UPDATED - See below - What's going on with Silva Tree, Sustainable Capital Group and Patrick Visser, Maurice Sjerps and Keren Visser-Katz? Your Bananama Republic decided to run a factsheet.
What is Silva Tree?
Silva Tree is a company - or better said a group of companies - that offers a series of "green investments". Some of their projects are in Panama, notably a forestry scheme and something called a "biomass" project. Other projects include cutting trees in the rainforest of Suriname and turning coconut palms into "biomass pellets" in Mozambique.
What's wrong with Silva Tree?
In 2010, Silva Tree was exposed by US magazine the Christian Science Monitor for making a series of fraudulent misrepresentations about its projects in Panama where they planted Paulownia trees. For starters, they were offering "guaranteed returns" of 15% per annum in their promotional material, sales pitches and even in their prospectus. Claims of "guaranteed" returns on investment in the forestry business are without exception bogus. You can not guarantee growth of trees, and less so if it's a species that is neither native to Panama nor native to the climate here. Add to that a variety of natural risks, political risks, rampant corruption and land grabbing, and it should be clear to anyone that guaranteed returns in reforestation are by definition a scam.
They further claimed that they had planted 350 hectares with trees at a time they owned only 200 hectares, of which only 10 hectares were actually planted with 8,000 seedlings. Of those 8,000 baby trees, no less than 1,200 died.
They also falsely represented themselves as being certified as a carbon offset program by the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS). They were not and are not VCS certified.
Then, about a year later, a EU-commissioned report written by several NGO's listed Silva Tree as "land grabbing vultures" operating under the cloak of "green" investments. And as if that wasn't enough, the report established several connections between Silva Tree and a number of other financial scams and Southern Spain boiler room hustlers.
And, talking about Spain, we also discovered several complaints about dubious practices of Patrick Visser while he was still dealing in real estate on the Costa del Sol.
Principal Maurice Sjerps, meanwhile, was also a director of Global Green Services, a teak plantation outfit with a questionable reputation managed by Madera Viva, which also offered "no risk returns" and suggested that it was certified by the FSC - which it was not. Investors reported having difficulty contacting Global Green Services and shady deals with carbon credits.
But aren't these Silva Tree projects approved by Panama's environmental authority ANAM?
Unfortunately, in Panama that doesn't mean anything. In our reporting about a previous reforestation scam, Prime Forestry, we not only found that the scheme was tied to Genovese mafia family types and (again) Spain-based boiler room swindlers, but also that the same ANAM people who were to review the permit applications were taking holidays to work for Prime Forestry - the applicants - at a much higher pay than they were receiving from ANAM. To add insult to injury, Panama's minister of agriculture sat on the board of the scam while president Torrijos and his wife were engaging in promotional activities for the outfit that soon after went out of business. Nobody got investigated, prosecuted or even fired for any of the blatant corruption. So forget any serious oversight in Panama by environmental, financial, or any other kind of authorities. With the right connections and the right kind of money, ANAM will approve a ham sandwich if you want them to.
Then what happened with Silva Tree?
As soon as all the information was published by the Christian Science Monitor and right here on your Bananama Republic, the principals of Silva Tree went apeshit, as most fraudulent promoters tend to do when they are exposed. They filed a criminal defamation complaint ("crimes against the honor") against the authors of both publications here in Panama in their own names. The company, Silva Tree Panama S.A. threatened our hosting provider with legal action if we weren't taken down immediately. There appears to be an unspecified complaint pertaining to Israel, the Netherlands and the UK, which has prompted Google to remove three pages from its search results in those jurisdictions. Last but not least, principal Patrick Visser sent us a series of bizarre emails and extortion attempts, threatening this author with prosecution for "illegal activities" and "illegal immigration" if the articles about him weren't taken down.
So where do these legal cases stand now?
We don't really know, nor do we care that much. Our lawyers don't like it, but it's stated Bananama Republic policy to not attend frivolous SLAPP cases filed by foreign hucksters using Panama's notoriously corrupt and unprofessional legal system. Many have made similar attempts before the Silva Tree principals. Tom Rowley and Tom McMurrain; UdP rector Gustavo Garcia de Paredes, Don Winner, Clyde Jenkins, Monte Friesner - they've all tried it and they've all gotten absolutely nowhere with their ridiculous cases. And we, dear reader, have never spent a single day in court, but beat them nevertheless.
Even so, it's fascinating to note that not even Patrick Visser seems to know exactly how his case is doing. One day he announces victory on his blog, and then a month later he's rambling about "appeals" he has filed. Well, whatever.
So where does this "Sustainable Capital Group" come in?
Already a while ago, we found out that Silva Tree Panama S.A. had been renamed into "Sustainable Capital Group Panama S.A.". We also noticed that Patrick Visser and Maurice Sjerps no longer featured on the board of directors, having been replaced by nominee directors provided by the law firm that also acts as a resident agent. Only Keren Visser-Katz, Patrick Visser's wife and one of the three who filed the complaint for "crimes against her honor", continues to serve as the president and legal representative of the company.
