Scramble for Africa

29 November 2023

Scramble for Africa

Inside carbon offsetting’s megadeal

An Emirati sheikh and an Italian fugitive are hoovering up land for an ambitious project that critics say will make the climate crisis worse

In December 2008, Samuele Landi fled Italy, leaving behind his wife and their medieval castle on its 44-acre Tuscan estate, and boarded a flight for Dubai.

Sentenced in his absence to eight years in jail over the fraudulent sale of an aircraft, the self-described “IT guy” and “libertarian” today lives on a barge in the Arabian Gulf that he has declared an independent microstate. Now he has emerged at the centre of one of the world’s biggest and most controversial carbon offsetting deals. 

Landi, 58, is an adviser to Blue Carbon, owned by Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, a member of Dubai’s royal family. The company has negotiated leases for 25 million hectares of African forest—about 10 per cent of the landmasses of Zambia, Tanzania and Liberia, and 20 per cent of Zimbabwe, a total area the size of the United Kingdom.

“The scale is truly staggering”

Blue Carbon’s projects will protect forests or plant trees to help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, generating credits for sale to polluters who want to cancel out their greenhouse gas emissions. Earlier this year a SourceMaterial investigation found that offsets like this are largely ineffective. That hasn’t stopped governments embracing them as a way to meet climate treaty obligations, and Blue Carbon’s megadeals are part of a growing trend. 

“The scale of the land that Blue Carbon is set to take control of is truly staggering,” said Alexandra Benjamin, a forest expert at Fern, an environmental campaign. “Under the pretext of fighting the climate crisis, this new scramble for Africa is unfolding at alarming speed.”

Responding to questions from SourceMaterial, Le Monde and The Telegraph, a spokeswoman for Blue Carbon said that the company is “committed to assisting businesses and government in reaching their net zero goals”.

“Our organisation operates with transparency and accountability as paramount values, and we remain steadfast in our dedication to international cooperation for the realisation of socially and environmentally responsible projects,” she said.

Consul general

In March 2022 the coronavirus-masked Liberian president, George Weah, stepped from a private jet onto a red carpet in Dubai. There to greet him with an elbow bump was Landi. 

Seven years earlier, a court in Arezzo, a small city 50 kilometres south of Florence, had sentenced Landi over the fraudulent bankruptcy of Eutelia, then one of Italy’s biggest telecoms companies. Landi and his brother siphoned around 60 million euros from Eutalia, including through the sale of a Cessna aeroplane to a company called Netcom Liberia, the court ruled.

Faced with arrest, Landi boarded a flight to Dubai, where extradition to Italy is unlikely. His brother and six other businessmen were later detained. In an interview with SourceMaterial, Landi denied any wrongdoing. He described himself as a “political refugee” and said he plans to appeal to the European Court of Justice. 

In Dubai, Landi’s Liberian connections proved useful. 

In 2018 he became Liberia’s consul general to the United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and secured a Liberian diplomatic passport. It was at this time, he said, that he first met Weah, a former star striker for AC Milan who had just won the presidency: they were introduced by the first wife of Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor, a war criminal serving a 50-year term at Frankland in County Durham.

It was also in his capacity as Liberian consul that he got to know Blue Carbon’s founder, Sheikh Ahmed, who asked him to join the company’s advisory board because of his “experience in IT”, Landi said.

In March, Blue Carbon signed a memorandum of understanding with the Liberian government to lease 1 million hectares of forest land, roughly 10 per cent of Liberia, for 30 years.

Blue Carbon representatives in negotiations with the Government of Liberia (picture: SourceMaterial)

Normally a consul would work closely with Liberia’s foreign ministry but Landi instead answered to Trokon Kpui, a minister without portfolio who reported directly to Weah, according to a senior Liberian government official who asked not to be named. 

“Landi became a very close confidante of Trokon Kpui,” the official said. “Most of what they wanted, Landi would be able to do.”

In August the United Nations wrote to the Liberian government with concerns that it was circumventing proper procedures and planned to hand over vast areas of land to Blue Carbon without properly consulting people who lived there. 

“Liberians and international civil society organisations have raised serious and credible concerns that the concessions arrangement conflicts with existing community and individual land rights,” UN resident coordinator Christine Umutoni wrote in a letter obtained by SourceMaterial. “Proceeding without thorough public consultation all but guarantees legal conflict, continued negative perception of the project, and devaluation of the very credits you are hoping to bring to market.” 

The letter from UN resident co-ordinator Christine Umutoni

Alongside Kpui and finance minister Samuel Tweah, Landi was one of the chief architects of the deal, according to three sources with knowledge of the negotiations. 

Responding to questions from SourceMaterial, Landi confirmed participating in the deal but called reports of his central role “fake”, saying that Sheikh Ahmed and the Liberian government were connected before he became involved.

When the memorandum was signed in March he had already stepped down as consul general and moved to a barge in international waters declared by him and four other inhabitants as Aisland, a “decentralised autonomous organisation”, he said. 

