Formations House. Story 3
Gilbert Mwondo is still waiting for him to get paid. He paved roads in the jungle of Cameroon, where foreign investors were going to grow hemp and other crops for export, and give locals new jobs, reported occrp.
In 2016, authorities hired residents of the southern part of the Mayo-Messala region to prepare the land for the arrival of representatives of the Prime Minister’s office and guests from a London company.
“We all dug roads to make it easier for members of the delegation to move through the forest,” says Mwondo, a spokesman for the indigenous people of Bulu. “We are still waiting for us to get paid.”
Image: Instagram / Photos of the Mayo jungle road Charlotte Pavar posted on Instagram
According to local residents, they abandoned their farms for the sake of this work. From the advertising materials of the investors, it followed that the territory that was allocated as the “modern and technological zone of free export of agricultural products” was larger than the central part of London.
Now the jungle is swallowing these roads, and people had to return to their farms - neither work nor hemp plantations appeared.
As you know from interviews and documents examined by OCCRP reporters, the South China Morning Post and the NBC News, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on this project. The question remains: where are they?
“Unfortunately, the negotiations did not lead to anything,” Mayor of Mayo-Christian Christian Mebjame Mfou wrote to reporters, regretting the closure of the project. He did not answer questions about an investor from Equatorial Guinea, who claims to have transferred more than $ 300,000 to the mayor’s personal account.
Information about the project was obtained from secret documents of the London company Formations House and was relayed to journalists by activists of the Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets) group. From the documents it became known about the company’s relations with local authorities and foreign investors, as well as about their large-scale business plans in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Charlotte Pavar, the owner of Formations House, wrote to reporters that she reported a leak to the police and considers this a theft. She also said that they tried to blackmail the company. Despite requests from reporters, she did not provide evidence.
Before Formations House came up with the idea of ??doing business in Cameroon, it created tens of thousands of companies for its customers around the world. By 2016, the firm, which operated through Trade Park Corporation, a Hong Kong-registered company, had been developing a strategy for creating offshore zones in Africa and the Balkans for about five years. The scenarios were different, but everyone revolved around creating corporate registries in which firms could be managed without much control.
Trade Park wanted to create the most opaque registries possible. Here is what was said in one of the presentations of the company’s services: “It provides complete anonymity, inaccessibility to American or internal institutions.” In the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe, they proposed opening a register that could issue banking and financial licenses. The organization hoped that its registry would become a "direct competitor to Seychelles."
The most ambitious plans came to life in the Gambia - a state in West Africa. There, Trade Park used an unofficial register to register hundreds of companies, for example, non-existent banks that were used in multi-million dollar frauds.
Although Formations House had no criminal intentions, it created an environment in which crime flourished without any restrictions on the part of law enforcement agencies - both on the shores of the sunny Gambia and in an office in central London.
In Cameroon and several other African countries, the companies that Formations House created were supposed to convince authorities to participate in the development of the medical marijuana market. They succeeded in Cameroon. The project would not only destroy 5,000 hectares of rainforest, but would also increase corruption in the country. According to available data, authorities received payments of uncertain destination at the planning stage.
The aim of the project was the production of hemp extract. This was to "make Cameroon the center of the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries." As follows from the business plan, for the implementation of the project it was necessary to carry out “moderate cutting” of the protected area of ??the rainforest and “moderate relocation of wild animals”. The latter most likely belonged to the rare species found in the region: western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees and leopards.
Image: Daniel Costantini / Dagens Nayeter. In this house on Harley Street, until 2017, the central office of Formations House was located.
In some countries, such as Chad, Malawi and Gabon, Trade Park has become interested in ministries and presidential offices. Local authorities were promised huge benefits.
In Chad, Trade Park promised that the agricultural zone would create 30,000 jobs over three years and generate $ 357 million in net profit. At that time, this would amount to 3.3 percent of the country`s GDP. Representatives of Trade Park assured the government that the facility would be ready for use 30 days after signing the documents.