Shortly thereafter, we were contacted by a gentleman going by the name of "Peter Jones". Mr. Jones claimed that he had bought the entire Silva Tree operation through his company. He also said that Patrick Visser was no longer part of the business and that Mrs. Visser was being retained on the board for the time being only because she serves as a liaison with the Rainforest Alliance.
This Mr. Jones then went on to request we discuss some kind of agreement in which the articles about Silva Tree, Patrick Visser and Sustainable Capital Group would disappear, in exchange for dropping legal action against this website and your editor.
To that repeated request, we replied numerous times that their legal cases are not impressing us, and we're pretty sure they'll go away anyway. Furthermore, we can communicate through legal ways or we can engage in conversation, but we're not going to do both at the same time. They chose the courts, and that, for us, means we're not even thinking about discussing anything with them directly.
We replied in exactly the same way when, much earlier, Maurice Sjerps made an attempt at mediation through a middleman: We don't talk with people who file cases for "crimes against the honor" against us.
This pattern is not new but seen over and over again: A company and its principals are exposed for dubious practices or fraud, they start kicking around wildly and initiate all sorts of legal stuff, and then when that backfires and gives them only more bad publicity they think they can talk their way out of it, believing they can use their own idiotic actions as leverage to "clear their name", as Visser et al put it. Yeah, right.
Has Silva Tree then indeed been taken over by Sustainable Capital Group?
We don't know. They say that Silva Tree was sold. They say that Patrick Visser is no longer part of it. They say that they're in the process of reorganizing their presence on the web. They say that Mrs. Visser-Katz is only being retained for some practical reason. However, all that can be confirmed is that corporations in Panama have been given a new name, which does not in any way substantiate that they have been taken over by anyone. Add to that the fact that Patrick Visser, whom Mr. Jones claimed was no longer involved with the corporation, now suddenly writes that he is still acting as a "consultant for the group". And who is this "Peter Jones"? We have no idea about that either. He may exist. Then again, he may not.
Whatever they say, none of it should be taken at face value. This is, after all, a company that lied about the land it owned and planted, lied about being certified, and lied about "guaranteed returns". This supposed take-over might just as well be a scheme to re-brand the tainted Silva Tree operation with the same people pulling the strings behind the scenes of a myriad of offshore corporations and strawmen directors.
Dear editor, are you indeed avoiding Panama and afraid of the police as Patrick Visser writes?
If you are to believe what scum like Patrick Visser, Don Winner and Monte Friesner write, yours truly is either in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia or Nicaragua hiding from Panamanian arrest warrants. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, when Don Winner "reported" about your author not appearing at some court session for fear of being arrested "on the spot", this journalist was actually in a meeting at the HQ of the National Police about an unrelated journalism project - around the corner from the courthouse.
Similarly, Patrick Visser's assumptions that your Bananama editor "does not want to tell anybody where he lives or where he works for fear of being caught by the police and brought to justice" is just fantasy - though it offers a fascinating insight into the mind of the mentally disturbed. In the real world however, we don't really think we have to publicize our home or office addresses just because some fraud artist says so.
Last question: What is "yovivo.com"???
It appears to be a sort of a classified ads portal for real estate in Spain. It's currently in beta, the site says, and the domain is registered to a company in Gibraltar. We can't really find anything wrong with it -also because it isn't working yet - other than that Patrick Visser is running it.
UPDATE March 8, 2012: Patrick Visser responded to this article, sort of, in his usual batshit crazy way, on his blog. He finally admits that Silva Tree/Sustainable Capital Group is indeed not VCS certified, which they were telling clients initially until they were exposed for it by the Christian Science Monitor and by us. But, says Visser, they are certified by the Rainforest Alliance. That is true. Yet they have been certified on September 5th of last year under the Voluntary Carbon Standard 2007.1. - one and a half year after they claimed to be VCS certified. In fact, the certification proves that we were correct all the time when we said they weren't certified as they said.
Of course Visser can't resist inserting yet another scammy statement in his rant: He says that the project is "validated by the Rainforest Alliance under VCS guidelines", suggesting VCS certification by proxy. However, on page 28 of the audit report, the auditors of Rainforest Alliance conclude that Silva Tree/Sustainable Capital Group is not eligible under the VCS.
The verification document also includes the statement that "In no circumstance does Rainforest Alliance warrant or guarantee the delivery of carbon emissions reductions credits or the financial or market value of any credits validated in connection with this statement". That means, among other things, that there is no basis for the "guaranteed returns" Visser et al were promising investors.
What does this certification mean? Again, not as much as they want you to think. This is the same group that certified a mafia-linked teak scam called Prime Forestry, after all.
In between the ranting and raving by Patrick Visser (he has now adopted the term "smut blogger" from his friend and soulmate Monte Friesner) there's one more piece of information worth mentioning here, and that is that he is now announcing - again - that he'll file a criminal complaint against your author with the police in the Netherlands. One wonders why if, as he says, the case in Panama is being won by him? Anyway, we can't wait! Bring it on!
UPDATE 2: One thing is sure, and that is that Silva Tree UK has not been a success story. The company is about to be dissolved and struck off the UK corporate registry.