(First published in Norwegian 2 Nov 2005)
By Pia Gaarder
Green Planet International has for several years held recruitment meetings all over Norway, and the company is today said to have 4500 members in the country. With the motto “Making Money Doing Good” Green Planet appeals to people’s social awareness, the wish to contribute to counteract both environmental damage and poverty and to earn money by recruiting new members investing in tree-planting projects in the developing world.
The admission ticket consists of a start package of almost NOK 3000,- (US$500). Afterwards the members pay US$49 a month to purchase three small trees and 3 litres of an organic fertiliser product. These products the members seldom or never see, because they are immediately donated to poor farmers in the developing world. After six new, active members have been recruited, Green Planet promises that the sales commission will cover the monthly expenses.
“This is pure business that benefits everyone. We are a serious business firm and not an aid organisation,” Rino Solberg, the head of the Green Planet group, tells Norwatch.
Not Clearly Regulated
In the summer of 2005 the Norwegian Gaming and Foundation Authority concluded that Green Planet’s activity is not in conflict with the law. At that point the enquiry had lasted for almost 4 months.
“We have never doubted that it would end like this and feel that this is fair. Now we wish to convince people that our plan is the best way to fight poverty,” Rino Solberg at that time told Adresseavisen, a newspaper that followed the case closely while the Gaming Authority scrutinised the company.
After the Gaming Authority’s final conclusion it has become completely quiet with regard to Green Planet. Norwatch has tried to examine the projects in the developing world and wanted to ascertain what is implied by the acquittal from the pyramid charges. Green Planet International seems to have placed itself in the middle of a grey area where today’s legislation is more or less powerless:
“The present prohibition against pyramid games must be considered ambiguous. It is a regulation that is therefore little used in practice. Many businesses have placed themselves precisely in this area, which is not clearly regulated. We find similarities with pyramid games, but simultaneously the companies claim to be carrying out distribution of goods and services. Green Planet is a typical example of this,” Kjartan Møller, counsellor in the Gaming and Foundation Authority, informs Norwatch. Møller has been in charge of the Green Planet case.
“New legislation is on the line. Would Green Planet be affected by the new law, provided it is passed?”, Norwatch asks.
“We have not come to a decision on that”, Møller answers.
Not Breaking the Law
A close reading of the Gaming Authority’s conclusions shows that they have only established that the company is not breaking Paragraph 16 of the Gaming Authority’s regulations. This is confirmed by Møller:
“We have only examined whether the company breaks Norwegian legislation. It is outside our mandate to evaluate whether the business concept is sound.”
The Authority has not, in other words, vouched for the business idea behind the concept or examined whether the charge for goods and services is reasonable. Nor has the Authority evaluated the alleged projects in developing countries or carried out an analysis of the cash flow in the company. Moreover, the Authority emphasises that they have chosen to use as their basis the company’s own description of their activity and that the accusations against the company “as of today, are not sufficiently documented” [More about the Gaming Authority’s investigation here.]
The Green Planet Group
Green Planet International is part of the larger Green Planet group, which is registered in Panama and directed by Rino Solberg from his office in Moss. Solberg entered the company in 2004 and is in the process of reorganising the Green Planet group considerably.
Today the group consists of a veritable forest of companies. At the top towers GreenPlanet Holdings Inc., which in turn owns GreenPlanet International Inc., GreenPlanet Productions Inc., GreenPlanet Forest Invest Inc., GreenPlanet Management Inc., GreenPlanet Agriculture Inc., GreenPlanet Financial Inc., GreenPlanet Advantage Corporation Inc., GreenPlanet Web Solutions, and People First Global Inc. All the companies are supposed to be registered in Panama.
In addition there is Solberg’s aid organisation, Child Africa, which has been integrated into the group and which, according to Green Planet itself, will in the course of 2006 form the basis for the establishment of a humanitarian aid organisation, GreenPlanet Global Aid Foundation.
In Norway Green Planet is registered in the national Brønnøysund Register Centre through the Trondheim firm Green Planet Nordic Limited, which is directed by Helge Normann. He has been a part of Green Planet from the start. Established in 2003, the company gathers constitutes in practice the main part of the group.
Last year a break-up occurred in the Green Planet sphere; the Norwegian management broke out of the company that until then was called Green Planet International Co-Op and formed their own: Green Planet International Inc. Today there therefore exists another company called Green Planet that also has its own web site in addition to the one directed by Solberg and Normann.
To make the confusion complete, Solberg’s Green Planet sells the miracle fertiliser PlantPower, whereas the Swiss-registered firm Green Planet AG, with headquarters in England, uses PowerPlant. The competing PowerPlant was moreover the fertiliser product previously launched by the Norwegian company – before the break-up.
