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Investors Grilled by Charcoal Scam

November 22, 2009

This week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged four executives of Mantria Corporation for perpetrating a $30 million Ponzi scheme based on phony development of the purportedly “carbon negative” soil additive biochar (charcoal). Mantria claimed to be making 25 tons per day of the climate-cleaning carbon booster, but the company has actually never sold any biochar and has just one facility working on future production.

Mantria and its partner firm Speed of Wealth held hotel ballroom get-rich-quick seminars at which investors were told that Mantria was the world’s leading biochar producer. Its “BioChar University” seminar promised attendees paying $20,000 each a four-day tutorial on profiting as early investors in the climate change mitigation scheme. Mantria and Speed of Wealth seminars featured videos showing purported celebrity endorsements and statements in support of biochar production from President Obama, former President Clinton, Walmart President Mike Duke, actor Matt Damon and others. Some of the dignitaries were fooled by the company: a recent Clinton Global Initiative event feted Mantria along with other companies, and a press release listed the company’s BioChar project as among several promising efforts to mitigate global warming.

Among the four indicted in the SEC fraud complaint were Mantria CEO Troy Wragg, who was featured in a glowing 2007 Philadelphia Business Journal profile for his rags-to-riches eco-friendly real estate success. Speaking of the company’s environmentally-friendly developments, Wragg told the Journal, “”We are human beings first, we are businesspeople second, and this is what we believe in. It’s the right way of doing things.”

But residents near the company’s real estate were less enamored than the Clintons or the press. Mantria recently boasted of “five Master Planned Communities” in development on its Tennessee properties, but a nearby landowner noted that the area remained undeveloped two years after the company’s purchase, and wondered if the deal was an investment scam. Others suggested the company’s claims of booming development in the region were a fraud. After a Mantria presentation in Dunlap, Tennessee, attendees were highly skeptical. Several local residents smelled a rat a year before the SEC came in. As one stated:

To me, this seems like someone won the lottery and is trying to turn their $30 million into more using other people’s money. There will be no homes built there by Mantria. There will be no gates, or magnificent waterfalls. They’ll do just like they always have done in the past. They’ll try to sell the “sizzle”. They’ll talk about a utopian scenario of life, they’ll discuss all of the “what-could-be” imaginings….They are selling the idea, not the homes.

In addition to Speed of Wealth and Mantria’s biochar scam, Wragg boasted about 11 Mantria corporate entities, including the Bank of Mantria, Mantria Industries, Mantria Financial, Mantria Records (and star recording artist, the hip hop duo I.C.E. Bloc, aka, Infinite Cash Entertainment BLOC), and a purported marketing arm in China. Wragg’s BioChar Brokers took orders for its BioChar products, but scientists and environmental advocates who ordered samples never received them.

Biochar (charcoal), made by burning wood, grasses, manure or crop residues, is controversial even without being linked to investment fraud. It is promoted for preventing climate breakdown, replacing fossil fuels, improving soil fertility, reducing deforestation and other purported benefits. Many proponents call for large-scale charcoal plantations of monocrop, industrially-farmed trees, which Biofuelwatch notes “would be devastating and involve large-scale deforestation and other ecosystem destruction.” One biochar booster has called for plantations covering 1.4 billion hectares (more than the total current area of cropland on Earth). Biofuelwatch and other watchdog groups note the absurd and dangerous proposals from some biochar proponents, from creating the charcoal using old tires and other potentially toxic wastes, to using giant microwave ovens to char plantation-grown trees.

An international declaration from 147 organizations earlier this year stated that biochar projects fail to address the root cause of changing climates and called for exclusion of biochar from carbon offset agreements, stating “(we) strongly oppose the inclusion of soils in carbon trade and offset mechanisms.” The groups warned that creating a biochar industry would threaten indigenous people and encourage the commodification of soil.

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