When the balding Australian first stepped off the riverboat and into the isolated pocket of northeastern Peru’s Amazon jungle in 2010, he had what seemed like a noble, if quixotic, business plan.
An ambitious real estate developer, David Nilsson hoped to ink joint venture agreements with the regional government of Loreto province and the leaders of the indigenous Matses community to preserve vast thickets of the tribe’s remote rainforest. Under a global carbon-trading program, he wished to sell shares of the forest’s carbon credits to businesses that hope to mitigate, or offset, their air pollution.
Located a six-day ride from the frontier city of Iquitos, the jungle’s vegetation, soils, and looming trees store an immense amount of carbon dioxide—roughly one ton, the equivalent of one UN-backed carbon credit, per tree.
In an ideal scenario, this is how it’s supposed to work: A community in a developing country works with an NGO or developer to design a plan to protect a large swathe of forest and thus prevent the release of the harmful chemical compound into the atmosphere, in accordance with the United Nations’ program called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). Then, it can get the emissions reductions certified by a third-party auditor and sell the resulting carbon credits to corporations in developed countries interested in reducing their own carbon footprints. (Deforestation accounts for roughly 17 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.)
Nilsson’s Hong Kong-based company, Sustainable Carbon Resources Limited, planned to help the indigenous community set up the Peruvian carbon credit project in exchange for sharing the profits once they were sold. If Nilsson’s plan worked, in theory the forest would be spared from loggers, his company would net some profit, and the indigenous community would receive millions of dollars in funding for education and medical care from investors and corporations interested in expanding sustainability and social responsibility efforts.
Nilsson recruited Dan Pantone, an Iquitos-based American ecologist with close contacts in the Matses community, as a guide to show him around the jungle, and, more importantly, introduce him to the right decision-makers.
“[Nilsson] told me, ‘You’re going to be a millionaire in a year,’” Pantone said of his earliest phone conversation. “He said he was going to help the indigenous people.”
Early on, Nilsson didn’t seem particularly interested in hammering out the details of a potential forest project.
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