(First published in Norwegian 5 Jul 2006)
By Pia Gaarder
In January 2006 Wangari Maathai received in her office in Nairobi a small delegation from the Panama-registered group Green Planet, run from Moss, Norway. Green Planet has earlier been scrutinised by Norwatch because of the lack of access to both its accounts and its tree-planting projects in developing countries.
Green Planet was recommended to Maathai through a directorate in the Kenyan Ministry of Environment, and Green Planet itself was very active in obtaining a meeting. In addition to Rino Solberg, the chairman of the board of Green Planet International, also present were his wife and Green Planet’s PR head, Julie Solberg, and Green Planet’s director in Kenya, Jean Paul Deprins.
According to Green Planet, the meeting is supposed to have resulted in an extensive agreement between Maathai and Green Planet, which until recently was described at a web site operated by Helge Normann, the head of Norwegian-registered Green Planet Nordic. The web pages www.doing-good.info were active for many months but were closed at the end of May 2006 after Norwatch tried to discover more about the supposed agreement with Maathai. See Green Planet’s description of the agreement at the closed web site here (in Norwegian).
Green Planet wrote that they had entered into an extensive agreement with Maathai: the Nobel laureate was to write the preface to a series of books and speak for a minute before a full-length feature film, and her organisation, The Green Belt Movement, was to receive a tree for each copy of a book that was sold. Not least, Maathai, for her part, was to market Green Planet internationally. The agreement was described as having “a fantastic potential for Green Planet’s future” and appeared as a strategic agreement between Maathai and Green Planet.
Norwatch could find no equivalent description of the agreement at The Green Belt Movement’s web site and has therefore for a long time tried to talk with Wangari Maathai to learn her version.
On the telephone from Nairobi Maathai could finally confirm that a meeting has taken place but informed us that the discussion was limited to a book that had been sent her. She had never signed an agreement with Green Planet and had discontinued contact with the company.
“How did you come into contact with Green Planet?”, Norwatch asked.
“I came into contact with Green Planet as a possible partner in tree-planting projects through the governmental directorate TARDA, Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority. Green Planet also sent me a book, “People First”, which they thought emblematic of many of my own ideas, and they were very active in trying to achieve a meeting”, Maathai answered.
She related that at the meeting in January, Green Planet suggested that they could contribute to financing the Green Belt Movement. Maathai’s organisation was to receive a dollar for every copy sold of “People First”. They brought along a recommendation of “People First” by Jack Lannom, which she read and endorsed verbally.
“It sounded like a good suggestion, but I became very sceptical when they afterwards sent me the agreement in writing. It said in small print that The Green Belt Movement was to receive the profits exclusively of the sale outside the USA. Since the book is being published in the USA, this did not sound promising. I did not sign the agreement and asked them for an explanation”, Maathai related.
Her contact with Green Planet ended at that point. In the meantime she received calls from friends who warned her against having Green Planet as a partner.
“I wrote to Green Planet and said I had information indicating that I had to be careful about what kind of partnership we developed with them. And I put on hold all agreements or understandings we had about working together”, said Maathai.
“What do you think of Green Planet writing an extensive description of an agreement with you that has never been entered into and which was not intended to have the dimension described?” we ask.
“That is very unfair. We are contacted by many people and organisations and must always be on our guard. But Rino Solberg seemed personally very convincing, and everyone believes that you Norwegians are always so decent. Now Green Planet here in Kenya is very worried and wants to know in greater detail why I won’t have any more dealings with them. But I haven’t had any further contact with them”, Maathai said.
The head of Green Planet International, Rino Solberg, for his part, wants to say as little as possible about the matter.
“I can not give you any further information on the agreement with Maathai now. All of Green Planet is going through great changes. Helge Normann and I are in the process of parting ways, and the agreement with Maathai is suspended for the present”, Solberg told Norwatch.
“But you had a web site that described in detail an agreement with Maathai. Now this has been closed. Can you tell me what has happened?”
