Logo-text

Assets to axes: How Harvard’s land investments inspired fear in Brazil’s Cerrado

The Crimson Magazine | 17 April 2023

Assets to axes: How Harvard’s land investments inspired fear in Brazil’s Cerrado

by SAZI T. BONGWE AND JADE LOZADA

Although the full extent of HMC’s former landholdings remain concealed behind a complex web of private equity firms, associated subsidiary companies and investment partners, what is clear is that HMC’s purchases contributed to a climate of anxiety, fear, and strain on Brazilian subsistence farmers.

One morning in 2015, Ariomara “Mara” Alves Pessoa woke up as she usually would in her home in Santa Filomena, Piauí, Brazil. Since as far back as she can trace her lineage, Alves Pessoa’s family has lived on this land in Piauí; she has spent her entire life here. But that day, a stranger arrived with armed “security men” and identified himself as the owner of a nearby farm.
 
This was not the last she would hear from this man. He and his two “‘security men,’” she says, arrive often, always armed. Thus far, they have forced 12 families in her community, Barra da Lagoa, to move, Alves Pessoa says.
 
Resisting this eviction isn’t easy, Alves Pessoa tells us in an interview translated from Portuguese. “They walked with guns on their hips and wanted to scare us,” she says.
 
Though the employers of these “security men” remain unknown, they were likely sent by one of the large-scale farms near Alves Pessoa’s home, one of which the Harvard Management Company owned through its subsidiary company, Insolo Agroindustrial S.A.: Fazenda Fortaleza. As large-scale farms, including those owned by Insolo, arrived in Piauí, locals like Alves Pessoa have lost significant parts of their land and access to critical resources, and some residents have been moved off their land entirely.

From 2008 to 2016, HMC, which is responsible for investing Harvard’s $50 billion endowment, spent more than $1 billion on nearly a million hectares of farmland across the United States, Brazil, Eastern Europe, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, according to a report by Genetic Resources Action International, or GRAIN — a farming activist group with a focus on the Global South — and the Brazil-based advocacy network Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos. The report also claims that $400 million of those acquisitions are located in Brazil, where HMC purchased 405,000 hectares of farmland, totaling more than twice the size of all the farmland in Massachusetts.
 
The two advocacy groups traced HMC’s investments through multiple levels of subsidiary companies, some of which were based as far as the Cayman Islands, and reported that HMC ultimately controlled three operator companies that purchase Brazilian farmland. Together, these operators purchased more than 40 rural properties by 2016, according to the report.
 
Per the report, HMC’s land acquisitions were largely fit for lucrative monoculture crops, including sugarcane, soybean, and cotton, as well as a site for an ethanol refinery. However, many of their properties remained idle.
 
Many of HMC’s landholdings were in the states of Bahia and Piauí, which include vast regions of the often overlooked Cerrado region, according to a map by climate consulting group AidEnvironment. The Cerrado, known as the “birthplace of Brazilian waters,” is a vital water source for much of the country, and with its position on the edges of the Amazon, is a key ecosystem for the fight against climate change.
 
Since making its initial investments, HMC has sold some of its properties in Brazil. In 2017, it reduced its natural resources investments from $4 billion to $2.9 billion, according to a 2019 Bloomberg article.
 
In October 2020, HMC spun out its natural resource team, which had strategized and coordinated farmland purchases, to a new independent investment firm: Solum Partners. HMC then partnered with the newly created firm Solum Partners. Colin Butterfield, who was the managing director of natural resources, became the CEO and managing partner of Solum Partners.
 
Every other member of Solum Partners’ senior leadership — including each of its three managing directors, its COO, and its general counsel — also worked for HMC. All but one, whose precise position at HMC we could not identify, worked for HMC’s natural resources team. When HMC spun out Solum Partners, its farmland investments went to Solum Partners. HMC remains invested in Solum Partners.
 
HMC spokesperson Patrick S. McKiernan declined to comment on this article.

A farm in Barra da Lagoa, the community Alves Pessoa is from. Large farms have forced twelve families from Barra da Lagoa to move. (Photo: Daniela Stefano)
Long before HMC came to the Cerrado, though, people were living there, including subsistence farmers and cattle ranchers whose families have lived on the land for generations, Indigenous people, and quilombolas — descendents of escaped and freed slaves.
 
