Story transcripts

The Carbon Cowboy

Friday, July 6, 2012

Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Stephen Rice

This has to be one of the most brazen and potentially disastrous scams Liam Bartlett has ever come across.

David Nilsson was once accused in Parliament of selling non-existent plots of land in Queensland.

Now he's popped up in the Amazon jungle, of all places, where the fledgling carbon trading market has opened up huge opportunities for unscrupulous operators.

It's a multi-billion dollar industry that's emerged now countries like Australia have introduced a carbon tax.

Rainforests are suddenly worth big money. And the natives who own them are sitting on a fortune. Or at least they should be, but that all changes when David Nilsson comes calling.

For more information on the Matses tribe go to:

For more information on protecting the Peruvian Amazon, go to:

For a discussion on the problems of carbon trading in rainforests, go to:

To view a Spanish translation of the story go to Transcripción del programa de televisión sobre David John Nilsson

Full transcript:

LIAM BARTLETT: If there’s a place in the world that time forgot, this is it - Peru, birthplace of the mighty Inca civilization, land of lost cities and remote tribes. So how on earth did an Australian property developer end up here, promising billion-dollar carbon deals to some of the poorest people on the planet?

DAN: They completely trusted him, and now they’re left with nothing.

LIAM BARTLETT: His name is David Nilsson. He’s from Queensland, and says he’s just here to help. They’re putting their livelihoods, their tribes, their rainforests on the line, and you get 50 percent of all that. Not a bad deal for you, but not too good for them, is it?

DAVID: Well, what else are they getting? Who else is giving them a better deal in the world?

LIAM BARTLETT: You’ve got to wonder what Peru has done to deserve this latest invasion. 500 years ago, it was the Spanish conquistadors who came in search of gold and silver. Later came the rubber barons and the loggers. But there’s a new breed of treasure hunter. They’re called carbon cowboys, and what they’re after is down there, in the vast rainforests of the Amazon. These immense jungles store a large part of the earth’s carbon dioxide, and in the new world of carbon trading, whoever gets the rights to this captured carbon could make himself a very rich man indeed.

DAVID: Howdy, it’s the carbon cowboy again, heading home after a great couple of days in the jungle.

LIAM BARTLETT: David Nilsson is out hunting, roaming the Amazon in search of native tribes willing to sign over the rights to the carbon in their rainforests.

DAVID: We’ve had a good trip, everything’s signed up. Mission accomplished.

LIAM BARTLETT: Nilsson’s carbon contracts give his company, Amazon Holdings, power of attorney, handing him effective control of the rainforest for 200 years - and half of all profits.

DAN: He told me that he was a part-Aborigine from Australia, and that he came from extreme poverty and he wanted to help the indigenous people here.

LIAM BARTLETT: Dan Pantone is an American scientist who has spent years in the Amazon working with native tribes. When Nilsson arrived in Peru two years ago, he hired Pantone to introduce him to a remote tribe called the Matses - some of whom still live and hunt as their ancestors did.

DAN: He saw that they own a lot of land. They own about 450,000 hectares.

LIAM BARTLETT: When you met him, how did he describe his project?

DAN: Well, he basically calculated how many billions of dollars the Matses are going to get from carbon credits. He actually had his calculator handy, and the numbers he was showing for the Matses, he was showing billions of dollars.

LIAM BARTLETT: Mature trees like this are what carbon trading is all about. Over its lifetime, this will absorb about a ton of carbon dioxide - so a big company is happy to pay to protect these in order to release a ton of its own pollution into the atmosphere. They offset a ton of their pollution for the ton that’s absorbed by that tree. It’s called a carbon credit. And when the Australian Government says carbon is worth about $23 a ton, and you start counting the number of trees in this jungle, well, the maths is mind-boggling. David Nilsson has been chasing this carbon fortune for years - from Papua New Guinea to the Philippines. Now, this self-professed carbon cowboy has set up base in Peru's jungle city of Iquitos, a wild-west town, if ever there was one. He’s got a good lawyer, a young Peruvian girlfriend, and boasts about his past as a successful property developer in Australia. Nilsson even boasts that he can divine underground water. But his real gift, it turns out, is divining ordinary human weakness.

DAN: He told me I was going to be a millionaire within a year.

LIAM BARTLETT: So what exactly was he after here?

DAN: The contract would be giving him virtually total control over their natural resources, not only their carbon, but their forest, and virtually everything.

LIAM BARTLETT: Incredibly, David Nilsson has already convinced some tribes to sign away their rights, and Dan Pantone is taking me deeper into the Amazon to visit one such community. They’re called the Yagua. They’re dirt-poor, many can’t read or write, and they’ve handed Nilsson half of all the carbon that’s in their forests. Could you please read a little bit of that for me? Hegnay Iscaata signed the document put in front of him.

TRANSLATOR: He’s saying he signed it, but he can’t read.

LIAM BARTLETT: He can’t read, at all?

TRANSLATOR: He says he can’t read.

LIAM BARTLETT: Only a handful of Yagua refused to go along with Nilsson’s plan. One of them is a young leader, Angel Yaicate.

LIAM BARTLETT: Did you sign that contract?



TRANSLATOR: Because I knew it was a scam.

