GRAIN | 22 September 2014 | Planet palm oil
With all this money pouring into palm oil companies, lands for oil palm plantations are at an all time premium, wherever they can be found.
Oil palm plantations can, however, only be established on a narrow band of lands in tropical areas that are roughly 7 degrees North or South of the equator and that have abundant and evenly spread rainfall. This makes the potential area for new oil palm plantations rather limited. Plus, most of these lands are composed of forests and farmlands that are occupied by indigenous peoples and peasants, some of whom are already growing oil palms for local markets.
The expansion of oil palm plantations, therefore, depends upon companies getting these people to give up their lands. This is not an easy sell, given the meagre jobs and other benefits that an oil palm plantation generates in comparison with the destruction that it causes and the value that the lands already hold for the people. A typical oil palm plantation requires only one poorly paid worker for every 2.3 hectares, while the surrounding communities pay a high price for the deforestation, water use, soil erosion and chemical fertiliser and pesticide contamination that it causes.1 Companies trying to acquire lands from communities also run into customary forms of land governance that do not allow for a company to buy up land one parcel at a time.
The easy way for companies to get around these hurdles is to ensure that the communities do not even know that their lands have been signed away. It is very common in Africa, for instance, for companies to sign land deals directly with the national government without the knowledge of the affected communities. In many cases, the companies signing the deals are obscure companies registered in tax havens with their beneficial owners hidden from view. The managers of these companies tend to come from the mining sector or other extractive industries with long histories of shady deals in Africa. In Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, land deals are typically brokered between local elites and foreign investors, also often with obscure ownership structures registered in tax havens.
Such small shell companies are not in the business of developing plantations. Once the land contracts are signed, they immediately look to sell out to larger companies with the technical capacity and financial resources to build the plantations. And it is usually at this point that the communities come to understand that their lands have been sold.
Most of these cases eventually lead to a situation where a large multinational plantation company, backed by a national government and a multimillion dollar contract, faces off against a poor community trying desperately to hold onto to the lands and forests it needs to survive. It is incredibly difficult for communities to defend themselves against such powerful forces, and those that do risk the treat of violence, whether by paramilitaries in Colombia, police in Sierra Leone, or the army in Indonesia.
Tax havens and land grabs for palm oil in Africa
The case of Atama Resources Inc
In 2010, the Government of the Republic of the Congo signed away more than 400,000 ha to a Congolese registered company called Atama Plantation whose owners remain unknown.2 In return, this mysterious company promised to develop the Congo Basin's largest ever oil palm plantation, converting 180,000 ha of mostly forested land in the provinces of Cuvette and Sangha while paying the government a token annual fee of $5 per hectare of planted land. The company was under no obligation to conduct environmental or social impact assessments or to consult with affected populations.
When the contract was signed, Atama Plantation was wholly owned by Silvermark Resources Inc, a company registered in the offshore fiscal paradise of the British Virgin Islands.3 The only publicly available information on Silvermark is that it is owned and directed by two shell companies registered in Brunei. Because of the rules of secrecy governing companies registered in Brunei and the British Virgin Islands, it is impossible to know who the actual owners of these companies are.
In 2011, ownership of Atama Plantation was transferred to a holding company in Mauritius, another fiscal paradise, before finally being sold, in 2012, to Malaysia's Wah Seong Corporation, a "pipe-coating specialist" company with no history in the palm oil sector that is controlled by Malaysian businessman Robert Tan.4
Whoever the owners of Silvermark are, they pocketed an estimated $25 million, without doing anything more than orchestrate the contract with the Congolese government. And, under the deal with Wah Seong, they still hold 39% of the shares with yet another British Virgin Islands registered company with unknown owners holding the remaining 10%.
The case of Liberian Forest Products Inc. (LFPI)
On August 21, 2006 a little known London minerals exploration company announced to the world that it had taken control of 700,000 ha of land in Liberia-- equal to about 7% of the country's entire land area. The owners of Nardina Resources PLC claimed they had acquired rights over this massive chunk of land through a take over of a Liberian company called Liberian Forest Products Inc. (LFPI). Nardina then changed its name to Equatorial Biofuels PLC and then again to Equatorial Palm Oil Ltd (EPO) to reflect its new mandate as a palm oil company. Meanwhile, the original owners of LFPI walked away with £1,555,000 in shares and cash.
But how did the owners of LFPI get hold of such an obscene amount of territory in a country just emerging from over a decade of civil war? And who were these owners anyways?
