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Corporate Accountability

Harvard’s Foreign Farmland Investment Mess

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The university’s holdings in developing markets have proved to be more trouble than they’re worth.

Fourteen years ago, a Brazilian farmer named Ruthardo Grun says he was terrorized by armed thugs who shot at him, burned down his shack, and chased him from land he was preparing to farm. Little did he know his battle to get the property back would end up pitting him against a company controlled by the world’s richest school: Harvard University.

 The university’s endowment invested in the Brazilian company years after the events Grun describes. But a lawsuit Grun and five other farmers filed is just one of the long-running property conflicts Harvard inherited when it bet big on Brazilian agriculture almost a decade ago, accumulating vast tracts on the country’s impoverished northeastern frontier. The ongoing disputes include charges of so called land grabbing—the falsification of property titles and displacement of villagers—by companies Harvard later invested in. “I’d like to leave a piece of land to my four children, but I don’t know if it will be possible,” Grun says.
The South American mess shows the legal, financial, and reputational risks that Harvard faces because of its strategy of buying directly into developing markets. Most college endowments hire outside fund managers to spearhead such investments. Harvard Management Co., which oversees the university’s $37 billion endowment, instead bought properties through business partnerships that it formed with locals and controlled.

Over a decade, Harvard invested at least $1 billion in farmland, according to a just-released reportfrom the activist groups GRAIN, based in Barcelona, and the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights, based in Sao Paulo. The organizations came up with their estimate after a year-long investigation of tax returns and local property records, as well as on-the-ground interviews. Harvard’s holdings included vineyards in California, dairy farms in New Zealand, and operations producing cotton, soybeans, and sugar cane in countries such as Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Russia, and Ukraine, and totaled 854,000 hectares, though some assets have been sold.

In response to questions about its farmland holdings, Harvard says it considers the environmental and social implication of its endowment investments. The university said in a statement that it has “instituted a more proactive approach to working with managers of new and remaining assets—a partnership that provides more oversight and ensures that we can leave the land and community better than when we first invested.”

Narv Narvekar, the endowment’s chief executive officer hired from Columbia University in 2016 to overhaul operations, has retreated from direct investing. He’s spun out teams of managers overseeing assets from real estate to hedge funds, sending them to start their own businesses while investing with them. Yet Narvekar is still trying to hammer out the future of the troubled natural resources portfolio, even as he sells some investments, including the New Zealand dairy farm and a eucalyptus plantation in Uruguay.

Now, as a new school year begins, Harvard’s far-flung farmlands are facing criticism for, among other things, their impact on ancient burial grounds and impoverished populations. “Harvard’s farmland deals should be a cautionary tale for institutional investors,’’ writes Devlin Kuyek, a researcher at GRAIN, whose mission is to support small farmers and social movements in poorer countries.

Students, alumni, and environmentalists are targeting U.S. university endowments, saying their investing practices are often out of synch with schools’ professed values. These critics have pushed colleges to jettison stock in fossil fuel companies, private prisons, and companies that do business with Israel. Yale University’s investments in New Hampshire’s Great North Woods have drawn the school into disputes over clear-cutting and the development of a power line.

Silva produces a document that he says shows that his grandfather owned land in an area where titles have been disputed.
PHOTOGRAPHER: LIANNE MILTON FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Harvard initially made hefty profits on its land investments, including by buying and selling New Zealand timberlands in the 2000s. But returns fell as emerging markets faltered, and much of the team spearheading the strategy left the endowment in 2015. Last year, Harvard wrote down its natural resources portfolio, which includes timber as well as farmland, by $1.1 billion, to $2.9 billion. Over the decade ended June 30, 2017, Harvard’s investment portfolio returned 4.4 percent a year, among the worst of its peers. In Brazil, in particular, the endowment’s holdings suffered from the country’s recent economic meltdown and political turmoil.

The report, titled “Harvard’s Billion-Dollar Farmland Fiasco,” shows why such investments are so risky. It highlights property Harvard bought in Australia through a company called Wealthcheck Funds Management. According to a government inquiry, the company harmed an Aboriginal burial site when it dug irrigation canals for a cotton farm. It also details conflicts between RussellStone Group, which managed the endowment’s farms in South Africa, and black families that were granted rights to some sites to graze cattle and access burial sites. Neither company returned calls or emails seeking comment.

