- The New Yorker exposed alleged corruption in the Kariba carbon project in Zimbabwe.
- The director of Carbon Green Investments, who owns the forests where the project is located, failed to account for funds channelled to it.
- International carbon credits firm South Pole, which brought in investment into the Kariba project, has pulled out amid investigations by global regulator Verra.
An exposé by the New Yorker put the spotlight on a mega carbon credits project in Zimbabwe, which was said to be able to prevent the release of tens of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases.
It was reported that almost a hundred million dollars was paid by the likes of Volkswagen, Gucci, Nestlé, Porsche, and Delta Air Lines to South Pole, a company that creates and executes all-encompassing carbon reduction plans and initiatives that allow businesses, governments, and organisations worldwide to benefit financially from climate action over the long run.
In turn, South Pole, which earned a commission, paid Carbon Green Investments (CGI), which owned the land in Kariba.
CGI belongs to a former horse trainer in Harare, Stephen Wentzel.
Wentzel is said to have convinced local chiefs to allow the project to stretch over two million acres of forest.
In turn, he was to invest 75% of his revenue from carbon credits in the Kariba area stretching to Binga.
According to the New Yorker, Wentzel opened a bank account in Guernsey, a tax haven, where he was to receive the money sometime in 2010.
By his estimates, in 2012 Wentzel claimed that he needed about R1.2 million a month to pay for projects in the area such as community gardens, beehives, wells, and fire protection.
In 2014, it was reported that Wentzel demanded a million American dollars from South Pole to keep the project going.
The money was obtained through South Pole buying carbon credits, which was not its core business since it was a facilitator.
The claims are that Wentzel went on to Kariba to pay local stakeholders in cash.
“A hundred thousand dollars is only as big as a brick,” he said.
“It’s not difficult to carry it around.”
The report claimed that the funds helped keep the project alive.
News24 reached out to Elmon Mudenda from the Binga Rural District Council (RDC), who was involved on the ground in the project.
In the New Yorker report, he was said to have been at first a critic of the project but made a sudden turnaround.
About the New Yorker allegations on the project, he told News24 that the report was biased.
“Their intention is to stop buyers from buying carbon credits from Carbon Green Investments, but in the end, who suffers is the community. Steve [Wentzel] will continue living a good life because he has other business entities… but the poor communities from Mbire, Hurungwe, Nyaminyami, and Binga will be back to their old suffering days,” he said.
Charles Ndondo, the managing partner at CGI, refused to talk to News24.
Dirk Muench, a friend of Renat Heuberger, South Pole’s chief executive officer, joined the company in 2021 and was thrilled about its climate change operations.
In that thrill, he also discovered that the Kariba project was not all that South Pole presented it to be.
He demanded to see how the money had been spent.
However, after almost six months of back-to-back communication with Wentzel last year, it was reported that only about R114 million, which was 10% of the amount received by CGI, was accounted for.
In the New Yorker interview, Wentzel was quoted as saying that the money was channelled to the Kariba project through a hawala system – an informal method of transferring money without any physical money actually moving.
Verra is a non-profit, United States-based organisation. Its role is to operate standards in environmental and social markets, including the world’s leading carbon crediting programme.
News24 reached out to Verra over the expose from the New Yorker.
The organisation in a statement, said it was going to investigate the matter:
“These are intensive and methodical investigations that are proceeding expeditiously but do not have a concrete timeline for completion. Verra’s investigation will follow the evidence,” the organisation said.
If found to be wrong, the Kariba project will be shut down, Verra said.
“If it is determined that unethical or illegal behaviour took place, Verra could suspend the project proponent’s Registry account. If it is determined that a reversal took place, Verra could tap into the buffer pool to account for the reversal.
“If it is determined that an excess issuance of credits has occurred, Verra could require compensation from the project proponent. Verra is assessing these and all other options,” the organisation said.
Right of reply
News24 sought an audience with Wentzel over a week ago and he refused to grant us an interview.
However, after recent developments that have seen South Pole pull out of the deal with the investigation still under way, he came back with a statement.
Wentzel claimed that his company was being treated as the “fall guy”.
“From the start of this media onslaught, Carbon Green has been consistently cast as the fall guy. The initially disclosed financial data, coupled with the subsequent spread of erroneous figures, left us in a difficult position, which compelled us to try and rectify these inconsistencies, which gave an illusion of misappropriated funds,” he said.