FROM PIG-POO TO FIREWOOD ON AN AIR CYCLE
Ferrarius; Netherlands, July 2022
With the ongoing commotion about the nitrogen crisis and the associated farmers’ grief, I was reminded of an issue from the first half of the 1990s. I came across it in my research on the deforestation of the rainforests in the Amazon and West Africa.
At that time there was a manure processing company “Promest”, in Helmond. It processed slurry from pig farms into fertilizer pellets. The idea was to use these granules worldwide as a soil enrichment product for agriculture.
A world market was at their feet. Not only would Promest solve the alarming manure surplus in the Netherlands in one fell swoop, but they would also become very wealthy from the pig poo that we hadn’t known how to get rid off until then. in fact, Promest would have to start importing poo soon, because they could never meet the demand with just that little bit of Dutch poo.
Jubilation arose from all corners of the country. Minister Braks came to grace the presentation of the building plans for the new-fangled industrial gem, together with national environmental cuddle Ed Nijpels, and even Queen Beatrix went to Helmond to admire this example of innovation and pure Dutch commercial spirit. Investors pumped as much as 135 million into the poo converter, and the government plunged an eight million grant into the project.
Jubilation quickly died down when it turned out that the farmers did not want to pay for delivering their poo to the Promest boys. One of those things one overlooks when drawing up a business plan. Shit happens, doesn’t it?
That was a bit of a swallow in the city of the “cat swatters”. No worries, the agile minds from Holland were convinced the enormous export potential would eventually save them. They aimed their arrows at the Middle East, because that’s where there was plenty of money… The entire withered sandbox, scourged by the sun, would be covered with a healthy layer of typical Dutch pig manure pellets, and after that a fresh green oasis would soon emerge. With fields full of waving ears of corn, here and there interrupted by a grain silo on the horizon.
Now the guys from Helmond understood that pig dung was de facto an unsavory business, but that the Arab’s would object for ideological reasons, was not something they’d counted on. They couldn’t smack the poo pellets onto their desert; the oinking curl tails were undoubtedly cheerful and intelligent, but first and foremost also unclean. Another minor misjudgement…
PIG-POO IN THE RAINFOREST
What now? The plan was at risk to turn into fiasco. In the nick of time, an angel from the west appeared. It was the Dutchman Gerardus Bartels, who had lived in Brazil for more than thirty years. He was Honorary Consul for the Netherlands in Belém, the capital of the Brazilian state of Pará.
The consul thought the Helmond pellets would pay; wanted to use them to boost the nutrient-poor soils in the Amazon region. Promest thought it could make about forty million annually there, and in the long run perhaps a multiple of that.
Now “honorary consul”, as the name suggests, is an honorary job. The consul cannot live on that, so Bartels also had other activities; Bartels was a woodcutter… He cut and sawed the rainforest to pieces, and made planks, frames or floorboards from it in his factory in Pará. He thought that, now that it had become his life’s fulfillment to fertilize the cleared rainforest, there had to be enough felling going on to do so. So, Bartels started buying up land.
And he proceeded diligently. In a few years he bought 370,000 hectares of tropical rainforest. For next to nothing, because rural hands are quickly filled in Brazil. After a few years, Bartels was the largest foreign landowner in the entire Brazilian Amazon.Unfortunately, the revelry would not last long… In August 1995, Promest filed for bankruptcy. Its financiers ran out of patience …
In hindsight it was too good to be true. Dutch pigs defecate, Promest makes pellets from it, sends them to Brazil. Bartels then throws it onto what once was rainforest, to grow crops on it. He then exports those back to the Netherlands, where we turn it into animal feed. The pigs eat that, then start pooping like madness again; and so further, and so on. Lo and behold the beauty of circular agriculture…
Just a shame the rainforest is being destroyed in the meantime.
THE RAINFOREST MOVES TO THE DUTCH COUNTRYSIDE
There he was with all those hectares of rainforest… Bartels had placed his land in two Brazilian companies: “Eco Brasil Holanda-Andira Ltda” and “Reflorestadora Ltda”. In desperation, he sold his interest in those to a few Dutch people in the countryside city of Winterswijk.
