‘Saviour of carbon markets’ faces questions over African land rights

Families peel cassava in Port Loko district, Sierra Leone (picture: SourceMaterial)Source Material | 29 May 2024

‘Saviour of carbon markets’ faces questions over African land rights

Carbon markets, once touted as a boon for investors and the climate alike, are in freefall, rocked by allegations of human rights abuses—and doubts about whether they work at all.

Kevin Godlington has a model to revive them. The former soldier, TV presenter, and campaigner against “toxic masculinity”, hopes to launch Carbon Done Right on London’s junior exchange AIM in the coming months, buoyed by a $2.5 million commitment from BP.

As recently as last August, Barclays estimated that the market for offsets, which companies buy to claim they have cancelled out harmful emissions, was on track to reach $250 billion by 2030. Instead it has shrunk to just $500 million following findings by SourceMaterial that 94 per cent of the most popular credits may do little to slow global warming.

Carbon Done Right, initially listed on the Toronto exchange after the reverse takeover of a junior mining company, will use a “proprietary tech system” to monitor the replanting of Sierra Leonean rainforest, alongside projects in Mexico, Guyana and Suriname.

Buyers of its offsetting credits will benefit from “extraordinary levels of trust and traceability to ensure farmers get paid fairly”, according to its website. Yet even before its debut on London’s Alternative Investment Market, The Times and SourceMaterial found that some had questions over the land it needs to meet its goals.

Carbon Done Right said in March that it had “secured access to 57,000 hectares” in Sierra Leone. But no leases have been registered with local authorities.

A spokesman for Carbon Done Right admitted that no leases have been registered, saying that the statements about “secured access” referred to “development rights” and that leases are being drafted in accordance with local land laws.

“I have never heard this language about development rights,” said Joseph Rahall, who heads Green Scenery, a Freetown-based advocacy group and took part in drafting Sierra Leone’s new land law in 2022.  

Buawah Jobo Samba, head of national land policy at the Sierra Leone land ministry, said that it was unclear to him what the company means by “development rights”.

“The law that provides access to land says it should be done through negotiations with landowners,” he said.

The company’s admission document makes clear that all its leases are still pending.

‘Development rights’

Godlington, Carbon Done Right’s president, is a former presenter of Operation Homefront, a Channel 5 series in which ex-soldiers took on building projects for charity. The 48-year-old was deployed to Sierra Leone with the British Army in 2000 and has since set up several ventures there, including a palm oil-based skincare line, as well as founding a charity for war orphans.

Carbon Done Right has drawn up consent documents with landowners for 5,000 hectares of land in Port Loko district, 60 kilometres north of the capital, Freetown. It has planted seedlings on roughly 1,400 hectares of land while it waits for the official lease to be finalised.

“We do not feel it is right.”

Yet some people say that they do not have access to the papers they signed, and are confused about how much land they have given away, for how long.

“We do not have the agreement. We don’t know how many years they want the land for,” one landowner, Philip Mansaray, said.

The company hopes to expand its 5,000-hectare area by a further 20,000 hectares and has already started negotiating with other communities in the region. The land over which it claims to have secured “development rights” covers a further 32,000 hectares, in both Port Loko and Kambia district.

‘Deep mistrust’

Some people in Port Loko are wary of foreign investors after an Indian company bulldozed their crops to make way for a palm oil plantation 12 years ago and then fled the country after failing to pay the land rent.

About 42,000 hectares of the land, some of which is now earmarked for the offsetting project, once belonged to a palm oil company part-owned by Godlington. He and his partners sold Sierra Leone Agriculture to Indian investors, who were later sued by local communities for defaulting on leases.

When a Freetown court ordered the investors to pay $250,000 in uncollected rent, their workers abandoned the plantation and fled to neighbouring Guinea, according to Daniel Sesay, a paralegal at Namati, a non-governmental organisation assisting farmers in negotiations with Godlington’s companies.

Godlington, who had no involvement in the later dispute and says that as a minority shareholder he was “dragged” unwillingly into the sale, concedes that the experience has made local chiefs, who are key intermediaries in talks with landowners, wary of foreign investment.

“Rightly, the chiefs and landowners were unhappy,” he said. “I remained in close contact with most of the chiefs. Understandably, some of them wouldn’t talk to me because they didn’t understand the history and the situation. In Africa, when a company changes hands it leads to deep mistrust.”

‘A lot of promises’

Some farmers told SourceMaterial they were confused about what Carbon Done Right was offering them, and that they had not seen any documents relating to the proposed leases.

“This company came with a lot of promises,” Alusine Conteh, a landowner, said. “They are trying to persuade us to give our land to them. We do not feel it is right.”

It is understood that Carbon Done Right has communicated extensively with the relevant communities in relation to the business plan of the project, has the necessary level of approval and has provided landowning families with copies of their landowner lease agreements.

Godlington and James Tansey, Carbon Done Right’s chief executive, will now be hoping concerns over land do not affect their flotation.

Other pitfalls could also await. Some of the seedlings in the project area have been destroyed by fire, and others that had withered and died. Godlington said the region’s dry climate means palm oil planting “would not work commercially, however hard we tried”, but that reforestation with native species will be more sustainable.

“I truly believe that there is a way to connect smallholders with technology such that a high value premium carbon credit could be originated in Africa, in a way that you could share the profit properly with the smallholder farmer, so that they would take care to look after the trees as they have value in them,” he said.

“This is not a good place to plant,” said Almamy Sesay, a local land rights activist.  

Some names have been changed. 

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