There is no evidence that the company`s business plans in Madagascar, Sao Tome and Principe and Equatorial Guinea have come true. The company has achieved little success in Chad, Malawi, Gabon and Cape Verde, but the closest to the actual launch was the project in Mayomassal.
From this region, the capital of Yaounde is at least four hours away. Here President Paul Biya was born, who has been leading the country since 1982.
“We didn’t lose the place,” Pavar wrote her Cameroonian employee Jacques Roger Dugely in June 2016.
Image: Facebook / Charlotte Pavar posted her photo from Cameroon
Speaking about the AgroPark Mayo concept, Trade Park employees promised that it would become an “international export zone”. They said that the project would create “optimal conditions” for international companies to invest. Who does not want to make money on the agro-pharmaceutical market, which brings in $ 500 billion a year?
Representatives of the company promised within three years to create 15 thousand jobs and receive 300 million dollars of foreign direct investment. They believed that investors would be attracted by a special permit for the cultivation of hemp in this zone, which is prohibited in Cameroon. They claimed that they “received an exclusive perpetual license from the government” to grow this crop.
As follows from the unsigned agreement, the license was obtained with the support of the Mayo Messala Village Council and the Institute for Medical Research and Study of Medicinal Plants, which is located in Yaoundé. The Mayor of Mayomessaly stopped contacting reporters and did not answer questions about the license.
It also follows from the agreement that Trade Park promised to build an Institute and a Medical center for employees. In addition, she assured that she could improve the local infrastructure.
Representatives of local communities welcomed the news with joy. People live in poverty, many roads in the region are suitable only for motorcycles. For food, people hunt, fish and grow cassava.
“We were told that we can earn a lot if we grow medicinal plants and sell them to white people. The Council suspended everything, ”a local resident who did not want to give a name told about the Mayo-Messala leadership. “We don’t know what to think.”
Image: Instagram / Charlotte Pavar published a satellite image of the territory that was allocated for the project
Money is everything
The project seemed to the authorities a bargain. The company would be less than 10 kilometers from the private property of President Biya and would not require any investment from the government - only foreign investment.
To collect the necessary, according to her, $ 50 million, Pavar began to look for wealthy foreign investors. In December 2016, she reported on the “status of the project” and presented only vague promises of agreements with potential investors, among which were: international audit firm PwC, French investment bank Société Général, African banking conglomerate Ecobank and Cameroonian oil exporter Net Oil.
There is no evidence that these companies actually invested in the project, but it is known from the letters that the money was received. It is not known exactly how much was spent, but we are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In December 2015, a Kuwaiti businessman invested in a project by purchasing shares of Trade Park in the amount of approximately 250 thousand dollars. He was dissatisfied with the result. His lawyers demanded a refund. In the letter, they said that the businessman was misled by promising a “just incredible” income of $ 4.3 million over three years. Lawyers have called the content of the handout a "science-fiction category."
Pavar answered journalists` questions in a letter. She said that the businessman "made the decision to invest in the project after checking all the documentation and licenses."
A businessman from Equatorial Guinea told reporters that he had transferred 220 million African francs (about 336 thousand dollars) to the personal bank account of the Mayor of Mayomessala. He wanted to pay for land that was intended for Mayo Agropark. George Caiaphas thought that the money would be distributed among the local population. Despite this, he was awaiting documentary evidence that the land belonged to him.
Kayafas promised reporters to provide data on transactions, but then he stopped answering questions. As follows from a letter from 2017, he invested 64 thousand dollars in the project as an initial investment.
From the documents it is known that Pavar and her colleagues also spent tens of thousands of dollars on the project. As follows from bank statements, she transferred 55 thousand euros (65,450 dollars) to the International Business Company in two payments - in December 2015 and March 2016. This company also owned half of the Trade Park Corporation Cameroon Limited and the Trade Park Corporation. It was run by Dougeli, the CEO of Trade Park Cameroon.