As large-scale investors like HMC came into northeastern Brazil, small farmers like Alves Pessoa faced difficulties living on their land. Many have been displaced by companies because they lack a formal title to the land that their ancestors occupied for decades, if not centuries.
 
Even if locals manage to remain on their land, they are still affected by pollution from industrial farms. When industrial farmers arrive, they tend to deforest wide swaths of land for their plantations and allow chemical fertilizers and pesticides to run off into rivers used for drinking water and irrigation.
 
Alves Pessoa tells us that her community lives with “fear, the fear of losing your place, where you were born and raised and where you make a living.” She adds that there is “insecurity about what is going to happen to you. The threats, not knowing what will happen to you today or tomorrow.”
 
Although the full extent of HMC’s former landholdings remain concealed behind a complex web of private equity firms, associated subsidiary companies and investment partners, what is clear is that HMC’s purchases contributed to a climate of anxiety, fear, and strain on Brazilian subsistence farmers.
 
The University says investments like these are made to serve its students, scholars, and, by extension, the world. But for faculty, staff, and students alike, this raises critical questions: What are Harvard’s ethical obligations in spending its immense wealth? More fundamentally, how should students and faculty hold the University accountable in cases of potential exploitation?
 
João Henrique Pereira Mendes, a subsistence farmer who lives near HMC’s land purchases in the town of Gilbués, Piauí, tells us he first heard about Harvard from human rights organizations. After Pereria Mendes finishes speaking, João Pedro Rocha Frazão ’26, who is translating our call with Alves Pessoa and Pereira Mendes, pauses for a moment, then explains, “He doesn’t even understand that Harvard is a college. He thinks it’s a company.”

‘Survive, Not Live’
 
As we begin our call, Pereira Mendes meanders, attempting to find a comfortable spot. As he moves, slivers of light draw lines across his spectacled face and bright yellow tee shirt. He settles in a spot where a white concrete wall meets a roof made up of long thin wooden logs. The light brings out the threads of gray in Pereira Mendes’ well-kept mustache.
 
As familiar with his surroundings as he looks, Pereira Mendes has not always lived in the room he calls in from. He first noticed large agricultural operators establishing farms in the area in 2013, one of which was owned by HMC. Soon thereafter, he and his family were forced to move from their land.
 
Until the farms arrived, life for Pereira Mendes and his neighbors was as it had always been: they rose early in the morning and found their way to the land they farmed on, to reap and sow by hand. In nearby areas, they picked fruit from hanging branches.
 
Pereira Mendes also used to fish frequently in the river, but he can no longer do that, he tells us. We ask him why that is. Bemused, he replies, “We fish but cannot catch anything. There are no more fish.”
 
This is because the water, as Pereira Mendes puts it, is “contaminated.”
 
Locals tried to find a solution. “Some locals in the region are raising them,” Pereira Mendes says. They began installing water tanks around their homes to collect rainwater in which they hoped the fish would survive.
 
But, this only works until Brazil’s dry season each year. “In early winter, many of the fish die,” he says. “So we have to buy fish at the market.”
 
The soil has also been contaminated. Agrotoxins in the soil have made the produce Pereira Mendes and his community once grew and ate “diseased,” he says.

River pollution and soil contamination are both results of large-scale farms operating in the Cerrado.
 
According to Devlin Kuyek, a lead researcher of the GRAIN report, HMC likely bought land in Brazil hoping to profit from industrial farming. These purchases were seen as stable long-term investments, which was appealing in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis.
 
“For institutional investors, they looked at what happened with the collapse of the stock market in 2008 and started to shift more of their portfolio to what we call ‘alternative investments,’” he says. “That could be private equity, that could be timberland, that could be real estate funds, or farmland.”
 
Carlos Portugal Gouvêa, a former visiting professor at Harvard Law School who studies corporate governance and human rights in Brazil, explains that at the time that these purchases were first made, farmland in Brazil was cheaper than in other parts of the world, and so land in Brazil was a particularly good purchase.
 
“At that point, Brazil was already on the rise to become a food superpower,” Gouvêa says. “If you buy that land and you can control the production of those goods, imagine how much power it would mean.”
 
But for these farms to operate, they first need to deforest the land to clear space for cattle raising and large-scale agriculture, Eduardo Souza-Rodrigues, an associate professor in the Economics department at the University of Toronto and former fellow at Harvard’s Center for the Environment, tells us.
 