“Aisland is the outpost of a future floating city,” according to the microstate’s website, which outlines plans to rename Planet Earth “Waterworld”.

Trokon Kpui (right, dark suit) sat at the head of the table during the negotiations (picture: SourceMaterial)

Blue Carbon’s spokeswoman said that Landi is an “independent adviser” to the company and that his focus is on “supporting the company’s digital transition”.

“While Mr. Landi serves as consul general for Liberia, his role is not directly tied to any agreement between Blue Carbon and the Liberian government,” she said.

Dubai summit

Blue Carbon, founded just 13 months ago, aims to sell credits from its African projects to the UAE and other countries, who will use them to offset their emissions. How exactly this will work will be ironed out at COP28, the UN climate change conference that opens in Dubai on 30 November, controversially chaired by the head of Abu Dhabi’s national oil company.

Last month Blue Carbon signed a further agreement with the government of Kenya. Its chief executive, Josiane Sadaka, has said that the company plans to announce further deals and is “eagerly awaiting” announcements at the summit.

“The UAE is trying to further the general concept and acceptability of offsets,” said Souparna Lahiri, a climate policy specialist at the Global Forest Coalition. 

In January, an investigation by SourceMaterial, the Guardian and Die Zeit revealed that as many as 94 per cent of the forest offsets most commonly used in carbon markets do almost nothing to mitigate climate change.

Avoided deforestation offsets rely on hypothetical estimates of how many trees would be cut down if they were not protected. Often this is wildly exaggerated. Tree planting can also be controversial, often covering large areas with a single species, with negative consequences for biodiversity and land rights. 

“These credits will be used by UAE and other rich polluting countries to increase their fossil fuel production,” said Benjamin, the forest expert. “It will further increase the climate crisis.” 

Last year Abu Dhabi announced plans to raise production from 4.5 to 5 million barrels a day by 2027. 

Oil platforms off Muabarak, UAE (picture: Crescent Petroleum/Icethorn)

Blue Carbon has not yet said how it will calculate carbon offsets from its African leases. But based on the amount of land it has leased so far, it could generate as many as 250 million “avoided deforestation” credits a year, according to Axel Michaelowa, a scientist at the University of Zurich.  

In theory, that would be enough to cancel out all of the UAE’s annual carbon emissions. Blue Carbon could generate credits worth $2.5 billion a year, though in practice the offsets are unlikely to be effective, Michaelowa said.

“This is massive,” he said. “If the UAE government uses these credits, it will be buying its way out of trouble.”

Blue Carbon’s spokeswoman said it would be inaccurate to assume that its projects will be  “avoidance-based” or that it will “implement old, outdated and highly criticised frameworks”.

‘Who owns the forest?’

More than a million Liberians could see their livelihoods affected by Blue Carbon’s deal, according to Fern. 

Much of the land for the project is inhabited by communities who rely on the forest and own their land through customary rights without official documentation. Despite this, a draft memorandum seen by SourceMaterial describes the land as free of “encumbrances”. Liberia’s government will “provide full facilitation to Blue Carbon” in order to secure “unencumbered rights to such customary land”, the draft says.

Transferring this land to Blue Carbon would violate communities’ land rights, a coalition of Liberian civil society groups warned in July. According to the draft agreement, Blue Carbon will receive 70 per cent of the income from carbon credit sales, with the Liberian government—which did not respond to requests for comment—keeping 30 per cent.

The draft agreement between the Liberian government and Blue Carbon, seen by SourceMaterial, includes suggested areas of forest to be included

“Who owns the forest?” said Andrew Zeleman, head of the secretariat at Liberia’s National Union of Community Forestry Development Committee. “If polluting countries want to offset their carbon in another country, let the country herself do it. There shouldn’t be a middleman taking the lion’s share.”

Blue Carbon’s spokeswoman said: “We understand the concerns that have been raised about Liberia and we fully recognise the involvement of local communities throughout the project lifecycle to ensure that the consent of affected communities is genuinely sought.”

In a call from Aisland, Landi defended the deal. 

“The proposal of any carbon credit deal is to protect the environment, so the community may be in trouble if they want to cut trees,” he said. “That’s part of the agreement. You want to protect the forest.”

As leaders gather for the COP summit in Dubai, Blue Carbon’s investments will be centre stage, with the UAE, alongside allies including the United States, Canada and Singapore, expected to push for a greater role for carbon offsetting in global climate policy.

For Fern’s Benjamin, Blue Carbon’s strategy is a recipe for “carbon colonialism”.

“These deals are large-scale land grabs,” she said. 

Headline picture: Dubai skyline, Getty/Unsplash

6 December 2023: After this article was published Samuele Landi contacted SourceMaterial to say that, contrary to the detail provided above, he relocated to Dubai with his family of his own free will, and that his conviction in Italy is tainted by judicial corruption. He said that he is not involved in carbon offsetting in any degree, that any statements to the contrary are “totally fake” and that evidence of his involvement is “invented”. He added that he remains a consul for Liberia, in which capacity it is not unusual for him to work with Trokon Kpui, Liberia’s special envoy to the UAE.