Aerial spraying of pesticides on a soybean plantation in Piauí, Brazil. (Photo: José Cícero Silva/Agência Pública)
Harvard purchases 741,000 acres and creates conflict with local communities
by Lilian Campelo
Harvard University is the owner of 741,000 acres (300,000 hectares) of agricultural land in Piauí and Bahia, in the Brazilian cerrado, that is equivalent to approximately 300,000 soccer fields. To circumvent Brazilian law, the US university, through its endowment fund, maintains a business chain with Brazilian companies and its subsidiaries, according to accusations made by Grain and the Social Network of Justice and Human Rights in a report.
From 2008 to 2016, the University became one of the largest foreign farmland owners in the country, but the purchase of the domain is not done directly, it involves commercial structures that are less than transparent, which complicates the verification trail.
The director of the organization Social Network of Justice and Human Rights, Maria Luísa Mendonça, explains that companies are created with the sole function of being instruments to negotiate the purchase of land and how this chain is built.
"These are Brazilian companies that are created to negotiate the land, only that the funds, the resources for this purchase, comes from foreign companies. In this case, the Harvard land fund or other pension funds and often these Brazilian and foreign companies trade stocks or other financial products in the financial market to circumvent the law and make it difficult to monitor where the resource actually comes from."
The research further reveals that the University acquired land in various parts of the world, such as South Africa, Russia, Ukraine, New Zealand, Australia and also in the United States. The trust fund has spent about US$ 1 billion to purchase land on an estimated 2,1 million acers (850,000 hectares) of farmland scattered on a global scale. In less than a decade, Harvard has been able to amass a patrimony that has made it into one of the largest landowners in the world using complex financial market mechanisms.
Speculation + pesticides = violations
In Brazil, it is observed that the purchase of land by foreign funds has been concentrated in the region of Matopiba, which encompasses the borders of the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia, an area of expansion of agribusiness for the monoculture of commodities, as shown in other reports made by Brasil de Fato.
However, Mendonça points out that the majority of the land is only used for speculative purposes and that "the main goal is not the production of agricultural commodities." When monoculture is implemented, the demand is for the intensive use of pesticides, which is accompanied by conflicts with traditional communities. Altamiran Ribeiro, an agent of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, Comissão Pastoral da Terra) in Piauí, follows the communities in the south of the state, Santa Filomena, Baixa Grande do Ribeiro and Bom Jesus, and reports some of these tensions.
"The plants that the communities have, when they throw the poison up there, in the monoculture, the plague that is there on top of the chapada descends to the baixões [lower lands] and devours and erases the crops of families and they lose their little cashew tree, orange tree, and when it is in the rainy season they do not contain it, the floods descend killing fish, contaminating water and many other things," he says.
The 741,000 acers of land from Harvard’s endowment trust - an area larger than Luxembourg, as the report points out - are concentrated in southern Piauí and western Bahia, regions of intense land conflict. According to the report, the land acquisitions "would violate legal restrictions on foreign ownership in Brazil, which limit the amount of land that a foreign company can acquire in a municipality."
In Bahia, one of Harvard's partners is the Granflor Group, which runs another company, Caracol Agropecuária, that has the same owners, Romualdo Maestri and Victor Hugo Silveira Boff, as the report shows.
Caracol was created in 2008, and the Harvard Management Company (HMC) owns 100% of the company's estates, not directly, but through the subsidiaries Guara LLC or Granary Investments, registered, as reported, "in tax havens, as the U.S. state of Delaware."
According to the document, HMC is part of the trust fund, called “endowment”, which means donation. The accumulated patrimony comes from a fund donated to Harvard, managed by HMC, a subsidiary of the University.
According to information in the report, it is the companies in tax havens that channel the money to companies like Caracol in countries where the agricultural land is, and "these local business groups are the ones that identify the land, make purchases and manage the farms."
The Campo Largo land, in Cotegipe, Bahia, was bought by Caracol and is an area of 346,000 acres (140,000 hectares) where about 200 families used to live and were expelled by gunmen. The report points out that "increased speculation on agricultural land by foreign companies exacerbated the land conflicts in the area." Martin Mayr, coordinator of the NGO 10envolvimento, follows the dispute since the beginning of the complaint made by the Association of Small Producers of Bom Jesus.
"The police did not properly receive the complaint at the time. From that moment on they accompanied the group to the regional police station, but gradually they discovered that this association was part of the land that was being negotiated by a former land grabber of the region for a foreign company."
In a report published by the website Mongabay, the farmer José Oduvaldo Oliveira Souza was the one who negotiated the lands for Caracol. He is deemed as a well-known land grabber in the region. In Mendonça’s assessment, a country that loses control over the sovereignty of its territory puts at risk its food security and [she] affirms that agrarian reform would be the way to end high concentration of land and social inequality in Brazil.
"Agrarian reform would be necessary to end land concentration. Brazil is one of the only countries in the world that has never made an agrarian reform, it is one of the countries that has greater concentration of land and this generates inequality, poverty, hunger and, of course, dependence too. "
Still, according to Mendonça, the report is part of an international campaign that has been denouncing speculation with lands in Brazil and in other countries, and whose goal is "to strengthen the rural communities that are being emptied and are seeing their lands being devastated."
Brasil de Fato contacted the company Granflor so that it could made a statement, but there was no response.
In response to questions from the Bloomberg news agency about its agricultural lands, Harvard University said it considers the environmental and social implications of its investment funds. In a statement, Harvard stated that it "has instituted a more proactive approach to working with new and remaining asset managers - a partnership that provides more oversight and ensures that they can leave the land and community better than when they first invested."
Edits: Juca Guimarães