Raúl Negrete Cetina, and a German who got involved at short notice. He was later replaced by Felix Finkbeiner. There is no mention of the German Plant-for-the-Planet foundation in the founding act of the Mexican organisation.
Professor Michael Stöber, an expert in tax and foundation law told the Stern that, “There is no control body. That opens the door to abuse.” A clause in the founding act allows the association’s assets to be passed on to other non-profit organisations with no explanation needed. That would not be legal in Germany.
One trillion trees. Dreamed up in an aeroplane
In February 2011, at the start of the International Year of Forests, Felix Finkbeiner spoke at the United Nations in New York. That was the first time that Finkbeiner demanded that the world should plant one trillion trees.
According to Frithjof Finkbeiner, they came up with the one trillion figure on the flight over to New York. “We first had to prove that there was room for so many trees in the world,” Frithof Finkbeiner tells the Stern.
So, the origin of the ETH-Zürich 2019 paper in Science titled, “The global tree restoration potential” came from a chat in an aeroplane between Frithjof and Felix Finkbeiner. At the time, Felix was 13-years-old.
A few months after the ETH-Zürich paper was published, Science published a series of critical responses to the paper. One of the responses states that, “The claim that global tree restoration is our most effective climate change solution is simply incorrect scientifically and dangerously misleading.”
Plant-for-the-Planet provided Tom Crowther, an ETH-Zürich scientist, with almost €1.2 million in funding to carry out the research into the climate potential of tree planting. The money came from BMZ, the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation. A Ministry spokesperson told the Stern that,
Unfortunately, the study had regrettable shortcomings. The potential of the available areas, how quickly trees can absorb CO2 and how long they remain standing at all were clearly overestimated.
Frithjof Finkbeiner seems oblivious to the criticism of the ETH-Zürich paper. He tells the Stern that,
Each tree can bind ten kilos of CO2 every year. We have to raise €100 billion every year. Then we can plant 100 billion trees every year and 1,000 billion in ten years.
That, according to Finkbeiner, would absorb almost half of the CO2 emitted since the industrial revolution. In just ten years.
Rienhardt spoke to Stefan Rahmstorf, Professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Rahmstorf points out that the claims of addressing two centuries of greenhouse gas emissions simply by planting trees are “too good to be true.”
Rahmstorf also notes that, “It takes 50 years for a tree to develop its storage potential. Many trees are felled much earlier, fall victim to drought, or to bark beetles.”
Frithjof Finkbeiner tells the Stern that the exact numbers are not the point. “It’s a gift, whether the trillion trees compensate one- or two-thirds of the emissions. It buys humanity time.”
But the oil industry’s enthusiasm for large-scale tree planting reveals the sheer naivety behind this statement. Tree planting is not buying humanity time. It is buying the oil industry time to carry on business as usual, for as long as possible. And as the climate crisis intensifies, the risk of trees burning down, or dying in droughts or floods only increases.
A large part of Plant-for-the-Planet’s land is already forested
Plant-for-the-Planet aims to plant 100 million trees on its land in Mexico. But a large part of the more than 22,000 hectares of the project area is already forested. Plant-for-the-Planet has bought about half of the land. The rest is leased from ejidos, communities of farmers who the Mexican state has given usufruct rights to the land.
The land is in the state of Campeche, near the village of Constitución. According to Frithjof Finkbeiner, more than €2.6 million flowed from the German foundation Plant-for-the-Planet to buy land in Mexico. Most of it in the form of loans, the rest as donations.
The Stern attempted to find out whether Plant-for-the-Planet has approval from the Mexican state to plant trees on its land in Mexico. Rienhardt writes:
It is currently not possible to say with any certainty which use has been applied for and which has been approved. The relevant documents are currently not accessible at the responsible agricultural register due to the Corona pandemic. So far, Finkbeiner senior has only been able to provide evidence of approval for the afforestation, which is valid until 2019 for about 3,000 of the more than 22,000 hectares.
That 3,000 hectares includes Las Americas 1, which was largely under water when Rienhardt visited in late January 2021.
Las Americas 3 covers more than 10,000 hectares. It’s the largest of Plant-for-the-Planet’s plots of land. It’s inside the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Plant-for-the-Planet has not yet applied for a permit to plant trees here. A 2019 Plant-for-the-Planet planting report states that “Reforestation will start in the future”.
José Zuñiga Morales, director of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, tells the Stern that there won’t be any permit for tree planting inside the Reserve:
We have sovereignty over the area. The Mexican state decides what happens here. The highest protection zone applies here. You will never plant a tree here, let alone cut one down. Everything is left to nature here. At most, the forest can be used for research and teaching.
Frithjof Finkbeiner says that “We knew this was a nature reserve. We never intended to plant there.” That is simply not true. In January 2021, Plant-for-the-Planet’s website stated that an ecological assessment to determine whether it makes sense to plant in this area “is still pending”.