Deforestation of the Cerrado poses a significant threat to the rest of the world because the Cerrado, like the Amazon, is essential to limiting the effects of climate change. Although its forests appear sparse, they hide vast underground root systems that absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide.
 
Even more carbon dioxide is released if trees are burned to clear the land, a common practice in the Cerrado. When that happens, all the carbon already captured in those trees is released, too. Fires kill plants and wildlife, destroying their habitats. Areas of the Cerrado that have seen a higher number of fires correspond with where the farms Harvard was invested in are located, according to maps drawn by GRAIN.

To prevent further deforestation, Brazil’s government instituted what Souza-Rodrigues says was an “extremely successful” plan that drove deforestation down to a quarter of its 2004 levels by 2012. The system used satellites to photograph the same patches of land nearly everyday, which allowed the government to carefully measure deforestation.
 
With Brazil’s election of President Jair Bolsonaro, who did not prioritize the environmental threats facing Brazil, deforestation accelerated back up to its 2004 rate and has yet to recover. In Brazil in 2004, “an area twice the size of Massachusetts” was deforested, Souza-Rodrigues says.
 
The Cerrado specifically has seen 50 percent more deforestation than the Amazon, losing over 10 million hectares of trees over the past decade, the report by GRAIN and Rede Social says.
 
The two advocacy groups reported that, according to sustainability research group Chain Reaction Research, Harvard has funded the deforestation of 53,000 hectares of Brazilian land. That is as if Harvard deforested the city of Cambridge about 28 times.
 
Now, Alves Pessoa’s home of Santa Filomena, one of the areas of Piauí where HMC purchased farms, is not as she remembers it.
 
“Before we were free to fish, bathe in the river, go wherever we wanted to. We wouldn’t hear about these things — farms, landowners,” she says.
 
But now, the neighboring industrial farms contaminated the nearby river, which was her family’s source of drinking water. Their village decided to dig a well for water instead — only to discover that that water too was contaminated. They have continued to drink that water anyway.
 
“Life has changed,” Alves Pessoa says. “Communities are having to survive, not live.”

‘The Order Was to Kill Us’
Pereira Mendes was out hunting one day when a man suddenly approached him. The man told him that the land, which Pereira Mendes had hunted on before, now belonged to another farmer, and he had been sent to keep people off the farmer’s property. “The watchman said if he caught someone in his farm again, the order was to kill us,” Pereira Mendes says.
 
The arrival of wealthy farmers to Gilbués did not only prevent Pereira Mendes from accessing the land the wealthy farmers claimed— it also forced him to move.
 
Although it is unclear what company the watchmen work for, researchers from GRAIN and Rede Social traced at least two farms near Pereira Mendes’s town to HMC through its former subsidiary Insolo Agroindustrial S.A., which HMC owned 95.8 percent of and invested $138.7 million in. Insolo has purchased at least six farms in Brazil, the activist groups say.
 
When Pereira Mendes joined with others in his area to submit an appeal for a collective land title, the situation only worsened. After state officials arrived to collect population data for the land title in August 2018, Pereira Mendes started receiving more threats. This time, the threats were from his neighbors, whom he believes wealthy landholders paid to work as watchmen and spies.
 
“There are people who belong to both the farm and the community — not armed — come with a message. They say, ‘This land is not yours,’” Pereira Mendes says.
 
He cannot turn these men away because he does not yet have official rights to the land. While some villages in Piauí have achieved legal certification from the state authorities, others, including his, have not.
 
Without the official paperwork, Pereira Mendes and the other members of his community are told, “‘You cannot cut the wood for fences, cannot go fishing, cannot hunt.’” The distress this causes could be avoided, though. “If the state gave us a title we would not be worried like this,” he says.
 
This situation is not unique to Pereira Mendes. After generations of self-sufficiency, small farmers across the Cerrado now find themselve forced off land and unable to meet their families’ needs.

‘The Order Was to Kill Us’
 
Pereira Mendes was out hunting one day when a man suddenly approached him. The man told him that the land, which Pereira Mendes had hunted on before, now belonged to another farmer, and he had been sent to keep people off the farmer’s property. “The watchman said if he caught someone in his farm again, the order was to kill us,” Pereira Mendes says.
 
The arrival of wealthy farmers to Gilbués did not only prevent Pereira Mendes from accessing the land the wealthy farmers claimed— it also forced him to move.
 