EPO's disclosure documents from its listing on the London AIM stock exchange in 2010 show that the money it paid for LFPI went to two offshore companies, Kamina Global Ltd of the British Virgin Islands and Subsea BV of Liberia, which each had 50% shares of LFPI.
Searches conducted in December 2013 through the company registry in Liberia found no record of registration for a company called Subsea BV. However, the articles for registration for LFPI of November 2006 indicate that LFPI is a Liberian company owned by Tony Smith (50%) and A. Kanie Wesso (50%), who are both trustees for a new company to be formed, called Subsea BV. The sole LFPI director named in the document is Mark Slowen, a British businessman operating from Liberia whose name also turns up as the CEO of SubSea Resources DMCC (Dubai Multi Commodities Centre), a company that acquired mineral rights in Liberia at around the same time.
A second business registry document for LFPI from August 2007 refers to LFPI as a British owned company-- with ownership split between Mark Slowen (50%) and Kanie Wesso (50%). Both documents describe LFPI as a company whose sole business is logging.
Subsea BV also turns up in the UK business directory as a director of the G4 Group, which has several business interests in Liberia and is controlled by the notorious financial fraudster Lincoln Fraser.5 The G4 Group's Liberian subsidiary, G4 WAO Inc., exports rubber tree logs and holds a phosphate exploration concession covering 36,000 ha in Bopolu. According to the company website, G4 WAO “manages in excess of one million acres of the best crop growing conditions in the world” and has partnered with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid-Tropics (ICRISAT) “to establish trial sites on various G4 farming enterprises in Liberia, Ghana and Kenya.”6
Kamina Global Ltd, the other company that was paid by EPO for the acquisition of LFPI, is even more opaque. Legislation in the British Virgin Islands does not require companies to disclose their directors or shareholders, so it was not possible to identify the people behind Kamina Global through company records.7
When EPO acquired LFPI, the contract was under examination by Liberia's Public Procurement and Concession Commission. It would conclude that the agreement contained "gross irregularities and non-compliance with the law" and EPO was forced to renegotiate. LFPI, now under the ownership of EPO, signed a new contract with the government in 2008, this time covering a much reduced but still valuable 55,000 ha area of land in Butaw. With this concession and another of a similar size in Liberia, EPO went public on the London AIM stock exchange, eventually attracting significant investment from the Siva Group, a Singapore-based holding company of Indian billionaire Chinnakannan Sivasankaran, who has quietly amassed one of the world's largest land banks for oil palm in just a few years. The Siva Group started buying shares of EPO in 2010 and by 2013 it controlled 36.7% of the company and had formed a 50:50 joint venture with EPO based in Mauritius, called Liberian Palm Developments Ltd, that took control of all of EPO’s Liberian land concessions.8
In 2013, the Siva Group would sell its shares in EPO and its Mauritian joint venture to KL Kepong of Malaysia, one of the world's largest palm oil companies.
Are Chinese companies grabbing land for palm oil?
China runs neck and neck with India for the world's number 1 palm oil importer. So it would only make sense that Chinese companies would be involved in the current rush for lands for oil palm plantations. But while there have been several reports of massive land grabs for palm oil by Chinese companies, few of these have materialised.
China's telecom giant ZTE, which has a biofuels division, was said to have signed an agreement with the Democratic Republic of the Congo to develop 2 million hectares of oil palm plantations. The numbers were later scaled down to 100,000 ha and it now seems like the project has been scrapped entirely.
In 2005, Indonesia's President Yudhoyono announced a plan to develop 1.8 million hectares of land along the Kalimantan border into oil palm plantations. Several Chinese companies including state-owned investment company CITIC Group were offered one third of the area in return for building roads and railways and details were released of a $600 million project between CITIC and Indonesian palm oil giant Sinar Mas to develop a 100,000 ha plantation in the area, with a $380 million dollar loan from the China Development Bank.9 Sinar Mas' subsidiary Golden Agri Resources is one of the main suppliers of palm oil to China. The plans, however, were never put into operation.
In 2012, Sinar Mas, which is controlled by Indonesia's Widjaja family, announced a new partnership for oil palm development with China, this time with state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. and another Widjaja controlled company, HKC Holdings of Hong Kong. Wang Jun, the former chairman of CITIC Group, is the honorary chairman and a director of HKC. The companies said the project would be rolled out over eight years in Papua and Kalimantan, “where regional governments had reserved about one million hectares of land for it.”