LIAM BARTLETT: It is scam - a monumental double-cross, and an environmental travesty. We’ve obtained an executive summary of the agreement, and incredibly, the main focus is actually logging. As part of the carbon deal, Nilsson’s company effectively owns the trees - and plans to eventually log them. Even worse, he’ll replace them with environmentally disastrous palm oil plantations. Already, the colossal scale of logging by others is shockingly clear. But these are desperately poor people, who are easily manipulated, unaware that the supposedly independent lawyer advising them is actually David Nilsson’s lawyer. Can he tell me the lawyer’s name please?

TRANSLATOR: Walter Cambero. That’s David Nilsson’s lawyer.

LIAM BARTLETT: David Nilsson is now back in Australia, hunting for investors to pay big money for his slice of the Amazon. What he doesn’t realize at this pitch is that the would-be investor is a 60 Minutes producer - and we’re in the room next door.

DAVID: Okay, I’ve got these 3 million hectares.

PRODUCER: Right. How did you come across - sorry, say again?

DAVID: Nearly 3 million hectares.

LIAM BARTLETT: David Nilsson does not have 3 million hectares of rainforest, or anything like it. But that doesn’t stop him from promising a fortune for would-be investors.

DAVID: It’s going to be billions.

PRODUCER: Beg your pardon?

DAVID: Billions. I just - I’m scared to quote it, because it’s f---- huge, put it that way.

LIAM BARTLETT: And David Nilsson all but brags about plans to ultimately cut down the rainforests, once the 25-year carbon deal expires.

DAVID: My contracts are 200-year contracts, etched in stone, so when the carbon’s gone, people can come through and harvest the rainforest there. We’d have a forest management plan which they can reforest, they can plant palm oil, they can cut all the timber. No-one can stop ‘em. No-one can stop them.

PRODUCER: But by doing this carbon plan, you’re stopping that happening?

DAVID: Yeah, but the carbon plan only goes for 25 years. The contracts still run and there’s enough timber there to supply the world down there. China will love it.

LIAM BARTLETT: Time, we decide, to have a word with Mr Nilsson. David Nilsson?


LIAM BARTLETT: Liam Bartlett, 60 Minutes.

DAVID: G’day mate, how are you doing?

LIAM BARTLETT: No not your day, is it?

DAVID: No mate, not my day, nope.

LIAM BARTLETT: Telling some more tall stories, trying to get someone to part with their money.

DAVID: No, mate, no. No, I’m not mate, no. It’s no scam.

LIAM BARTLETT: It’s no scam?

DAVID: No. The person that started the scam, Dr Pantone, we’ve taken legal proceedings against him.

LIAM BARTLETT: We know all about Daniel Pantone.

DAVID: And hang on, and he’s under house arrest.

LIAM BARTLETT: No, he’s not under house arrest, that’s a lie. That’s your first lie to me, but you’ve told plenty in the last hour, haven’t you?

DAVID: Well, this is what I’ve been doing.

LIAM BARTLETT: Running around telling lies?

DAVID: No. Interview finished. Please turn that camera off.

LIAM BARTLETT: Well, it’s not going off, because we want some answers about the Amazon tribes that you’ve been dealing with.

DAVID: I’ve got nothing to say.

LIAM BARTLETT: What these Amazon tribes didn’t know - couldn’t know - was the long trail of people who’ve trusted David Nilsson and lost money. Just ask the investors who put money into one of his projects here at Clairview, in North Queensland, in the early 1990s. It’s a beautiful spot, and it seemed a great investment. David Nilsson was selling 5-acre lots, up here in the ridge, here for $70,000 apiece, and he had plenty of takers. But one buyer from Nauru became suspicious when she didn’t receive any rates notices from the council. That’s when the penny dropped. As the Queensland Parliament was later told, those lots didn’t exist, never had. Nilsson banked the money anyway - and the investors never saw it again.

LEO: He’s very convincing, very, very convincing.

LIAM BARTLETT: Leo Keke is a senior barrister from Nauru. He was one of the investors who thought he was buying land at Nilsson’s Clairview development. What did you end up with?

LEO: I end up with nothing. A lot of us, all of us, end up with nothing. So really, he’s a conniving scum.

LIAM BARTLETT: David Nilsson has done well for himself, and hopes to do very well out of his carbon deals with the Amazon tribes who have trusted in him. At this formal signing ceremony, the audience is told their agreement is supposedly with “a company of the United Nations.” So, you’ve got to ask, do they really know who or what they’re dealing with, or that David Nilsson actually plans to log their forests? You’re tying this forest up for 200 years. 200 years. And you plan to log it.

DAVID: No, I don’t.

LIAM BARTLETT: Plant palm oil plantations on it.

DAVID: No, I don’t.

LIAM BARTLETT: You’re just to - sir, your own words. We have you on tape. After 25 years, when the carbon’s finished, you’re going to log the whole lot. I mean, have you no shame?

DAVID: Oh, mate.

LIAM BARTLETT: Have you no shame? It’s clear many Yagua now bitterly regret signing this toxic deal, but feel powerless to undo it.

DAN: They opened up their homes to him. He slept in their homes. They trusted him, they completely trusted him. Now, this hurts them permanently. We’re talking about permanent damage here.

LIAM BARTLETT: Meanwhile, the other tribe in Nilsson’s sights, the Matses, have held out against his grand plans. They won’t sign, at least for now.

DAVID: I’m not ripping ‘em off.

LIAM BARTLETT: But it seems nothing will stop David Nilsson trying to sell his dodgy bundle of signatures to the highest bidder. You were just boasting that you’ve got control for 200 years.

DAVID: No, no, I said, listen, goodbye, thank you very much gentlemen.

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