Although it is unclear what company the watchmen work for, researchers from GRAIN and Rede Social traced at least two farms near Pereira Mendes’s town to HMC through its former subsidiary Insolo Agroindustrial S.A., which HMC owned 95.8 percent of and invested $138.7 million in. Insolo has purchased at least six farms in Brazil, the activist groups say.
 
When Pereira Mendes joined with others in his area to submit an appeal for a collective land title, the situation only worsened. After state officials arrived to collect population data for the land title in August 2018, Pereira Mendes started receiving more threats. This time, the threats were from his neighbors, whom he believes wealthy landholders paid to work as watchmen and spies.
 
“There are people who belong to both the farm and the community — not armed — come with a message. They say, ‘This land is not yours,’” Pereira Mendes says.
 
He cannot turn these men away because he does not yet have official rights to the land. While some villages in Piauí have achieved legal certification from the state authorities, others, including his, have not.
 
Without the official paperwork, Pereira Mendes and the other members of his community are told, “‘You cannot cut the wood for fences, cannot go fishing, cannot hunt.’” The distress this causes could be avoided, though. “If the state gave us a title we would not be worried like this,” he says.
 
This situation is not unique to Pereira Mendes. After generations of self-sufficiency, small farmers across the Cerrado now find themselve forced off land and unable to meet their families’ needs.

A farmer may have lived on a patch of land for as far back as his family tree stretches, but have nothing to show for it, at least not in the eyes of the law, Gouvêa explains. The law governing land titles — conceived as far back as 1973 during a period of military dictatorship — has not been updated fast enough for each hectare to have its original owner associated with it. And so, different groups can have competing claims to the land.
 
And yet, many of the families that large farms are displacing have lived there for decades, if not centuries. “They have been there at least for seven generations, at least 200 years. And these are indigenous communities, traditional fish communities, peasant communities, and quilombola communities,” says Maria Luisa Mendonça, the co-director for Rede Social, which maintains ongoing partnerships with local advocacy groups in the countryside.
 
Land ownership conflicts are exacerbated by a practice known as grilagem, the falsification of land titles. Due to a lack of government oversight in the region, grilagem is a ubiquitous practice in the Cerrado. Grileiros often threaten violence to strong-arm their way onto land held by families for generations, knowing that their appeals for land titles may stall in Brazilian courts. Anyone can engage in grilagem — an individual or a company, real or made-up — and anyone can be the victim, Gouvêa says.
 
“They use very sophisticated means. Sometimes they even use fake IDs or fake documentation,” he adds.
 
“They just fence an area and, with fires, deforest the area,” Mendonça says. “And then they put the land on the market as if it were legalized.”
 
In October 2020, a Brazilian court ruled that HMC and the pension fund manager Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association illegally acquired more than 500,000 acres of public land in the Cerrado. The court ultimately ruled that an HMC subsidiary purchased a 200,000-acre parcel of land that had been “illegally transferred to private ownership.” By 2020, HMC had already divested from the subsidiary company that managed the farm, Gleba Campo Largo.
 
Other land acquisitions linger in the courts. In 2013, Terracal Alimentos e Bioenergia, a different HMC subsidiary, claimed the land surrounding the village of Arthur Passos, according to GRAIN and Rede Social. Just three years prior, Arthur Passos had been recognized by the Brazilian government as a quilombola. Private companies do not have a right to quilombo land because Brazilian law guarantees the villages collective land titles.
 
Terracal razed forests to clear land for a large plantation. On what land remained, a private security group prevented the villagers from hunting, fishing, growing crops, grazing cattle, and collecting fruit from areas that they once used freely, GRAIN and Rede Social say.
 
HMC initially invested $270 million in Arthur Passos, and planned to commit an additional $350 million in 2015 according to the groups’ report. They eventually withdrew from that investment and ordered Terracal to sell the land. But, as of 2020, the HMC subsidiary’s parcel continued to sit idle for lack of buyers. In 2017, HMC pushed subsidiary Gordian Bioenergy to sell off Brazilian farmland. After contacting almost 70 potential buyers, the subsidiary still had not sold the land.
 
To make such investments in the first place, HMC navigates around a complex legal framework aimed against foreign investors. Since 2010, Brazilian law has restricted foreigners from controlling land in Brazil.
 
Gouvêa says these restrictions are easily avoided by setting up a local shareholding company, like Harvard’s subsidiary companies. “That would make it very easy to circumvent that restriction,” he says.

