Faculty request transparency and sustainability for TIAA farmland investments
Increasing public recognition of racialized state violence has prompted a firestorm of protest in the U.S. and across the world and calls for anti-racist curricula and pedagogies to be mainstreamed at every level, from grade school to postgraduate education. Soul searching and genuine pedagogical shifts mean little, however, if our retirement benefits rest on a foundation of structural racism.
TIAA – Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America – manages retirement savings for most U.S. college faculty and staff and many non-profit employees. TIAA presents itself as a socially responsible investor, but the firm’s “socially responsible investing” option allows for land-grabbing as a tool for creating our middle-class security. TIAA states that it is the largest manager of global farmland. Together with its many subsidiaries in Brazil and other countries, it has acquired over 2 million acres of farmland and leads corporate land speculation in the U.S. and globally. TIAA acquired at least one farm in Brazil from a company associated with a person found by the courts to own land with illegal titles. One of us, Laura Graham, has been conducting research for over 40 years in the Brazilian cerrado (savannah) where TIAA is buying up farmland and, as a consequence, is familiar with the land mafias and corrupt system of land transactions that plague the region. She served as a member of an expert delegation from the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA) that met with TIAA representatives to discuss the firm’s farmland investment practices. TIAA’s position in that meeting and subsequent interactions have convinced her that the firm will only move toward implementation of more ethical investment practices under pressure from its clients. Those of us whose retirement funds are invested in TIAA, including UI faculty and staff, share a moral responsibility to speak out.
TIAA’s farmland investments are extensive and troubling. TIAA has spent $340 million on farmland, much of this applied toward buying out family-owned farms, across seven states in the U.S. As Vann R. Newkirk II details in “The Great Land Robbery” , this theft has a race. During Reconstruction, freed Black workers saved money to buy bits of land in the Mississippi Delta, then, from 1950-1964, Black farmers lost 800,000 acres of land. Given the history of urban redlining and subprime lending, it may not be shocking to learn that the USDA created massive transfers of wealth from Black to white farmers after 1950. Mass dispossession occurred not by grand conspiracy, writes Newkirk, just a million small decisions made by various actors.
History is not just in the past. Land in the Mississippi Delta is ideal for industrial agriculture. Power brokers who run industrial farms today are venture capitalists, hedge-fund managers, and agribusiness consultants. Farmland has become a desired asset category for large-scale investors, including pension fund managers. TIAA is now a major player.
Injustice is not confined within national borders. TIAA has become the biggest pension-fund player in the global agricultural real-estate game. The nonprofit GRAIN advocates for local control of farmland by small farmers and accuses TIAA of skirting laws to grab land in Brazil. These acquisitions undermine people’s ability to produce food for themselves and their communities. TIAA is a major funder of monocrop farming in Brazil that is devastating communities, poisoning water sources, and spreading toxins via crop dusting. Local people who stand up for their rights face death threats and intimidation by private security guards. TIAA’s corporate secretary refused to arrange a meeting between CEO Roger Ferguson and Altamiran Ribeiro, a farmer who visited the U.S. in 2019. Instead, she offered Ribeiro the opportunity to meet with a TIAA spokesperson who previously denied the issues Ribeiro wished to raise.
In Illinois the home of TIAA’s farmland operations, the company rents land to operators who produce corn and soybeans without the cover crops that prevent soil erosion, and with intensive chemical use that poisons rivers and threatens the health of nearby communities. Small towns are dying around TIAA’s eroding lands. TIAA tried to use its influence to change Wisconsin state laws so it could acquire farmland there and, undoubtedly, has its sights on Iowa.
When TIAA tried to move into Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin, Madison, faculty members mobilized to issue a petition, and the UW-Madison Faculty Senate adopted the resolution in 2019. We seek support for a similar resolution to be passed immediately by the UI Faculty Senate. We have submitted a proposed resolution with the support of the Charter Sustainability Committee and will present it to Faculty Council in its 3:30-5:15 p.m. meeting on Tuesday. The resolution urges the Funded Retirement and Insurance Committee (FRIC) and HR Retirement Fund Investment Review (RFIC) to publicly call on TIAA to, among other things, allow its clients (faculty and staff) a straightforward, efficient, and accessible way to divest from companies linked to human-rights abuses and environmental degradation. It asks TIAA to publicly disclose all information about its farmland holdings in the U.S. and abroad, including exact locations, boundaries, and acquisition dates. For more details about the meeting, including how to attend remotely lease visit the Faculty Senate website or contact the Faculty Senate Office.
In 2019, the UI Faculty Senate passed a resolution expressing its commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship on our campus. We urge the Senate to again take leadership by joining a move to both divest from socially irresponsible farming pension fund investments and hold TIAA to its stated commitment to socially and environmentally responsible investing.
Meena Khandelwal, associate professor of Anthropology and Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies
Laura R. Graham, professor of Anthropology and president-elect of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America