Amsterdam, The Netherlands [Press Release] — Dutch journalist Okke Ornstein has prevailed in a legal case that revolved around green investment and carbon credit scams, Panama Papers-style corruption and press freedom issues. The Amsterdam Court affirmed an earlier judgment against two principals of the now defunct investment scheme called Silva Tree Panama.
Silva Tree offered the public the possibility to invest “green” and sustainably in Panamanian plantations with the fast-growing Paulownia tree. Investors were lured with promises of guaranteed high yields from the sales of tropical wood and certified carbon credits. Silva Tree was managed by the Dutchman Patrick Visser, his Israeli wife Keren Visser-Katz and their business partner, Costa Rica based Dutchman Maurice Sjerps. Silva Tree worked with British companies like Citadel Trustees Ltd and Emerald Knight; all part of a larger network of carbon credit boiler rooms.
In 2010, the US publication Christian Science Monitor (CSM) published an article alleging that few of the Silva Tree promises actually materialized. Dutch correspondent in Panama Okke Ornstein picked up the story, investigated, and wrote about it on his blog. Internal documents from Silva Tree showed mismanagement and fraud. The expensive land they bought turned out to be worthless and unfit for forestry, and the young trees didn’t even survive the first year. Despite this fiasco, prospective investors were led to believe that the enterprise was highly successful and profitable and funds were even raised for a bio-energy scheme that never materialized.
The Silva Tree principals never even applied for the promised VCS certification of their carbon credits.
“Anyone can plant a couple of wilted bushes on some wasteland and then claim that carbon is sequestered, and subsequently sell this reduction in CO2 as “carbon credits” using all kinds of fancy stories to unsuspecting investors,” explains Okke Ornstein. “That is in fact what Silva Tree was doing.”
“At this moment in time, when we worry about global warming, I thought it to be very cynical that precisely those people who wanted their investments to make a difference and combat climate change would lose their money to a bunch of carbon scam artists,” says Ornstein.
Because of the negative publicity, the Vissers and Maurice Sjerps filed a criminal complaint for “crimes against the honor” in Panama against Ornstein and CSM. The case dragged on for years in the notoriously corrupt Panamanian court system before eventually resulting in a conviction and even imprisonment of Ornstein, who was later pardoned by Panama’s president. The case against CSM was reluctantly dropped by the Panamanian prosecutors when they were faced with the fact that the US authorities do not comply with requests for legal assistance in cases of criminal defamation.
Meanwhile, Maurice Sjerps was arrested in Costa Rica after victims of yet another reforestation scam tied to Silva Tree had filed complaints with the authorities there.
Not long thereafter, Patrick and Keren Visser abandoned Panama and Silva Tree to start a cryptocurrency business in Israel. They also initiated more legal proceedings against Ornstein, this time in the Netherlands. Keeping their actions secret, they managed to get a default judgment of which Ornstein only learned when they started to use it to take his websites down and to have articles removed from platforms such as medium.com. “Only when my websites disappeared did I find out that there had been a court case,” Ornstein recounts.
However, the Amsterdam Court has now affirmed an earlier ruling that these actions by the Vissers were unlawful. “This decision makes it clear that one can not go behind the back of a foreign correspondent to provoke a default judgment and then use that to have unwelcome publications removed from the internet,” explains Ornstein’s lawyer, Channa Samkalden of human rights law firm Prakken d’Oliveira.
Ornstein calls the case a typical example of “libel tourism” or legal forum shopping; a form of legal harassment that is an increasing problem for online journalists. “This time it failed, because they couldn’t even demonstrate that they’d have suffered any damages in the Netherlands, but it took two years of legal proceedings all the same,” says Ornstein.
Ornstein is a working journalist of Dutch nationality who lived and worked in Panama for 16 years before moving back to the Netherlands in 2017. In 2015, Dutch public-service broadcaster NTR nominated a radio documentary about refugees by Ornstein for the Tegel-prijs in The Netherlands. His in-depth radio investigation “Barro Blanco,” about a hydroelectric dam in Panama that was funded by a Dutch bank and prompted questions in the Dutch Parliament about environmental and social consequences, was nominated for the prestigious Prix-Europa in 2013.