But Brazil may be the most contentious of Harvard’s overseas adventures. A public prosecutor’s office in the northeastern state of Bahia, for instance, has said that it may sue to reclaim some of the 140,000-hectare farm owned by Harvard-backed Caracol Agropecuaria after finding that titles for about two-thirds of the property are invalid. In its most recent tax filing, Harvard valued its interest in Caracol at $87 million. Elsewhere in Bahia, villagers have protested the property titles of a farm that was in part sold to Harvard-backed Gordian Bioenergy, according to the report. The endowment has been seeking to end its relationship with Gordian, which is developing farms to produce both crops and energy, though it still controls assets it acquired through the company.

Alberto Pereira da Silva (left) and Juvercino da Silva gaze at land where Alberto’s cattle graze.
PHOTOGRAPHER: LIANNE MILTON FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

In the neighboring state of Piaui, a Harvard-controlled company called Sorotivo Agropecuaria has been battling with Grun and five other plaintiffs who say they lost their land in 2004. Earlier this year a judge dismissed the lawsuit and said Sorotivo could acquire a new title from the state for the 27,000-hectare farm it controls. However, in his decision he said that both the plaintiffs and Sorotivo practiced land-grabbing on title acquisitions. Accusations of land grabbing, which can date back decades, became epidemic as Brazil’s farm belt expanded and were often linked to speculators falsifying titles in order to steal and sell public property used by subsistence farmers.

The judge, Heliomar Rios Ferreira, says that the state agency from which the plaintiffs said they got their titles didn’t have any records of the grants. He also says Sorotivo improperly extended a boundary of its vast farm, though this was in an area unrelated to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer says their property titles are legitimate and that they will appeal. Harvard controls Sorotivo through a Brazilian farming company called Insolo Agroindustrial, which didn’t return calls and emails seeking comment. A spokesman for Harvard declined to comment on the litigation.

Alberto Pereira da Silva watches over his cattle.
PHOTOGRAPHER: LIANNE MILTON FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

While Grun relocated, people who for generations have made their home in the region known as the Cerrado are living with the consequences of the dispute. Eurotides Paulo da Silva resides in a village below Insolo’s vast farm, which stretches on for miles and miles and evokes a moonscape when it’s between harvest and seasonal plantings. His son works on the farm. But locals, who hunted and collected honey and medicinal plants on the plateaus, say their way of life has been hemmed in over the last decade with the arrival of industrial farms.

Silva produces a document dated from 1991 that he says shows his grandfather also owned land on the plateau. His cousin, Alberto Pereira da Silva, makes a similar claim, saying they never challenged the loss of the properties because they felt intimidated. Says the cousin: “We feel like we are trapped without a way out.” —With Lianne Milton

Corporate Accountability

Investigate the criminalization of land rights defenders – witnessradio.org asks National Human Rights Body.

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By witnessradio.org Team

Kampala – Uganda – Witnessradio.org has petitioned the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) calling for investigations into the continued aiding of persecution of community land rights defenders and native land-owners.

Witnessradio.org, a land rights advocate is accusing some members of the Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS) namely; the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Police and Judiciary of fueling land grabbing and protecting the supposed investors, through promoting the use of the criminal offenses under the Penal Code Act against land rights defenders and native land-owners that resist illegal and violent evictions.

The petition is the first of its kind to bring criminalization of land rights defenders and land-owners issues to the attention of UHRC under Business and Human Rights thematic principles. UHRC is a constitutional body with obligations to protect and promote human rights in Uganda

“Witnessradio.org, expresses dismay and disappointment over the increasing violence orchestrated against bonafide land-owners and individual community land defenders by some justice, law and order sector members in order to give individual investors and companies access to people’s land and then dispose native

e communities”. The statement reads in part.

In the petition, the Executive Director, Mr Wokulira Geoffrey Ssebaggala says that the continued harassment of land-owners and community land rights defenders by Uganda police and the office of the director of public prosecution has immensely contributed to case backlog and subsequently overcrowding in prisons.

“According to the World prison’s brief of October 2017, Uganda has 54,059 people in Prisons implying that 129 prisoners for every 100,000 Ugandans”. Mr Ssebaggala says

He also says the rights of people to express themselves, to peacefully assemble and participate in decisions that affect them and to exercise the full panoply of individual and collective human rights has also been curtailed.

Witnessradio.org recommends that the Human Rights Commission investigates the continued aiding of persecution of community land rights defenders and land owns by JLOs members institutions to give way for land-related investments, make findings public.

It also recommends that the commission undertakes courtroom observer missions especially where land rights defenders are under trial starting with Mubende’s 2 land rights defenders trial.

The same petition has been copied to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner Human Rights and Democracy and Human Rights Donor, Working group.

