Sunday, June 28, 2009

Barking up the right tree

One of the curious aspects of the story about irregular carbon credits is how many people have emerged offering more "information" about the story. One of the first was someone who went only by the name of Treble Cleff, but otherwise remained anonymous. Treble Cleff was certain that I should stop writing about Kamula Doso, which he said was doing a lot of damage to the landowners. He wanted me to pay more attention to another aspect of the story. He also wanted to know what I knew. This sort of anonymous dialog is tough to handle, who are they and what is their agenda? Impossible to say.

In this context, on June 8th, shortly after I wrote about irregular carbon credits in Papua New Guinea, I was approached by an academic called Colin Filer at The Australian National University. He offered a copy of a soon-to-be published scientific paper on the PNG "carbon cargo cult", written by Dr Filer and some colleagues. It should, he wrote, explain part of what was going on. When it arrived, (titled “Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Papua New Guinea”), the manuscript argued that official deforestation rates in Papua are too high, and that countries have an incentive overestimate deforestation. This was interesting but when I asked how this was relevant to the story I was mysteriously told it was "just background" and that Dr Filer was hanging onto some “juicy stuff” on this until he could get more verification.

But Dr Filer had also told me that he knew something about Kamula Doso. So I asked him what he knew. At the same time I asked, "please forgive me for asking but given your long professional experience in this region, may I check whether you have any personal or financial ties with this story please?” He wrote back: “Of course I'm connected to some of the players, but
like any good journalist, I don't reveal my sources.”

Lets just stop for a moment and recap. Dr Filer has contacted me as an academic who knows about a huge story of international significance and it turns out that he has some other non-academic connection that he is now refusing to disclose. Astonishing. So I wrote to tell him why this was wrong.

Essentially, I pointed out that academic employees are generally expected to either be independent or openly disclose any financial ties they may have that may be relevant to their work. I ended, “If there is any uncertainty about the request I am making, or you wish to decline this second opportunity to disclose your involvements, the only route open to me is to contact the vice-chancellor's office, explain the situation and make a formal request that these questions are answered immediately through the press office.” He replied, “I don't respond to threats.”

Well as it turns out, his boss the VC took a different view, and after a little email abuse from Dr Filer, “you're out to lunch with the wrong end of the stick”, I finally got my declaration—albeit prefaced with “let’s get this straight”. So who does Dr Filer work for? He has worked for Carbon Planet, one of the companies that is integral to the story. Dr Filer's job was to write reports about the institutions that might be used to distribute landowner benefits from REDD projects.

Being contacted this way, seemed sufficiently unusual to ask the university for a statement. I suppose I had been expecting something a bit more robust than “the University encourages its academic staff to take part in constructive public debates in areas of their expertise. Dr Filer is a long-standing academic expert on PNG's forestry sector, and as such has a right to comment. The University does require staff to disclose sources of funding for research, and Dr Filer has now done that, albeit somewhat belatedly.”

Of course the existence of a consultancy isn't evidence of any wrongdoing. But not being open about one's consultancies is unusual, particularly in such a sensitive case such as this, and when asked directly about them.

Having received my disclosure, I returned to the university and Dr Filer and asked for more information about Kamula Doso, but sadly Dr Filer didn't want to talk to me any more. When I questioned this, the university replied that while it "encouraged academic staff to engage in constructive public debate, we don't require that they do so.... ”

I'm not sure that telling journalists that they are "out to lunch" when they request a disclosure of commercial interests, and then going off into a sulk, really qualifies as constructive public debate, but there you have it. In the meantime, I've also heard that a friend of Dr Filer has been telling another journalist that I'm "barking up the wrong tree".

I'm not so sure. The tree for me is merely that there are certain standards of transparent behaviour that are expected from academics, and they need to stick to them because they are employed by the public.

The broader issue here is about the disclosure of commercial consultancies in forestry. Forestry workers may be beavering away on dry academic information about biomass, growth rates, satellite imagery, regrowth rates or even tenure in traditional communities. But increasingly these studies are becoming fundamental to arguments about huge amounts of real money in the forest carbon market. Academic studies are what underpin estimates of value. On the basis of a report from a consultant, a forest can be deemed to sequestering a particular amount of carbon, and then this can be sold as a valuable offset worth millions of dollars.

While much money and attention is rightly being put into governance issues in poor countries that must handle REDD projects, it is worth noting that transparency is necessary everywhere if this market is ever going to work. It doesn't matter whether everyone is honest, it needs to be transparent to work because the market will not work well with lots of asymmetric information.

For example, it really does matter when someone comes to buy $20m of carbon credits who has verified that they exist. In medicine, disclosure of consultancies is the norm. I think forestry consultants everywhere are going to have to start paying more attention to disclosure and transparency, particularly in relation to work done for carbon brokers and traders.