July 1, 2020

Having worked all my life in farming, agricultural development, education and social change, I know that land and water are the basis of life for communities everywhere. That’s why I am alarmed that the company running my retirement fund, TIAA, is proud to be both the world’s largest manager of farmland and the driver of expanding corporate ownership of land. It’s also why I am joining participants across the country to demand accountability through a TIAA vote and comment period.

Land should be owned, protected and managed by local people, not money managers in distant urban centers seeking profits by speculating on the increasing demand for land. For years TIAA has tried to portray their land acquisitions as sustainable and contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger. But look behind the glossy brochures and you’ll see a corporation pushing a trend that is devastating rural communities and the environment. And it’s not the only one.

TIAA, along with Harvard University, is leading investors in the process of expanding soybean production into formerly forested areas of the Brazilian state of Piauí. Both TIAA and Harvard acquired plantations from the notorious, land grabbing De Carli family. But with increasing public pressure, Harvard is now trying to unload their land at a considerable loss. TIAA has hidden behind the claim that deforestation caused by their acquisitions in Brazil’s Cerrado region is less of a sustainability problem, simply because it borders the Amazon. However, these two biomes are interconnected, and agribusiness firms and their investors, such as TIAA, are destroying the most biodiverse savanna in the world – all to produce soybeans for an already overloaded market. Plantations like those that TIAA and Harvard acquired have uprooted rural communities from their woodlands and pastures and polluted their water.

TIAA’s farmland acquisitions are bad for farming communities in the United States as well, particularly in the South and the Midwest. In 2019 The Atlantic ran a piece on the firm’s large-scale acquisitions in the Mississippi Delta, a region that has yet to come to terms with its legacy of taking land from Black farmers and identify a way to help Black farmers get back on the land as investors are driving up the prices.

When I visited several counties in Illinois at the center of TIAA’s farmland acquisitions, I saw that their main practice was to buy the flattest land possible to reduce management costs for their very standard fuel and feed crops of corn and soybeans. It was wintertime, and their fields were bare without any cover crop to protect the soil. Nearby towns were dotted with abandoned farmhouses and closed businesses. The University of Western Illinois had even announced it was laying off over 100 faculty and staff due to population loss in the region.

Despite overwhelming evidence as shown by these three cases, TIAA executives have refused to meet with participants over their concerns about TIAA’s speculation in land. They also declined to meet with community representative and activist Altamiran Ribeiro, who traveled to Washington, DC, from Piauí and has seen firsthand how TIAA is harming traditional communities.

What TIAA does welcome input on are their executives’ compensation and the election of their Trustees. According to a 2019 report by shareholder advocacy nonprofit As You Sow, TIAA paid its chief executive $20.8 million last year. One would think that given this level of compensation and the annual opportunity for TIAA participants to vote, TIAA executives would be responsive to participants’ concerns about what their pensions are funding.

That’s why we are taking action. We are calling all TIAA participants and supporters of human rights to ask TIAA to address our concerns, to invest in solutions that support local rural economies, and to leave the land for local people to manage.

TIAA must now lead the way among money managers in finding a fair and beneficial way to return the land they have acquired to local communities and farmers.

Here are two ways you can act now:

  1. For TIAA participants: TIAA Trustees want to know if their executives should be rewarded with up to 21 million per year. Instead of commenting on their compensation policy, demand that TIAA stops land grabbing using their advisory vote comment portal.
  2. For TIAA participants and non-participants: Sign our petition.