They founded the company “Eco-Brasil BV” and happily continued to cut down the virgin rainforest in the Amazonas state, because that’s where Bartels had acquired his land. They had devised a new business model: deforesting the rainforest and planting teak trees instead. Those would then yield many millions a year, or so the idea was… The Dutch – through this investment fund – sold Bartels’ rainforest in bite-sized chunks to Dutch private investors. With a nice return of up to one percent per month, and all under the guise of an ecologically responsible investment.
The countrysiders promised to plant a new tree for every teak tree they sawed down. Thus, a miraculous economic perpetuum mobile would arise, which would bring the participants eternal wealth and inner satisfaction.
Now teak trees are not native to the Brazilian rainforest. The species is not endemic to the region. Teak trees originate from South-East Asia. Why on earth would you exchange the Amazon Forest, rich with exotic tree species, for a teak plantation? Would that really benefit biodiversity?
This is where the economic ingenuity of the entrepreneurs from the Netherlands shows. You just sell that forest twice to begin with. Why wait twenty years for those teak trees to be ripe for the relentless sawing machines? Chop that native forest to smithereens, sell the expensive tropical hardwood through trade-channels and just pay part of the first returns to the investors, they must have thought…
However, Consul Bartels had unfortunately “forgotten” to arrange logging permits for his property in Amazonas, his rumbling in the rainforest was completely illegal. When the Dutch then threatened to drive out the Sateré-Mawé Indians who lived there, the state-governor intervened. In a joint action, the Military Police and the Sateré Mawé swept the area in a 10-day roundup. Five logging sites were closed, 250 loggers lost their jobs, and Eco-Brasil’s operations in Amazonas were halted. Bartels ended up on the wanted list of the Brazilian police, ripe for a few years in Graybar hotel.
In the meantime, 1,800 gullible Dutch had invested some fifty million in pieces of plantation near the town of Barreirinha in Amazonas. There was no income; after all, the operation had been shut down. Eco Brasil in the Netherlands survived for a few more years by paying investors returns from the deposits of new dorks who fell for the fund’s fables, but it finally fell over in 2003. The money ran out. That’s how it often ends with ponzi-like schemes…
A LAWYER IN THE GREAT GREEN FOREST
Meanwhile, The directors of the fund had been leading a luxury life. They bought expensive cars, real estate, and wasted huge sums in casinos. Lawsuits followed, and some of the gentlemen were sentenced in 2008 to fines and custodial sentences of up to six years.
The court appointed receiver sold Eco-Brasil’s assets to yet another Dutch investment fund. The proceeds of the sale went through a shady offshore construction in Curaçao. The new owners paid two million, and that money disappeared through the hands of a few compatriots to God knows where… The trade register of the Antilleans is a hollow vessel. There’s nothing in it; no names of directors, no filings of annual accounts, no articles of association, nothing…
The tropical forest eventually ended up with a Brazilian lawyer due to a collusion between a Dutch timber trader and the director of the Brazilian subsidiary of the new owners. Not a man of impeccable conduct. He was previously banned from office for three years for falsifying “rural property” title certificates. The same lawyer was also previously involved in an affair surrounding illegal bingos in Brazil. The then minister Rafael Greca of “Sports and Tourism”, successor of football legend Pelé, stumbled over that affair.
Another part of the Eco-Brasil property was sold to a Swiss public company, circumventing bankruptcy procedures. That transaction was instigated by the same Dutch people who organized the mysterious two-million-dollar disappearance via Curaçao. At the time, these individuals were listed on Interpol’s international wanted- list for involvement in illegal prostitution, human trafficking and drug smuggling. The deal was worth about $5 million. All in all, seven million into the cash register of God-knows-who…
In Brazil, there is a law that regulates land ownership by foreigners. On this basis, non-residents can only purchase land to a very limited extent. In the case of our diplomat, that was 2,750 hectares. The majority of his alleged properties had therefore been acquired illegally. Not only the felling was illegal, but the property itself was as well!!! How that is possible? Well, it’s astonishingly simple, and at the same time too stupid for words. A group of businessmen pay, and a bunch of officials receive. Corruption and fraud; it’s that simple.
The fight for Bartels’ lands continues. The rights of the area are still subject of legal wrangling. The Dutch are still trying to safeguard their rights, just like the Sateré Mawé. And our Brazilian Bingo lawyer and his buddies? They’re kind of okay with it. The booty is in, and the sawn-to-plank rainforest is howling.
