The companies face the potential loss of farmland worth as much as $1 billion raising questions about their activity in other countries and their claims to social responsibility
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The federal land agency of the Brazilian government and a Brazilian state court have determined that pension fund manager TIAA and Harvard University’s endowment fund illegally acquired more than 500,000 acres of farmland in Brazil’s ecologically sensitive Cerrado region.
The positions issued by the country’s federal land agency, the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INCRA), and the state court of Bahia are detailed in a new report by the Brazilian Association of Rural Workers’ Lawyers (Associação dos Advogados de Trabalhadores Rurais – AATR), the Brazilian Network for Social Justice and Human Rights (Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos), and the international organization GRAIN.
The new report provides groundbreaking evidence affirming local rural communities’ claims that TIAA and Harvard’s endowment have ignored their rights and marginalized their livelihoods.
TIAA used shell companies, offshore jurisdictions, and opaque corporate structures to conceal how at least 300,000 acres of its land holdings violated a 2010 law restricting foreign ownership of farmland. Harvard’s endowment bought a 200,000-acre tract of public land that had been illegally transferred to private ownership.
The report further details how large-scale fires, which are intentionally set to clear land, are ravaging significant areas of forests on TIAA and Harvard’s Brazilian farms once again, following devastating fires in the Cerrado and Amazon in 2019 that prompted international outcry.
“Land speculation by pension funds and endowment funds, such as TIAA and Harvard University, is stimulating land grabbing and causing displacement of rural communities and environmental destruction,” said Maria Luisa Mendonça, Executive Director of the Brazilian Network for Social Justice and Human Rights, one of the authors of the report who has been researching these companies since 2012. “Not only are they violating the law, but these corporations also promote extensive mono-cropping of agricultural commodities, and in the critical, biodiverse ecosystem of the Cerrado, which is environmentally destructive and unsustainable.”
TIAA and Harvard are the largest foreign buyers of farmland in Brazil and have amassed a combined total of around 1.85 million acres. Most of this land is in Northeastern Brazil in rural areas where communities have lived and relied on land and forests for generations, often without the benefit and protections of formal legal systems and public institutions to secure and protect their land rights.
The report’s findings counter TIAA and Harvard’s claims to manage this farmland sustainably, conduct due diligence, and follow responsible investment principles. Now faced with this court evidence of legal violations, as well as previous evidence of human rights abuses, both institutions must contend with significant concerns about the credibility of their self-reporting processes on the sustainability and responsibility of their investments in Brazil and other countries, including the U.S.
Since 2017, a coalition of farmer, environmental, faith, human rights, and civil society organizations have worked to expose financial firms’ complicity in land grabs and deforestation in Brazil and the corporate consolidation of agriculture in the United States.
In 2017, more than 100,000 individuals and TIAA clients demanded that the company make its farmland deals fully transparent. Students at Harvard University began pressuring the university to divest from farmland in 2018, after its involvement in land grabbing first came to light.
Most recently in 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty senate passed a resolution urging the university to direct TIAA to uphold human rights and ensure that its farmland was not stolen from smallholder farmers or acquired illegally.
“Workers’ retirements and student scholarships should not be dependent on farmland speculation, which exacerbates land conflicts in countries like Brazil and consolidates corporate takeover of farming communities in the United States,” said Doug Hertzler, Senior Policy Analyst at ActionAid USA, an international development and human rights organization whose staff retirement funds are managed by TIAA. “These companies need to listen to their clients and their stakeholders, but we also need strong regulation by governments to stop these kinds of abuses and violations carried out by financial companies.”
With the mounting evidence of illegal and irresponsible activity by U.S. corporations and institutions abroad, concerns about their U.S. investments are growing. TIAA currently owns more than 330,000 acres in 11 states worth more than $4 billion. Several Midwestern states have long-standing laws restricting both domestic and foreign corporations from owning vast stretches of farmland in order to limit consolidation and corporate dominance of local food systems and economies.
In Wisconsin in 2013, these local control protections were nearly overturned, with financial media speculating that TIAA was behind the effort. While the corporate farming law in Wisconsin remained intact due to farmer resistance, current state laws are not adequate to protect against farmland concentration. The likelihood that TIAA and other investors will continue to consolidate their control over farmland and agribusiness warns of continued economic and social decline of rural communities.
“Family farmers, ranchers, and fishermen in the US are calling on our elected officials to defend and advance meaningful public policy that addresses corporate control of our natural resources and food systems,” said Jordan Treakle, Policy Director for the National Family Farm Coalition. “These financial companies and agribusiness have a long track record of ignoring the economic interests, worker rights, and livelihood needs of food producers and rural communities, and their acquisition and speculation on farmland should not be accepted as the new status quo. We need federal policy that protects family farmers, especially farmers of color, and laws that rein in corporate land investments in the US and abroad to keep land in the hands of farmers.”
For more information, see the complete report by AATR, Rede Social and GRAIN, “TIAA and Harvard’s Brazilian farm deals judged illegal.”
To get involved in the campaign, sign the petition here: https://stoplandgrabs.org/en-us/take-action/get-tiaa-out-of-farmland.