“It is true that the web site has been closed, and you can just forget about it. A series of other things will also be closed down in the future. But I want to emphasise one thing: Maathai has never been involved in network marketing. The agreement has been misinterpreted that way, and that is not true. It was I who negotiated with Maathai, and I don’t like how the agreement has been presented”, Solberg said.
“But then it must be Helge Normann who has misunderstood this, since he himself published a detailed description of the agreement and presented it as support for the whole Green Planet concept”.
“The description was not all that detailed, but that is another matter. Just so everything is clear, the Maathai agreement has never involved network marketing. She has never been involved in Green Planet’s network activity”, Solberg said, and continued, “Now it is due to you that Wangari Maathai has placed the agreement on hold. You have done many a disservice and ruined things for many people. Not for us in Green Planet but for a great many others”.
“How? So far nothing has been written about the Maathai agreement, and the only thing I have done so far is to call Maathai and her organisation”.
“Yes, exactly. You have gotten in touch with them, and by doing that you have ruined things for a lot of people. But I can’t say any more about it now. You can have more information about this in the autumn. This will be misunderstood unless all the details are presented, and you have to get them from me”, Solberg concludes.
Green Planet is, in other words, one more time going through great changes. The company, which consists of a series of Panama-registered subsidiaries, has so far had its headquarters in Norway. Solberg entered into Green Planet in 2004 to reorganise the firm after a break-up with an English-registered company with the same name. He has run the company from his office in Moss, in collaboration with Helge Normann.
The basic idea is that, by means of small monthly investments in tree-planting projects in developing countries, a network of members will be able to contribute to stopping erosion, help the poor in the world, and earn some money for themselves. They will in time receive profits both from the trees they own and from the monthly payments of other members. Part of the payments is in theory to be channeled back to other members of the network. How the cash flow occurs within the organisation is not accessible information – not even for the company’s 4500 members.
Despite its Panama registration and a small forest of subsidiaries, the company’s main area of operation has so far always been in Norway.
The Maathai Agreement
The Wangari Maathai agreement that was not signed consequently involved one of the subsidiaries in the Green Planet group, People First Global, which publishes books. That the agreement was limited to a book was also confirmed by Rino Solberg in a newsletter sent to Green Planet’s members.
“It has come to our attention that some members might have said that Professor Wangari Maathai collaborates with GreenPlanet International Inc. in network marketing. This is not true”, Solberg wrote, and specifies that Maathai so far has collaborated with GreenPlanet with regard to the book “People First” and nothing else.
“The nature of this collaboration is that every time a book is sold in the area where GreenPlanet owns the rights to the book, Wangari Maathai will receive enough money to plant a tree. It is important for Professor Maathai’s integrity that this collaboration is not abused, and we urge our members to be careful in this respect”, Solberg wrote.
But it was not “some members” but his right-hand man and collaborating partner through many years, Helge Normann, who was the source of the misinformation about the agreement between Maathai and Green Planet. The information was published at the little web site for which Normann himself was the editor and sent to Green Planet’s members.
Now Helge Normann and Rino Solberg are parting ways. According to Solberg, the network company in Norway will be closed, and everything will be run differently. Solberg himself is planning to move to Uganda and concentrate more on new tree-planting projects.
According to the local paper “Gjengangeren”, in February Solberg had already obtained more than 200,000 hectares for Green Planet in Kenya, and 10,000 trees are supposed to have been planted.
Friend in the USA
After Norwatch had made many attempts to obtain a comment from Helge Normann, the earlier Green Planet head informed us in an e-mail that he has withdrawn completely from the group.
He said that the agreement and the understanding reached with Maathai, through Rino Solberg, were based on a concept known as People First. “This is a concept that a very good friend of mine in the USA has created and about which a film is now being made in Hollywood. Wangari Maathai was invited to join us in this. But this was also dependent on my participation in GreenPlanet, and since this is no longer the case, none of this applies any more”, Normann wrote. “Nevertheless, I want to emphasise that an agreement with Wangari Maathai was at one point a matter of fact”, Normann concludes.
He gave no explanation of how a limited book agreement that had not been signed could transform Wangari Maathai into a spearhead for the whole Green Planet concept internationally.