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Corporate Accountability

A land grab case against a multi-million agribusiness Agilis Partners is saved from a dismissal

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By witnessradio.org Team

Masindi – Uganda – A case in which over 2300 families are accusing a multi-million agribusiness Agilis Partners limited of illegal eviction has been saved by the intervention of witnessradio.org‘s lawyers. The company had filed an application asking court to dismiss the main case alleging that it had no cause of action, whose hearing was slated to take place on November, 29th, 2019.

The attempt to dismiss the main case followed a loss of two applications seeking to stop Agilis Partners limited from further illegal and forceful eviction of victims off their land. The first application was thrown out earlier this year by the retiring Justice Frank Albert Rugadya Atwoki on grounds that the applicants “failed to produce evidence that the situation is dire warranting an injunction,” while the second application was dismissed by the court’s Assistant Registrar, Kintu Simon Zirintuusa on grounds that many of the occupants had vacated the contested land.

It is now 20 months since the impoverished families first dashed to court challenging their eviction which is superintended by Agilis partners limited, an agricultural development company owned by American twin brothers Philipp Prinz and Benjamin Prinz. Agilis Partners, which owns Joseph Initiative a beneficiary of UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) financial support and CFC based in the Netherlands, supplies food to United Nations’ World Food Program, among others.   

The 2300 victims under the auspices of Nyamalebe Landless Association accuse the company for undermining a free, prior and informed consent standard or principal.

We have suffered all round since our land was targeted by Agilis Partners limited and we shall take long to recover. “our case has suffered sabotage in court premises because we’re poor. On Monday, November 28th, we served Masindi high court about our new legal team that had come on board but while following up on the next day, we found court papers missing from the file and court official had no explanation” Said, Joseph Walekula, one of the community leaders.

Independent investigations by witnessradio.org‘s reveal that the investment of Agilis Partners limited has caused a permanent disability to a school going boy who was shot at by police during an eviction exercise at Kisalanda village, while 1200 pupils have dropped out of school after schools (private) were demolished, fourteen (14) community land defenders have since 2017 been under police harassment and intimidation with endless reporting on police bond after being arrested and charged with inciting violence among others. The victimized community has also lost churches, private hospitals, plantations, homes, subsistence piglets and cattle farms and small and medium businesses including retail shops among others.

 

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Corporate Accountability

Two EU member states, Norway named for aiding land eviction for carbon credit trading

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Green Resources’ pine plantation in Kachung. Credit: Kristen Lyons / The Oakland Institute.

By witnessradio.org Team

Two EU member states and Norway are in the spotlight for financing the eviction of native communities in Uganda to pave way for a Norwegian forestry and carbon credit company.

In the latest briefing paper authored by The Oakland Institute entitled “Evicted for Carbon Credits: Norway, Sweden, and Finland Displace Ugandan Farmers for Carbon Trading”.

The institute brings forward irrefutable evidence that the Norwegian forestry and carbon credit company, Green Resources, forcibly evicted villagers around their plantation in Kachung, Uganda.

“As thousands of Ugandan villagers struggle to survive after the loss of their land and natural resources to the plantation, the institutions and government agencies that enable Green Resources to operate must be held accountable for their wrongdoings and their complicity in this land grab.” The policy director at the institute Frédéric Mousseau says.

The report exposes the complicity of three prominent international certification bodies—the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), The United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and the Climate, Community, and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA)—that are supposed to verify the company’s compliance with environmental and social standards. 

“Based on flawed audits, the accreditation Green Resources received from the certification agencies calls into question their commitment to social and environmental standards. In the name of fighting climate change, they claim that a large-scale plantation of non-native pine trees, which are to be cut and sold as timber, is preferable to subsistence activities of African farmers,” Reads the report in part.

The institute concludes that beyond the need for accountability that such a flawed project could run with the backing of three European governments, several international bodies, and specialized private auditing firms, raises serious questions around the true motives of these institutions as well as the purpose and the functioning of the whole carbon economy.

The establishment of the plantation on land previously used by subsistence farmers precipitated an on-going food security crisis that has not been addressed by the company, its financiers, nor the Ugandan government.

Green Resources has been the subject of two reports published by the Institute in 2014 and 2017. The exposés documented the plantation’s destructive impact on the local population as well as the misleading audit commissioned in 2017 by the Swedish Energy Agency—Green Resources only carbon credit buyer. Company documents released with the briefing paper—including letters threatening the local villagers, corroborate the Institute’s previous findings.

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