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May 5, 2017

On Sunday, April 30, local ranchers in Maranhão, Brazil, attacked the indigenous Gamela community, leaving 13 wounded. Several people were taken to a hospital, some with severe machete and bullet wounds.

The attack came as the Gamela community was trying to reclaim ancestral lands, just a few days after 4,000 indigenous protesters demanding recognition of indigenous land rights were repressed by police with tear gas and rubber bullets in the capital, Brasilia.

Maranhão is one of four states that are part of the Brazilian government’s MATOPIBA initiative to expand large scale soybean production in Brazil’s savannah region bordering the Amazon. The acronym is formed with the first two letters of each state: Maranhão, Tocantins, Piaui, and Bahia.

The region is home to numerous indigenous communities and others people who have lost large amounts of land in recent decades to ranchers and land grabbers. Their land is now being resold to investors who are destroying the grasslands and trees for soybean production. The global demand for soy is driven by intensive animal feeding and slaughtering operations in wealthier countries like the United States and Europe, as well as its use to make biofuels for cars and trucks.

Leading the wave of land acquisition for soy in the MATOPIBA region of Brazil is the U.S. pension fund giant, TIAA, which invests the money of millions of university and non-profit workers in the United States and also manages other pension funds.

TIAA describes itself as “the largest manager of worldwide farmland assets.” In Maranhão state, TIAA had amassed 159,218 acres by 2015. Attacks like the one the Gamela community suffered are too common in Maranhão. The violence over land makes it impossible for any international investor to claim they are responsibly acquiring land, when their actions push up prices and increase incentives for land grabbing in a region where many are landless.

Land grabbing fueled by investors also hurts other rural communities that ActionAid works with in the MATOPIBA region, including Afro-Brazilian communities where women make their living by managing and processing babassu nuts from publicly accessible palm groves. In spite of having used and managed their land for centuries, these women have lost land rights to local elites and are now only beginning to regain those rights. The government’s drive to increase soy production and the land speculation of companies like TIAA is harming the efforts of these communities to have their rights recognized.

ActionAid USA joins with educators and non-profit workers who have their retirement savings managed by TIAA, who are demanding that TIAA change its practices in investing in agribusiness that causes deforestation and land grabbing.