The financial firm TIAA is one of the largest* pension funds in the U.S. and has built a reputation for social responsibility. Yet it is buying farmland in places where land grabbing and fraud are widespread, both in the U.S. and in countries like Brazil. These land deals are destroying the environment and contaminating water sources in one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, the Brazilian Cerrado.
*TIAA is the largest investor of farmland in the world, with almost 2 million acres of farmland on four continents worth as much as $10 billion.
The Cost of TIAA’s Farmland Deals
TIAA is buying farmland in countries and in regions where land grabbing and fraud are widespread. Its activities are both contributing to and benefiting from the dispossession of local communities, increasing hunger, and violence. In other regions, TIAA’s presence alone is driving up prices and making it that much harder for family farmers to survive.
TIAA’s farmland deals also come at a heavy ecological cost. They are destroying the environment and contaminating water sources because they promote and spread a plantation model of agriculture that relies heavily on chemical inputs – and they’re doing this in one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, the Brazilian Cerrado.
TIAA has also put its clients’ retirement savings at risk by getting involved in farmland speculation, and they violate their own responsible investment principles.
We have brought these issues to TIAA’s attention on numerous occasions, yet TIAA still refuses to take meaningful action. TIAA is engaged in illegal activities and must be held accountable and follow the law and respect human rights.
Here’s a summary of what our letter is asking TIAA to do:
- 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.
Petition to TIAA
To: Marta Tienda, TIAA Trustee – Chair, TIAA Corporate Governance and Social Responsibility Committee; Priscilla Sims Brown, TIAA Trustee – Member, TIAA Corporate Governance and Social Responsibility Committee; Lisa W. Hess, TIAA Trustee – Member, TIAA Corporate Governance and Social Responsibility Committee; Edward M. Hundert, TIAA Trustee – Member, TIAA Corporate Governance and Social Responsibility Committee; Sidney A. Ribeau, TIAA Trustee – Member, TIAA Corporate Governance and Social Responsibility Committee
cc: Roger Ferguson, President & CEO, TIAA
Dear Members of TIAA’s Corporate Governance and Social Responsibility Committee:
We are writing because we have serious concerns regarding TIAA’s involvement in land grabbing, deforestation, and human rights violations through its direct acquisitions of farmland. We are asking you to immediately address these concerns by stopping all acquisition of farmland and returning acquired land in Brazil to impacted communities. These actions will spare TIAA clients from further risk and repair much of the damage caused by TIAA’s farmland deals.
TIAA has direct connections to land grabbing and deforestation through its speculative farmland deals in Brazil. Through its wholly-owned subsidiary TIAA-CREF Global Agriculture LLC (TCGA), TIAA has bought up almost three-quarters of a million acres of land (738,907 acres, according to TIAA’s 2018 report “Responsible Investing in Farmland”) in apparent violation of Brazilian law which restricts land ownership by foreign individuals and corporations. Additionally, TCGA actually bought land in the state of Piaui from a notorious land grabber, Euclides de Carli, who was found to have illegally acquired 15 farms totaling 307,000 acres by Brazilian courts in 2016. Finally, TIAA is putting its client’s retirement savings at grave risk, both by getting involved with known land grabbers who engage in fraud and also by speculating with farmland.
Even where TIAA has not bought land from known land grabbers, however, TIAA is still contributing to land grabbing, displacement of local communities, and human rights abuses simply by continuing to make farmland deals. In regions of Brazil like the Cerrado – where TIAA owns multiple farms covering hundreds of thousands of acres and which includes the state of Piaui – land grabbing and land conflicts are widespread. TIAA cannot possibly acquire lands there without benefitting from or incentivizing fraud, abuse, and corruption.
In September 2017, over 30 international human rights organizations visited Brazil to investigate how speculation with farmland was impacting local communities and the environment. What they found was systemic fraud, environmental destruction, and human rights abuses. Local communities described loss of land, threats of violence, and loss and contamination of their water sources. The situation is so bad that now Brazilian government officials are investigating and canceling fraudulent land titles, particularly in the Cerrado.
Moreover, the Cerrado is one of the most important ecosystems in the world. The agribusiness expansion that TIAA is financing replaces the Cerrado’s rich biodiversity with a plantation model of agriculture which is devastating for the region and the planet. Not only is this model of agriculture reliant on chemicals that contaminate the water, but farmland in the Cerrado is created through widespread deforestation. TIAA has recently announced a “zero deforestation” policy for its Brazilian farmland, which restricts TIAA from buying land deforested beyond certain dates. This policy, however, will not stop TIAA’s links to deforestation. Not only does available satellite data show significant deforestation at TIAA’s farms, but the problem of deforestation is so systemic that no individual corporate policy of this kind can have any effect on reducing it. If TIAA wants its farmland deals to be free of deforestation, then it simply cannot buy farmland in the Cerrado.
With the retirement funds of millions of workers, TIAA is also speculating with farmland in the United States, currently holding at least 251,753 acres in key farming regions in the country. Right now, farmers in the United States are facing a crisis as they deal with extremely low prices for their crops. TIAA’s farmland deals push the price of farmland up, which makes it difficult for farmers – particularly small-scale and beginning farmers, but established farmers as well – to hold onto their land or access more land. Finally, the increasing acquisition of farmland by absentee financial companies, a trend that TIAA is leading, threatens the long history of family farming and rural livelihoods in this country and around the world.
In addition, TIAA is also indirectly contributing to land grabbing and deforestation by investing its clients’ funds, through its index funds, in palm oil companies. Palm oil companies, particularly in areas of Southeast Asia, West Africa, and Central America have engaged in widespread rainforest deforestation and violation of land rights, yet they are still included in the index funds made available to TIAA clients.
We are concerned that by using the retirement funds of millions of workers to promote these farmland deals and a plantation model of agriculture, TIAA is causing environmental destruction and exacerbating inequities and climate change while exposing its clients’ retirement savings to reputational and financial risk due to the speculative nature of these land deals. Pension funds should not be used in the destruction of farming families’ livelihoods and human rights violations.
As TIAA clients and concerned individuals and organizations, we call on TIAA and its subsidiaries to live up to TIAA’s core values by:
- Immediately stopping the purchase of farmland in Brazil, the United States, and globally, and returning lands already acquired to communities in Brazil;
- Meeting 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;
- Publicizing TIAA’s response to all of its clients.