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April 21, 2017

Imagine for a moment that you’re in New York City on a breezy afternoon. You’re hurrying down the street to grab lunch, when you suddenly come across a cardboard bulldozer, a group of people holding signs, and a human-sized orangutan. What would you do?

Perhaps you’d do a double-take and keep walking. Perhaps you’d stop and see what’s going on. Or perhaps you wouldn’t even notice because you were on your phone. I saw all of these reactions on Thursday as I joined my colleagues to deliver our letter to TIAA, one of the largest investors in farmland globally and the retirement company of which ActionAid USA is a member.

Outside TIAA headquarters in NYC. The boxes represent the organizations in our coalition. Photo: Brandon Wu/ActionAid

As part of a coalition of environmental, human rights and family farm groups, we gathered outside TIAA’s headquarters to proclaim our concerns over the company’s investments in farmland and palm oil. Standing and chanting alongside us were Friends of the Earth, Sum of Us, Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos, and PSC-CUNY, as well as staff from WhyHunger and concerned individuals who showed up in solidarity.

Doug Hertzler, our senior policy analyst and land rights expert, kicked off our rally with a stirring call for TIAA to stop investing in land grabbed from local farmers. “It’s time for TIAA to come clean about where they’ve acquired farmland!” he said.

Doug Hertzler, ActionAid USA Senior Policy Analyst, calls on TIAA to come clean about its land investments. Photo: Brandon Wu/ActionAid

Bringing the issues to life, a group performed a skit to showing that TIAA’s investments were keeping local farmers off their land and contributing to deforestation.

Photo: Brandon Wu/ActionAid

Participants and organizers who also spoke were Nancy Romer, a PSC-CUNY union faculty member, who shared her concerns as a TIAA member; Jeff Conant of Friends of the Earth, who talked about the deforestation caused by the palm oil companies in which TIAA invests, thereby endangering the habitats of orangutans in Indonesia; and Maria Luisa Mendonca, who conducted research on TIAA’s purchases from a shady Brazilian landowner who forced local farmers off their land.

Nancy Romer, TIAA member. Photo: Brandon Wu/ActionAid

Jeff Conant, Friends of the Earth. Photo: Brandon Wu/ActionAid

Maria Luisa Mendonca of Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos. Photo: Brandon Wu/ActionAid

The action culminated in the delivery of 104,481 signatures addressed to TIAA CEO Roger Ferguson (as shown in the 360 video above). More than 14,000 of the individuals who signed our petition are TIAA members.