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August 6, 2019

Seventeen years ago, ActionAid selected the financial services company TIAA to manage our staff’s retirement funds because we believed them to be a responsible investor. However, we have become increasingly concerned about TIAA’s investments in farmland — both here in the United States and in countries like Brazil. What most TIAA clients don’t know is that their retirement money is being used in shady land deals, driving deforestation in Brazil, fueling the corporatization of farming in the U.S., and effectively driving family farmers out of business. 

At ActionAid, we have attempted numerous times to get TIAA to take action and hold itself accountable on these issues. But the company continues to avoid admitting any wrongdoing or agreeing to change course. This leads us to believe that TIAA is actively misleading its clients and shareholders into thinking that the company is managing farmland responsibly and sustainably, when these investments are actually hurting people and the planet. 

This is why we decided to go up to their headquarters in New York City last month and meet face-to-face at their special shareholder meeting. 

The meeting 

Alongside our colleagues from Friends of the Earth, The Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil, and the U.S. National Family Farm Coalition, we came ready to ask tough questions. We wanted TIAA representatives to come clean about the company’s contributions to, land accumulation in the U.S. and to indigenous land rights violations and deforestation in Brazil. We wanted them to acknowledge that these realities are incompatible with their claims of social responsibility. 

This meeting was particularly important. It is rare that shareholders can meet face-to-face with the TIAA Board of Trustees in such an intimate setting and in a publicly accessible location. Last year, we had to travel to TIAA’s corporate campus ten miles outside Charlotte, North Carolina to talk with shareholders, and we couldn’t afford to wait until the next meeting, potentially in 2022, to tackle these issues – nor can indigenous and family farming communities affected by TIAA’s investments. 

Walking into the meeting, we were disappointed to see neither high level executives nor any of the Trustees nominated for the Board. I’m certain that this meeting would have lasted only 10 minutes had we not been there to stir up conversation.

Perhaps due to the persistence of our campaign, TIAA knew that five shareholders would be there to raise concerns about land grabbing and deforestation and the Head of Sustainability for Nuveen, TIAA’s subsidiary which invests in farmland, was there to respond.

Though she was attentive to our comments and questions, she responded in such a way that made me wonder if she had prepared talking points for anyone challenging the integrity of the company’s practices. Her responses were a recycled mix of we share the same values as you, we are open to connecting with stakeholders and communities, and we have a policy for that. 

Rather than addressing the concerns raised by those of us who are actually on the ground seeing this company’s work in action, she doubled down on TIAA’s claims to protect people and the planet. She explained that they are first and foremost prioritizing the retirement funds of roughly five million people and that they have a fiduciary duty to maximize the profits of these funds and not cause financial harm to their clients.

What she failed to address is, in trying to maximize profits, TIAA is still causing harm to people and the planet.

Here are just a few examples:

  • TIAA claims that its agricultural production will address the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 of reducing hunger. Its investments say otherwise. Investing in large-scale production of crops for biofuels and sweeteners take land away from rural populations, reduce the diversity of food crops for consumption, and are ultimately unsustainable.
  • TIAA claims to care about soil health. They give themselves a 99% success rating in their Sustainability Reports, but all this means is that they simply tested the soil. They include no information about whether the soil on their farms is healthy, and they include no plans to ensure healthy soil, making this success rating entirely hollow.
  • TIAA claims they do not deforest Brazil. But they buy land that has recently been converted from forested savannahs into cropland, providing economic incentive to land grabbers. Satellite images show that in spite of TIAA’s no deforestation pledges, deforestation has continued on land they purchased
  • TIAA claims they have tight regulations on land they purchase to make sure the land does not belong to a government-recognized indigenous or Afro-Brazilian community. What they fail to acknowledge is that they are buying land in Northeast Brazil, where many Afro-Brazilian and peasant communities still do not have government recognition, in spite of legitimate land tenure that goes back generations.
  • TIAA is accumulating land in the U.S., such as California’s Central Valley, the Mississippi Delta Region, Illinois, and Indiana. Agricultural policies in these regions have undermined U.S. family farmers and left them highly vulnerable. 

At the shareholder meeting, TIAA acknowledged that they are the largest owner of farmland in the world but then downplayed their land ownership whenever these specific issues were brought up. 

The bottom line

We are disappointed by how this meeting turned out, especially with the absence of trustees, but we know that our attendance was worthwhile. It’s important that we take charge of every chance we get to raise the concerns of university and non-profit employees who want their retirements to actually improve rural economies, environmental conditions, and human rights in the U.S., Brazil, and around the world. 

Our proposal for TIAA is straightforward: 

  • Stop all buying of farmland in Brazil, the U.S., and return lands already acquired in Brazil to impacted communities;
  • Meet the demands of community leadership to repair the damage caused by TIAA’s farmland deals to date, including immediately stopping deforestation and the use of chemical pesticides;
  • Publicize TIAA’s response to all of its clients.

We will continue to hold TIAA to the standard that it is a company tasked with planning for the future. Its business-as-usual approach to funding and investing in practices are killing our future, and we can’t let them keep skirting around what’s really happening on the ground. This is why our campaign exists. This is why we ask the tough questions. We are in this work because we believe that building a sustainable and responsible future starts now.