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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Meet the Italian Fugitive Advising Emirati Start-up Blue Carbon

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By Matteo Civillini/ Climate Home

Living on a floating island off the Gulf, Samuele Landi advises a little-known company with big plans to shake up the carbon offsetting market.

Blue Carbon plans to take over forested areas the size of the United Kingdom and sell carbon credits from their conservation under a mechanism established by the UN.
The UAE firm, chaired by a member of Dubai’s royal family, has been on a deal-making spree with African governments to make that happen.

The 58-year-old Italian is no forestry expert, but – he says – he was tapped by the company right after its launch a year ago because of his decades-long technology
experience. In Dubai, Landi is known as the owner of a cybersecurity firm devising fully encrypted phones.

In his native country, Landi is a wanted man. He was convicted in two separate trials for a bankruptcy fraud that sank one of Italy’s largest telecommunications
companies and left over 2,200 people without a job nearly 15 years ago.

Landi’s advisory role in Blue Carbon is likely to fuel concerns over the integrity of a company bidding to become a large player in a sector already plagued by
environmental and social risks.

Blue Carbon did not respond to emailed questions. After Climate Home contacted the company, Landi emailed the reporter in a personal capacity and agreed to a video
call. He rejected the legitimacy of the court judgments against him, alleging that Italian judges ruling over his case were corrupt.

Bankruptcy fraud

Samuele Landi was the founder and chief executive of Eutelia, an Italian company providing landline and internet services to millions of users across the country in the early 2000s.

The firm, which had ballooned in size through acquisitions, seemed set on a meteoric rise. But in 2008 cracks started to appear. Drowning in debt, Eutelia asked the government to place most of its workers in a state-funded job retention scheme while trying to restructure its activities.

But at the same time, according to court records, Samuele Landi and other senior executives illicitly moved funds worth dozens of millions of euros outside of Eutelia and into shell companies mainly based outside of Italy.

Eutelia went bankrupt. By the time Italian police moved in to arrest Landi in mid-2010, he had relocated to Dubai. At the time Italy had no extradition treaty with the UAE. Landi told Climate Home News he did not move to Dubai out of fear of being arrested but because he was looking for more freedom.

Landi never returned to Italy. Two separate trials against him and other executives went ahead in his absence. In one Samuele Landi was handed an 8-year prison sentence on bankruptcy fraud charges in 2020. In a second one, stemming from the bankruptcy of a company linked to Eutelia, the court of appeal in Rome sentenced him to 6 years and six months in prison at the end of October.

Landi said he had referred the first case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming it was an unfair trial. He said he is going to appeal against the second
sentence to the Italian Supreme Court. “There is no evidence. I did not steal one single euro”, he told Climate Home.

Liberian diplomat

While his legal troubles rumbled on in Italy, Landi started a new life in Dubai. He set up a cybersecurity company and became a diplomat, after being appointed as consul general in the UAE for the African state of Liberia.

Landi told Climate Home he “developed the diplomatic relations between the Liberian and the UAE governments”, which resulted in the construction of roads, hospitals and sports centers in the African nation over the last few years.

It is through this role that he first came in contact with people from Blue Carbon. Landi said he accompanied a delegation from Liberia to a meeting with Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, a member of the Dubai royal family and chairman of Blue Carbon. “When they formed the company a year ago they asked me to be their advisor”, Landi said. “I help them with information technology. Sometimes they call me to make evaluations on IT solutions.”

A screenshot from the Blue Carbon website

Liberia is one of the African countries that have signed a raft of memorandums of understanding with Blue Carbon in the run-up to Cop28, alongside the governments of Kenya, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania. Landi said he was not directly involved in the negotiations between Blue Carbon and Liberia.

Blue Carbon’s African scramble

The deals, which are not yet definitive, could see the UAE firm gain control over more than 30 million hectares of forests across the countries. In Zimbabwe alone, itis set to secure rights over a fifth of its total landmass.

Blue Carbon plans to set up forestry protection schemes, produce carbon offsets on a never-seen-before scale and sell them to polluting governments and companies.

The firm is looking to operate under a new mechanism established by Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which is set to transform carbon markets. Blue Carbon wants to trade a specific type of credit, internationally transferred mitigation outcomes (ITMOs), that can be used by governments to achieve emission reduction goals set out in their nationally determined contributions.

Blue Carbon’s foray into Africa has prompted numerous concerns.

Alexandra Benjamin, forest governance campaigner at Fern, calls Blue Carbon’s plans “a new scramble for Africa”. “These deals, mostly struck under a veil of secrecy, aren’t just bad news for the climate, but for the lives and livelihoods of rural African communities, whose rights are threatened by them”, she added.

Civil society and indigenous groups fear communities will be forced to make way for the projects, losing control over land that constitutes their primary livelihoods. A number of forest protection offsetting projects – unrelated to Blue Carbon – have been suspended recently following allegations of abuse and forced evictions.

The second concern is that little money would actually end up in the hands of African governments and local communities, contrary to what the mechanism is set up to achieve.

Finally, there are worries that the unprecedented volume of credits created could end up greenwashing oil and gas operations without providing any meaningful emission reductions. Forestry offsetting programs have been hotly debated after a series of articles and scientific studies cast doubts over their climate integrity.

COP28 plans

Blue Carbon has said the deals will bring “vital environmental impacts” and “a transformative wave of economic opportunities” for the African countries signing on. Sheik Dalmook Al Maktoum told the Zimbabwean government the programme could bring $1.5 billion of climate finance into the country.

“Beyond the immediate goal of carbon emissions reduction, the heart of these carbon projects pulsates with the intent to bring about tangible improvements at the grassroots level,” the company added when announcing the agreement in Harare.

The company has indicated that more details about its carbon credit plans will be revealed at Cop28 in Dubai. It told CNN that it would present its deals at the
climate summit as a “blueprint” for carbon trading.

Landi said he has no intention to take part in Cop28. Nearly a year ago he moved to a barge moored in the international waters off the Arabian coast with the goal to set up a so-called decentralized autonomous organisation.

“The idea is to create a place where people can stay without being subjected to the matrix,” he told Climate Home. “No one can say which kind of insects or fake meat you have to eat, which kind of injections you have to get. A libertarian state is very important.”

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