A month after Dugely received the second payment, he wrote Pavar. He said that he needed to pay a private company about 10 thousand dollars to get a valid license from the Cameroonian National Administration of Free Industrial Zones (NOIFZ). He wrote that the organization rejected their offer due to “poor market research,” “poor financial justification,” and “poorly designed business plan.” Dougels advised contacting “their private consulting firm” to “fix” the offer. The amount of Dougel had to agree.
“It was very difficult for me to agree on the amount after editing the project. We agreed on 9,000 euros, ”wrote Dugely. He declined to comment on the situation.
Image; OCCRP / The free zone certificate that the company received shortly after Dougeli sent Pavar a letter (April 19, 2016) stating that he paid a private consulting firm to amend the quotation
Later, in 2016, business partner Pavar Frederic Bard told her that he had to send the mayor and the company “100 pieces” to calm down. He added that he “needs to feed the beast ...”
In response, Pavar said that this was not the first payment. “We paid them at the very beginning. It was not easy, but we did it. And then they said that they had already spent everything, and asked for more, and now they need more, ”she wrote. - It seems to me that even if I find 100 thousand, they will ask for more. They will find a way to trouble us. ”
In January 2017, Pavar sent a letter to her colleagues informing them that they had "already spent about 500 thousand euros on this project."
However, this money was not enough for the mayor of Moebiame Mfou. As follows from the unsigned agreement, he could count on 10 percent of the license fees of the park. In September 2016, he contacted Dugely and expressed dissatisfaction with how Trade Park manages the project. The mayor said that for the sake of the project, he took “enormous risks” and put pressure on “the head of state, first lady, other senior officials and representatives of the local community.”
“You have undertaken obligations that you are not fulfilling. You disappointed me, ”he wrote. “I fear for my political career and freedom.”
Moebiame Mfou did not answer journalists` questions about whether he or the local leadership received any money. However, Adolf Nkomou, who runs local agricultural projects, told reporters that he had not heard that anyone from the local leadership received at least a cent.
The head of Tatching 2, a village in the Mayo-Messala region, said the locals never saw the money. "It`s Complicated. I heard that 85 million francs (142 thousand dollars) were raised, ”said Jean-Paul Nkomo.
"If I had that kind of money, I would not only take care of the unfinished building, I would have lived at Hilton for at least a week before thinking about returning here."
Image: Instagram / Charlotte Pavar posted a photo from a meeting with the former Prime Minister of Cameroon, Philemon Young
Trade Park documents are full of tempting promises and offers. Here`s what the company said about the global cannabidiol market: “Given the cost of production, cannabidiol extract is now more valuable than gold.” Promises of large profits from the export of hemp extract undoubtedly helped Trade Park obtain permission to grow illegal crops and a license to use such a large tract of rainforest.
Chris Duvall, director of geographic and environmental studies at the University of New Mexico, said the offer represents a growing trend among foreign companies — they are looking for cannabis land in Africa, which they then sell on the global medical extract market. However, he notes that such investments are associated with great risks.
“In most sub-Saharan countries, environmental standards and laws are very arbitrary. In places where they even exist, they simply don’t comply, ”says Duval, who studied the history of hemp in Africa.
“In many cases, such companies have access to more money than the entire leadership of the country, so they have completely different opportunities,” he says. “Everything is so opaque there that it is almost impossible to understand the real state of affairs in a particular country.”
It looks as if the project in Cameroon failed precisely because of a lack of investment.
Each of the companies that agreed to comment (including O’Neal, Bayer, Agrilogistics, British American Tobacco and Altria) denies any involvement in the project. Pavar wrote to reporters that the project is "in the process of waiting for investment."
In the next letter, she added that Trade Park “has all the necessary permissions and licenses” to continue working. She also said that they allocated a budget to conduct a feasibility study on the results of the project. “The project will be implemented at the highest level of environmental safety,” Pavar said.
Now Mayo Agropark exists only in old brochures and business plans. The columns that limit the territory of a potential object remind of it.