Does this sound like a fantastic tale? An evil fable perhaps? Sadly, it’s the bitter truth.
I researched the activities of the Dutch in the rainforests of Brazil and Liberia. That combination may seem exotic, but they partly involve the same people. The result is astonishing. We, the Dutch, are involved in the exploitation of no less than 1.2 million hectares of virgin rainforest. Eight hundred thousand in the Amazon, and four hundred thousand in Liberia. This makes us a frontrunner in both areas.
It is not that those rights are in the hands of multinationals or even capable, respectable and specialized companies. It may surprise you (or not), but we’re facing freebooters, profiteers, opportunists and rascals of kinds.
WASTEPAPER IN THE APUÍ MOSAIC
There are mind blowing examples. It happened that a Dutch-Liechtenstein group claimed possession of a huge – largely protected – forest area in the south of the state of Amazonas based on a document from 1912. Not that it was clear from that document that they were the owners of those lands, but that is not necessarily a hindrance in Brazil. There are officials who simply allocate a piece of land (in this case 537,000 hectares) based on such an unclear document. That is possession, not ownership. You claim the land, as it were, squat it so to speak. A network of lawyers and civil-law notaries then ensures that these lands can be “sold on”, whether in smaller lots or not. They are then exploited by the new “owners”. That is (usually): cutting down trees, burning down the remains and selling the land on to poor farmers who put their livestock on it. The revenue for these “green entrepreneurs”, as they advertise themselves, runs into the tens of millions. Pure speculation, and illegal…
And what a surprise!!! That’s where our fraudulent Brazilian bingo lawyer comes in again. He is a partner of this club in the land of the yellow canaries. He also represents a notorious cooperative of more than 1,000 farmers in the heavily deforested state of Mato Grosso, just south of Amazonas.
The wood is sold to America or Europe. Estimates vary slightly, but in eighty-five to ninety percent of the cases, the shipments are accompanied by forged documents. It is a well-known practice in the timber-scene, also known as “warming up the wood”. The lumberjacks cut down trees in unlicensed areas, often protected nature reserves, then papers are added from another area with less valuable vegetation, for which a permit does exist.
This is how the precious wood arrives with us, with all the necessary papers and stickers, including the much-desired FSC certificate. And you – as a consumer – think you are buying a politically correct piece of wood. Well forget it; you absolutely cannot rely on it. In most cases your wood is really no good!!
Let me hasten to make it clear that there are exceptions, but a few years ago a large part of the Dutch timber traders was reprimanded. They had no control over the procedures in the supply channels.
ROBBERS IN MONROVIA
I found the same Dutch-Liechtenstein group n Liberia. They acquired concessions to exploit four hundred thousand hectares of rainforest there. A good part of Guus Kouwenhoven’s legacy, so to say…
The award of the contracts was very dubious. The local subsidiary was set up by the chairman of the Liberian lower house, along with an ex-minister, the then chairman of George Weah’s political party and another provincial politician. In the background, however, it was the Dutch – Liechtenstein combination that pulled the strings. Shortly before the concessions were awarded, they took over the shares of the Liberian political bigwigs. Not directly of course, that would be too obvious. An impressive Christmas tree with businesses in tax-friendly places exists inbetween…
The bidding process was very shady, and the decision-making process was subject to controversy. Only one conclusion can be drawn based on the due diligence that was performed under the auspices of (again) a Dutch company at the time: all concessions granted in Liberia are illegal! This does not only apply to timber exploitation, by the way. Whether it concerns diamonds, gold, iron ore, oil or wood (the poverty-stricken country has it all…), almost none of the contracts passes the smell-test. Sometimes proven corruption, very often a suspicion of…
And there’s more to it. The social contracts the Europeans concluded with the local population are hardly complied with, if at all. These contracts provide for the construction of roads to connect villages, the construction of hospitals and schools, training, hand pumps, and so on. Things desperately needed for the reconstruction of the country after two civil wars. Little to nothing of that all came to reality.
Fees are also included in the contracts. For example, the concession holders must pay annual land rental fees, as well as taxes. The Dutch-Liechtenstein combination is behind in the payment of tens of millions. A lot of money for penniless Liberia, which has made little progress economically since the end of the civil war.