Rino Solberg explains to Norwatch that the two companies have been arguing about a series of matters after the separation but declares that at present he can not say more about it. One of the issues of contention, however, concerns the rights to PowerPlant, which the English company ran off with. The information on the other Green Planet company’s web pages is, according to Solberg, all wrong.
Took over the Projects
“Green Planet International Co-Op is supposed to have managed several projects in developing countries. Who took over these projects after the beak-up?”, Norwatch queries.
“We did”, Solberg answers.
In other words, there are projects in developing countries which have been in operation for several years. According to Solberg, there exist fertiliser factories in both India and Nigeria. He recounts that a tree-planting project has been established in Nigeria, operated by Green Planet Nigeria, which he was to visit for the first time in December 2005.
Forty thousand trees have been planted, and even more are supposed to be waiting to be planted out at the nurseries. According to Solberg, several other tree-planting projects are underway in Kenya, where Green Planet is to have ordered an environmental impact assessment study.
It is, however, not possible to obtain specific information about activities in Africa and India from either Solberg or the company’s many and varied web pages.
Little Specific Information
On the web pages where the business concept is explained there is never any specific mention of the projects, of the risks and difficulties of tree planting, or of expenditures, earnings, and number of employees. Information about the free distribution of the fertiliser PlantPower is also sparse. There is no information on how many farmers receive the PlantPower fertiliser or on statistics for harvest results before and after the use of PlantPower or similar information.
Only scanned copies of letters from a Rotary club in Phagwara in India and from an organisation in the same area called Adarsh Manch can be found. These express thanks for donations of fertiliser and give assurances that the harvest of the area’s farmers has improved.
There are no photographs of the fertiliser factories and the plantations, nor is it evident where the factories and tree-planting areas are located. There is no mention of annual reports or financial statements for the operation. In short, there is little or no specific information about the company’s production activities or projects, nor is it possible to obtain access to such information from the company’s management.
“We run businesses and do not present the type of information you are asking about. These are matters we manage internally. We quite simply do not make the operation public,” Solberg says in response to Norwatch’s request for more information.
He emphasises that Green Planet International is not registered in Norway and that the company is under no obligation to present information. Not even simple information about the location of the plantations and the fertiliser factories can be obtained.
“No, we do not make such matters public. Earlier we had more information available on our web pages, but journalists and others called Kenya and asked about matters they knew absolutely nothing about. This has ruined so much for us that we do not want to present information to the press. Nor are you entitled to it. Those who are members in our organisation can find out about anything they want to know. We have no secrets, but we do not wish to present unfinished matters to the media.
Criticism from Members
According to facts obtained by Norwatch, information to the members has also been deficient. Several members are supposed to have requested specific information on the projects, without receiving an answer. They receive much boasting about how impressive the projects are and many future prospects but never any financial statements and specific results on the table.
“What do you say to this criticism?”, we ask
“Well, we have two or three members who are not satisfied with anything we are doing and who really should not be members because they do not do anything. They ask for everything under the sun and are constantly demanding information. However, they are not entitled to the information they are demanding,” says Solberg
“But you just said that all information is available to the members?”
“Yes, but only the information they are entitled to. None of our members will be denied information they are entitled to. We have a membership agreement, and it details which information the members are entitled to.”
“Are financial statements for the projects included in this agreement?”
“No, they are not. They are entitled to know what has been donated and what has been done in those matters they participate in. That does not include financial statements but statistics and numbers,” says Solberg.
Solberg says he is tired of explaining the difference between a pyramid company and multinetwork marketing.
“We have nothing to do with pyramid companies. They do not sell any products, and only the first who join earn any money. That is clearly illegal and is something we would never get involved in. We, however, constitute a legal network company. We sell products and at the same time work very long-term. And here we are talking about 20-30 years into the future,” says Solberg.
He adds that in a short time the operation of the network-marketing company Green Planet International will only be a small part of the company structure.
“Perhaps it will constitute only 10% of our group. The other companies are completely ordinary companies that will work with sale of books, tree planting, seminar activity, and other matters. These companies will be run in accordance with completely ordinary business criteria. It is only this company, Green Planet International, which operates in Scandinavia and which we next year will present internationally, which carries out network marketing. And you have seized only on this one company and see red because it is registered in Panama,” says Solberg.
“How great a part of the turnover in the whole group does Green Planet International constitute today?”
“Today it probably constitutes the greater part,” Solberg answers. He adds, “But last year it was 100%.”
Despite its extensive company structure, the activity in the whole Green Planet group is still practically identical with that in the network company Green Planet International.