Less than a year later, the Widjajas cemented another major palm oil deal with China. This time in Africa. In March 2013, Golden Agri Resources' wholly-owned subsidiary Golden Veroleum Limited procured a $500 million term loan facility from the China Development Bank to support the construction of its 220,000 ha oil palm plantation project in LIberia. Typically the CDB only loans to overseas companies or projects when Chinese companies are directly involved.10
For now, China appears to be channeling most of its investments in palm oil through Asian palm oil companies, such as Sinar Mas, that dominate the global palm oil trade. The only Chinese company making significant direct investments in oil palm plantations has so far been China's state-owned oil company Sinochem. In April 2012,, Sinochem paid 193 million euros to acquire 35% of the Belgian plantations company SIAT, which has oil palm plantations in Gabon, Ghana and Nigeria. It also announced that its rubber company in Cameroon would be expanding its plantations and starting to move into palm oil production.
1 UNEP, "Oil palm plantations: threats and opportunities for tropical ecosystems," December 2011
3 Silvermark is owned by Tinaldi Ltd and the Director is Greenland Ltd. Greenland Ltd is reported to be controlled by Benny Lum (who may just be a proxy). It controls Lamington Capital Inc (maybe Singapore) which is also a shareholder in African Petroleum Corporation Limited. It was also used to direct a transfer of funds to a Thai company that is linked to Thaksin. Both Tanaldi Ltd and Greenland Ltd (Brunei) are registered in Brunei to the address of HMR Trust Ltd (which is involved in offshore financial services). Other documents indicate that Tanaldi Limited is owned by Tan Sri Barry Goh Ming Choon of Malaysia and the company acts as a trust for other Malaysian businessmen. Barry Goh controls B&G Capital Resources Berhad ("BCGR") which he started in 1994. BGCR has served as the principal contractor to Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB), one of the largest government link companies in Malaysia
4 Atama Resources Inc was registered in Mauritius in July 2011, as 100% owned by Silvermark. In 2012, Wah Seong purchases 51% of Atama Resources Inc. through its 100% owned subsidiary WS Agro Ind Pte Ltd (Singapore). 39% remains with Silvermark. 10% is taken by Giant Dragon Group (BVI), which is 100% owned by Marston International Ltd. (BVI), who's director is Eastern Sky Ltd. (Hong Kong). Eastern Sky is a nominee director for several other companies. The Wah Seong Corporation is largely controlled by Malaysian businessman Robert Tan. Marston International Ltd. is the owner of Pergenia International Limited (PIL) incorporated in British Virgin Island on 10 January 2007 and Netstar Holdings Limited registered in BVI in 2003. Marston International Ltd is also the controlling shareholder of PT Jaya Pari Steel Tbk. (Indonesia). Reports from PT Jaya Pari Steel Tbk say that Marston International Ltd is owned by John Matthew Ashwood (50%) and Brian Whiteman and Robinson McKinstry (50%), who seem only to be proxies and John Ashwood likely works for Vistra, an offshore financial company based in Hong Kong. PT Jaya Pari Steel is a company of the Gunawan family of Indonesia, which is involved in finance and steel. The family controls 46 percent of Indonesia's PT Bank Panin. Marston International Limited is also a major shareholder in another Gunawan steel company, Betonjaya Manunggal Tbk PT, through its ownership of Profit Add Limited (Samoa). Marston International is listed as a shareholder of Best Dragon Enterprises Limited, alongside Tito Sulistio, who is connected to the Suharto family.
5 Fraser is described by Offshore Alert as a "British conman who masterminded the $400 million Imperial Consolidated fraud" which robbed thousands of pensioners and others of their savings when it went bankrupt in 2002.
7 Kamina's company registration information indicates that it was registered on 17 March 2006 and struck off on 2 November 2009. It's registered agent is TMF (BVI) Ltd, a company which manages numerous shell companies on behalf of clients around the world. As written on the same document: "Under the BVI Business Companies Act, 2004 companies are not required to file information on Directors and Shareholders of a company."
8 Siva Group's 36.7% share of EPO is held by way of several subsidiaries: Biopalm Energy Limited (16.62%), The Siva Group (16.62%) and Broadcourt Investments Ltd (3.46%).(The joint venture is between EPO’s wholly-owned subsidiary Equatorial Biofuels (Guernsey) Limited and Biopalm Energy Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Geoff Palm Ltd based in the offshore city of Labuan, Malaysia, and which is owned by Broadcourt Investments Ltd, a British Virgin Islands registered holding company with Chinnakannan Sivasankaran, the Siva Group’s founder and owner, listed as its only director and shareholder since January 2007.
9 "The Kalimantan border oil palm project," Milieudefensie – Friends of the Earth Netherlands and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, 2006; "China's investment foray into Indonesia," Asia Sentinel, 6 June 2013