Who’s behind that? How evil must those logging companies be? It may seem odd, but it’s not even about logging companies. The Dutch and their companions in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Brazil and Liberia are ex-bankers, insurers, currency traders and lawyers. The logging companies are just subcontractors.
Some of those gentlemen (because they are all gentlemen) have a history of ponzi schemes, currency scams, pump & dump schedules with stock funds, insider trading and insurance fraud. A fantastic mob to entrust the lungs of the world to…
And we just think that the cause lies with large multinationals, banks and pension funds or our own behavior. The consumer can cut back on meat, can’t they? Those factors certainly play a role. And for those who campaign against that, I would say: “Just keep going, and try your best”. But do you really solve that much that way? And yes, of course, JBS buys cattle from the Amazon, and trees have been cut down for that, Cargill puts in soy to make animal feed from it, and biomass isn’t just made from waste wood.
But how come? JBS — the world’s largest meat producer — really hasn’t cleared the Amazon Forest to raise cows, and Cargill hasn’t flattened the forest single-handedly to plant soy fields. It is not like these companies have a hand in the enormous forest fires that plague us every year in the Amazon region. And it is not like it’s them who exploit the bitterly poor population of Liberia, who fail to fulfill social contracts, who fail to pay the very meager monthly wages, and who only provide food rations when it’s convenient to them…
You can’t blame the rancher for the deforestation either. He was probably poor, in money and opportunity, could buy a piece of land for little. He simply sells his cattle to a trader, who then sells it on to JBS. Likewise, you can’t blame the lumberjacks. Those are just poor slobs who work for a middleman. They earn a meager wage, have no alternative.
The core of the issue is that things go wrong in land sales and the licensing of exploitation rights. Whether it is Brazil or Liberia, that process is the root of all misery… Is the problem substantial? Yes, you can rest assured that the vast majority of illegal logging and forest fires can be traced back to these mechanisms.
There are countless examples. Not just the Dutch, although we’re certainly amongst the key actors in the timber scam…
ENFORCEMENT, AN EXERCISE IN FUTILITY?
But what to do? How to act against systemic corruption? What about procedures and enforcement? Enforcement is complicated. To illustrate, the Mosaic of Apuí in southern Amazonas covers nearly two and a half billion square meters. The municipality in which it is located measures one and a quarter times the surface of the Netherlands, has no more than 22,000 inhabitants. It employs four police officers. Hardly anyone lives in the forest; there are no rangers, no patrols. The area is difficult to access. There are only sand and mud trails. Airborne detection with satellites happens but is by definition too late. Once the forest burns, the damage is already done.
I mentioned the paperwork before. Usually, it’s all on hand. But customs in the importing country checks no more than some two percent of containers that enter the port. And what’s the use of surveillance once 90% of documents are forged??? There’s really not much wrong at first sight…
A problem today is that every link in the chain can hide behind the previous one. Your supplier is hiding behind a distributor, who is hiding behind an importer. The importer points back to a supplier (sawmill or trader in the country of origin), who in turn refers back to the operator, who often works with subcontractors. And in these latter categories false certificates are often used. We rely too much on the document flow. An FSC certificate offers no guarantee whatsoever. Enforcement must take place more locally – in the concession areas. And permanent instead of incident driven.
And that is by no means an impossible task. The state of Amazonas is the largest in all of Brazil and is home to 62% of that country’s tropical rainforest. Nontheless, only a limited number of concessions have been issued out there, and they are well identified.
Just enforce on location, I’d say. The amount of manpower required for this cannot be a problem. The alternative takes much more effort.
A good example is the south of Amazonas, where our Dutch-Liechtenstein heroes indulge their territorial urges. A major enforcement action took place there in 2017. Apui and Humaíta, two towns on the border of the protected “Mosaic of Apui”, were at that time the main hot spots in the country when it came to forest fires. Eight hundred police officers and soldiers were sent there. The situation had grown out of hand, and had to be brought under control: nineteen hundred fires in just one month…
The troops remained active there for about a year, but when the pack had left, the phenomenon just reared its head again… How many officers would it take to set up proper preventive control in those few concession areas? Certainly not eight hundred. The approach is simply not proper!!
