Small investors lose millions in ‘ethical’ forest

by Jon Ungoed-Thomas and Duncan Campbell

First published in the Sunday Times    6 July 2014

FAMILIES and pensioners who were encouraged to invest in “ethical” tree plantations in the Amazon rainforest have lost millions of pounds in a scheme being examined by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

Two entrepreneurs, Omari Bowers, 37, and Andrew Skeene, 36, claimed that investors could expect returns of about 10% a year from growing teak in the rainforests. They said teak had proved a better investment than gold, property and shares.

The business partners, both from London, impressed their clients with their commitment to regenerating deforested land in Brazil but investors are now pursuing millions of pounds that have been lost in the Global Forestry Investment scheme.

Skeene and Bowers declined last week to provide detailed information about the scheme to The Sunday Times. But investors have investigated the men’s backgrounds and published warnings on the internet about their alleged activities.

They are now trying to trace the men’s assets and details of their spending. They are also trying to find details of companies and bank accounts in Britain, Dubai and Brazil.

Gwyn Maysey, 66, from Sydenham, southeast London, said she had invested £5,000 in the teak scheme but knew of another investor who was allegedly owed £2m.

“We don’t think we will get our money back but we want to warn other investors,” she said.

Maysey added: “I would like to see a freezing order placed on their bank account and other assets around the world to ensure they never get to enjoy any of their gains.”

The retired civil servant said she had been assured that the scheme’s trustee was regulated. But the structure of the scheme had been changed after she invested so that it was no longer under the supervision of the financial regulator.

Gwyn Maysey says she is among victims of the scheme Gwyn Maysey says she is among victims of the scheme

GFI Consultants had been founded in 2010 and traded as Global Forestry Investments. Skeene and Bowers had offices in London, Brazil and Dubai and the scheme was promoted as “profitable and beneficial to the environment”.

Plots at Belem in Brazil — known as the Belem Sky Plantation — were offered at £5,000 each and investors estimate the value of the total scheme could have been in excess of £20m.

Stories from some of those who put their savings into the scheme have appeared in online forums. While some investors did initially see a return they were unable to recover their money when the payments stopped.

One woman told how she had invested £10,000 which she had been awarded after her partner was killed in a traffic accident. “I was assured GFI would deliver not only my initial capital but also 10% returns per year,” she said.

“They knew full well that this money was precious to us — not having a partner to support us. They have made no contact whatsoever.”

In March last year GFI Consultants was the subject of a winding up petition in the High Court. Six months later Global Forestry Investments said payment delays were the result of an unusally long rainy season in Brazil and banking problems. But investors were not told a key company belonging to Bowers and Skeene had gone into liquidation.


Omari Bowers and Andrew Skeene ran the ‘ethical’ investment plan

Andrew Callen, a solicitor who is acting for those who lost money in the teak scheme and also in a Bowers and Skeene currency trading scheme known as Global Forex, said: “Millions of pounds has gone missing to date. A lot of people had money in different schemes which has not been accounted for.”

Callen said Bowers and Skeene were already subject to individual voluntary arrangements under which agreed payments are made to creditors. Bankruptcy proceedings were also now planned.

Roberta Ward, director of the website, has highlighted the losses under schemes promoted by Bowers and Skeene. But she was warned by Mackrell Turner Garrett, a legal firm acting for Bowers and Skeene, to remove her “defamatory” statements.

In a statement Bowers and Skeene said some of the information obtained by The Sunday Times was inaccurate but would not comment further until they had spoken to legal advisers. Mackrell Turner Garrett said it no longer acted for Bowers and Skeene.

Investors have complained to the City of London police and the SFO about schemes promoted by Bowers and Skeene.

In a statement the SFO confirmed that it was reviewing information concerning the conduct of Global Forestry Investments and Global Forex and their employees.

As part of the investigation, the SFO, in conjunction with the City of London Police, today executed search warrants at two addresses in the south east of England.


Update: SFO investigation launched

On 25 February 2015, following the Sunday Times investigation, the Serious Fraud Office announced that it was conducting a criminal investigation into alleged fraud concerning Global Forestry Investments and Global Forex Investments.

As part of the investigation, the SFO and City of London Police raided two addresses in south east England.

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