Some questions from REDD-Monitor for Frithjof Finkbeiner
Plant-for-the-Planet sells carbon offsets through Plant-for-the-Planet Service Gmbh. The Stern reports that the company buys carbon credits from biogas projects, or a project in India to replace kerosene lamps with solar lamps.
The Stern mentions the 18 detailed questions that REDD-Monitor sent to Frithjof Finkbeiner on 1 February 2021:
One of REDD-Monitor’s questions to Frithjof Finkbeiner notes that the information on Plant-for-the-Planet’s website about offsets is contradictory and confusing. The website’s “Frequently Asked Questions” included the statement that “Reforestation as official CO2 compensation makes little sense.” But the website also included a page titled “Become Climate Neutral Now!” that offered “The Plant-for-the-Planet Certificate – more than climate neutral”.
When I sent the questions to Finkbeiner, I asked for a reply within two weeks. After two weeks, Plant-for-the-Planet asked for another three weeks to respond. I’m still waiting for answers to my questions.
“I don’t understand anything about trees,” Frithjof Finkbeiner tells the Stern. “I’m a businessman. I’m responsible for the Euro.” A couple of my questions are about the business side of Plant-for-the-Planet’s operations – the governance of the various Plant-for-the-Planet companies, for example. But couldn’t Finkbeiner delegate the questions about tree planting to someone in the organisation who does know something about trees?
The Stern spoke to Bernd Neugebauer, a 69-year-old German forester, who runs his own reforestation project about 300 kilometres north of Plant-for-the-Planet’s project area. His mahogany trees, planted 30 years ago, are now 30 metres high.
Neugebauer wonders why Plant-for-the-Planet didn’t contact him. “We know each other from Germany,” he says. He accuses Plant-for-the-Planet of having “evaded professional support in a criminal way”. Local forest experts could have warned them against planting in low lying land in Las Americas 1. “It is well known hat there were repeated floods and long periods of drought there,” Neugebauer says.
Neugebauer points out the most serious problem with Plant-for-the-Planet’s operations in Mexico:
Forests only survive if the local people are involved. Smallholders must be able to live from it. Otherwise they have no interest in protecting forests.
The Finkbeiners’ tree-planting fairy tales
In March 2019, journalist Tin Fischer wrote about the claims that Plant-for-the-Planet made about how many trees it had planted. Writing in the German newspaper the Zeit, Fischer found that someone called “Valf F.” had planted 682 million trees in France. “Deekay” had planted 500 million tree in Egypt. Both names disappeared from Plant-for-the-Planet’s website after Fischer questioned whether their tree planting claims were genuine.
When REDD-Monitor took a look at Plant-for-the-Planet’s map of tree planting in Africa, I found a straight line of tree planting operations going for hundreds of kilometres diagonally through Nigeria and into Chad. Even stranger, the line continued into the Atlantic Ocean.
The Stern notes that Plant-for-the-Planet originally set a target of planting one trillion trees by 2020. That target has now been pushed back to 2030.
Plant-for-the-Planet claims to have planted 6.3 million seedlings so far in Mexico. “How many of them are actually still standing, nobody knows,” Rienhardt writes.
Plant-for-the-Planet’s fairy tales started before the Finkbeiners got involved. In 2006, the UN Environment Programme launched a “Billion Tree Campaign”. It included the Plant-for-the-Planet logo:
By November 2007, the one billionth tree was in the ground. By December 2011, when UNEP handed over the “Billion Tree Campaign” to the Finkbeiners’ Plant-for-the-Planet Foundation, more than 12 billion trees had been planted. The Stern reports UNEP’s Tim Christophersen as saying that the total had reached 14 billion trees.
Plant-for-the-Planet simply took UNEP’s numbers and gave the impression that children around the world had planted the trees. In fact, the vast majority of these trees were planted by governments. In 2018, Felix Finkbeiner claimed in an interview with bento.de that his biggest success that year was that one billion trees had been planted. But this was a tree-planting scheme run by the government of Pakistan and nothing to do with Plant-for-the-Planet. When the Zeit‘s journalist Tin Fischer pointed this out Finkbeiner said, “That was a lot of nonsense. I’m really ashamed. I can only apologise.”
In Mexico, Plant-for-the-Planet’s tree planting numbers have not been independently verified. Mexico’s National Forestry Commission has only visited Plant-for-the-Planet’s operations once. The local director of Conafor in Campeche tells the Stern that, “I don’t know what exactly is being done there. We have no money, no time and no staff to check it out.”
Plant-for-the-Planet previously claimed a 94% survival rate for the trees it planted in Mexico. That claim was based on counting about 4,600 trees to see how many survived, one year after they were planted. Today, Felix Finkbeiner apologises for claiming the 94% survival rate. “We didn’t have the people to check that, we wanted to save money. That was a mistake,” Finkbeiner tells the Stern. No kidding.
PHOTO Credit: The road to the planting site, near Constitución in Campeche, Mexico. Plant-for-the-Planet.