And do something about that silly self-regulatory land registration via the “Cadastre Ambiental Rural”. That’s begging for trouble! How do you come to grant everyone the right to claim their own piece of “undeveloped land”? The register is widely abused… The taxation should act as a brake, but the ITR (Imposto sobre a Propriedade Territorial Rural) excludes protected natural areas. So, you don’t have to pay taxes on those. That’s almost like encouraging landgrabbers to claim conservation areas.
In Liberia it’s a different thing. The “chain of custody” is in better order there, but the problem manifests itself in the award of concessions. The international community has tried to do something about this. In recent years, mainly through the implementation of “Voluntary Partner Agreements” by the EU, with a lot of emphasis on tightening up procedures.
However, the problem lies in the persistence of systemic corruption, not so much in the lack of procedures. Corruption can be eradicated if the international community takes the lead, claims more influence in the bidding decision-making process. This is easily possible in a country that is largely dependent on foreign aid. About 500 to 600 million annually now flows into Liberia, half of the country’s annual government spending. The result is nil. The country must be taken by the hand if it is ever to get its act together…
But what about the sovereignty of the state? I understand the argument, but some pragmatism is really desirable. Who pays, decides is a well-known adage in business. That may be like swearing in the church of international diplomacy, but there may be no other way to solve it…
Despite all the good intentions of the international community, the Liberian people are not benefiting from the “revitalization” after the second civil war. The “logging companies” ignore contract conditions en mass. Whether it’s paying taxes and fees or fulfilling social obligations, and that’s a disgrace… If the Liberian people don’t benefit, then what’s the use of destroying their forests??? Where wages stand at a hundred dollars a month, where woodcutters support a family of eight plus their unemployed fellow villagers and their families. Where the wood sector employs no more than some 10,000 workers, a fraction of the working-age population. Where frequently wages aren’t even paid out or severely delayed? Even a half-serious international aid-program would help the country more than that!!!
Drive them out of the country! Hit the reset button! Ensure a bidding process with sufficient (international) supervision. And pre-sort on logging companies that can demonstrate a solid reputation. Because they’re there… They are not many, but they are there. And they are also known.
Today local communities have received 55,000 dollars out of the 17 million that were to benefit the native population from the post-war concession contracts. The result of arrears from concessionaires, and what – above that – subsequently sticked to Monrovian fingers…
And then there’s enforcement in the Netherlands. When Greenpeace objected to a lack of enforcement at the Dutch and Commodities Authority (NVWA) in 2014, a whole series of lawsuits followed, up to the Supreme Court. What was the case? Six Dutch timber importers from the Amazon rainforest could not show sufficient control over the “chain of custody”. Illegal wood was being imported! The NVWA sufficed with a warning, to the dismay of Greenpeace.
The discussion was subsequently drawn up whether or not the NVWA should enforce retroactively.
Initially a judge agrees with Greenpeace, but in a following appeal another judge discards the verdict. The minister is even involved. The – astonishing – conclusion in supreme court is that retroactive enforcement is not always necessary. Once an engaged entity is not a market player anymore, enforcement is not considered useful any longer… Former directors remain unprosecuted.
Well, the gentlemen (because unfortunately, they’re all gentlemen again!) understood that alright. Their businesses exploded, in liquidation or bankruptcy. And the trade? The trade moved abroad. More specifically to Belgium via a tiny company under Dutch management. A subsidiary of a company in Hong Kong; ultimate beneficiaries unknown…
In the meantime, the rainforest is going down the drain… And the Dutch play a large and dubious role in that. So, before you open another barrel full of big words about consumer behavior and industries, you should really lean back and think about this for a moment. What is the core of the problem? And governments…, do something! It is your officials who facilitate the improper use of laws. It is your organization that renounces enforcement, addresses all kinds of rascals with velvet gloves, if anything happens at all! And it’s your laws and rules, change them. Do something!!!
I was sued twice up to now by people who have an interest in the subject-matter. They don’t want me to write about it. Crazy, huh? Fortunately, the judges have been sensible so far… In the upcoming months I will publish more in detail on the deforestation in Amazonas and Liberia, with names and jersey numbers… If you want to know what’s really going on, then keep an eye on my socials…