ActionAid, Friends of the Earth, Sum of Us, Grassroots International and the National Family Farm Coalition were among activist groups that staged the protest to deliver their petitions to the fund manager. They object to two major TIAA investments: the $170 million they say has been invested in palm oil companies, and the $8 billion it has put to work in farmland in the U.S., Brazil and Australia. A TIAA spokesperson said its palm oil investment is less than $170 million and the majority stems from investments in index funds.
Several TIAA employees were on the sidewalk, watching as nearly forty protesters waved signs bearing phrases like “Stop Grabbing Land” and “Respect Farmers.” The protesters engaged in a few cheers, shouting slogans like: “TIAA lead the way! Deforestation stops today!”
ActionAid’s senior policy analyst Doug Hertzler, says TIAA is one of the world’s largest buyers of farmland, driving speculation that takes land from locals. TIAA came under fire about a year ago after a nonprofit called Grain alleged its investments in Brazilian farmland were not socially responsible. The fund manager stood behind its investments and has since used its yearly Responsible Farmland Investment Report to share information on its investment criteria.
“There are plenty of other ways to make money,” said Hertzler, whose pension is tied to investments made by TIAA. “They can generate good returns even without investing in land.”
Hertzler said in an interview at the protest that he did not do the math on how TIAA could make up for the losses that might result from divesting its farmland assets. The fund manager, meanwhile, continues to defend its holdings.
“Our investment teams incorporate responsible investing principles across our portfolios, and as a signatory to the U.N. Principles of Responsible Investment in Farmland, we are committed to promoting sustainability, preventing deforestation and protecting the rights of landowners and local workers,” the TIAA spokesperson said by phone Thursday.
Jeff Conant, a representative of Friends of The Earth, said TIAA posits itself as a socially responsible investment firm and should stop investing in palm oil, which the environment group says fuels rainforest destruction and exploit workers.
The TIAA spokesperson said the company has no direct investments in the crop in its privately held farmland and timber portfolios. “In our public funds, the significant majority of the investments related to palm oil are held in funds that automatically track specific indexes,” the spokesperson said.
Conant said at the protest that TIAA should pressure “the people who create indexes” to stop including companies that have ties to palm oil products. “We believe that as a company that presents itself as socially responsible, there is more they can do,” Conant said.
Hertzler agreed. He added that he expects TIAA will work with the groups, and eventually will disclose what land it acquires, where that land was purchased and whether that land acquisition caused any sort of displacement for locals.