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Addressing the Land Grab Challenge

July 20, 2013

There’s been much discussion of the problems associated with global land grabs. Several campaigns seek to draw attention to the problem, including the Stop Africa Land Grabs group, and a campaign by Oxfam. For breadth of coverage, you can’t beat the work of the Oakland Institute  and FarmLandGrab.org.

An article in Mother Jones  highlights an important—but often overlooked—issue. While much of the efforts to address global land grabs have been directed towards investment banks, pension funds are often deeply implicated as well. Drawing on data from a report by the Oakland Institute, Mother Jones asks, “Is Your Pension Fund Taking Land Away From African Farmers?

The report highlights the secrecy and lack of transparency that often surrounds land grabs, the unregulated nature of the trading environment, and the associated difficulty in tracing land deals.

Divest from South Africa Campaign Button

Divest from South Africa Campaign Button

But implicit in the story is the possibility of change. During the 1980s, student-led campaigns at universities across the United States forced their university’s pension funds to divest from South Africa. The campaign later spread to municipal governments and other private pension funds. Companies doing business in South Africa faced considerable pressure from consumers, including the threat of boycotts. Collectively, the external pressure foisted on the South African government—combined with internal pressure brought by ordinary South Africans engaged in extraordinary struggles—helped to bring an end to the system of white minority rule in the country.

The Mother Jones article suggests a similar strategy of pressure and divestment could work in this case. TIAA-CREF (the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund) is one of the largest pension funds in the world, serving an estimated 4 million people and managing nearly $500 billion in assets. According to the Oakland Institute report, TIAA-CREF invested some $2.5 billion in farm land in the United States, Australia, South America, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, including several land grab deals. Other major investors include Harvard Management Company (which oversees Harvard University’s $32 billion endowment and has land holdings in Brazil, New Zealand, and Romania and “has been eyeing timberland, farmland, infrastructure, energy, and water-related investments in anticipation of growing global demand”), and Soros Fund Management. Each of these are particularly viable targets for divestment campaigns because of their progressive reputations.

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