‘Ecocide’
 
When small landholders first faced threats of violence and displacement, human rights organizations like Mendonça’s took notice. After learning of the land conflicts from her organization’s partners in rural Brazil, Mendonça partnered with Kuyek from GRAIN to investigate. In September 2018, Rede Social and GRAIN published a report detailing HMC’s investments in Brazilian farmland.
 
Through thousands of pages of tax filings and court proceedings, field visits, and interviews with impacted people, the researchers uncovered a “very aggressive” investment strategy, Kuyek says.
 
GRAIN and Rede Social uncovered three agribusiness operators through which HMC purchased farmland in northeastern Brazil. In addition to detailing the known investments of these companies, the researchers compiled firsthand accounts of conflicts between local farmers and newly-arrived agricultural companies. Many whom they interviewed, like Alves Pessoa and Pereira Mendes, spoke of forced displacement, armed threats, pollution of their soil and waterways, and deforestation. They lost access to land where they once hunted and collected food, water, and firewood.
 
This account quickly grabbed the attention of media outlets, including The Crimson, Bloomberg, and Mongabay, an American environmental news website, which reported on GRAIN and Rede Social’s investigations. It also provoked responses by environmental protections and human rights organizations and student activists at Harvard.
 
In 2021, GRAIN joined a petition by 50 organizations for a symbolic trial by the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, an international organization that tries human rights violators in symbolic trials. Since its founding in 1979, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal has ruled on 51 cases ranging from Chernobyl to pandemic authoritarianism. Its judgments seek to address legal contradictions or gaps in international jurisdiction on peoples’ rights.
 
From 2021 to 2022, the tribunal held an unofficial trial of the Brazilian government and private companies operating in the Cerrado, including HMC. Ultimately, the tribunal found HMC complicit in ecocide.
 
Joice Bonfim, who worked on the case, explains that the meaning of ecocide extends beyond environmental destruction. “Ecocide is the socio-environmental deep devastation promoted by agribusiness and miners, which cause genocide of the people,” she says in an interview translated from Portuguese. “If they cannot develop their lives and relation with the land, it is ecocide and genocide.”

“By seeking profits for their investment portfolios, they are unaware of the historical cycle of crimes and violations linked to land acquisition in the Cerrado, such as the grabbing of public lands, deforestation and pollution, contributing to a renewed cycle of speculation and expulsions of local communities,” the verdict, translated from Spanish, wrote.
 
McKiernan, the HMC spokesperson, declined to comment on the Tribunal’s ruling.
 
Other advocacy efforts helped locals learn more about land titles and the companies claiming their land. Often, local farmers receive information regarding their land from churches, which organize their own farmers’ advocacy organizations.
 
“We worry about this — more people coming and us losing land and not having a place to work or get food,” Pereira Mendes says. “It just makes it more difficult for us the longer it takes them to do the demarcation.”
 
Some advocacy efforts attempt to connect people across Piauí. Daniela Stefano, a researcher with Rede Social and editor of their annual human rights journal, works to connect farmers across the state to discuss the consequences of these purchases. She tells us that, last year, she developed a podcast and photography workshop for young people impacted by corporate farms.
 
“They went back to their communities, and, there, they collected the audios for the podcast,” Stefano says. They also trained young people to take photos of their communities, which were shared over WhatsApp alongside eight-minute audio clips testimonies from farmers.
 
“They started to be aware of how powerful they are, and how good it is to tell their own story, because this was also related to the history of the communities, how they arrived there, how they started to produce,” Stefano says.
 
“Because of this interaction between the people from the community, they know more about each other,” she adds.
 
Though the project was primarily for people in the communities, Stefano says, the project also grabbed the attention of those who want to learn more about land conflicts in the region, including members of advocacy organizations. “Now we would like to continue and expand, because people from other places are listening,” she says.

‘I Feel So Horrific’
 
At this year’s Harvard-Yale football game, as the football players ran, passed, and scored, large painted banners hung behind them reading: ‘BORDERS’ ‘DIVEST’ ‘LAND GRABS’ ‘APARTHEID.’ Demonstrators held them up throughout most of the game, calling back to 2019’s Harvard-Yale game, when hundreds of people stormed the field at halftime to demand that Harvard and Yale divest their endowments from fossil fuels and Puerto Rican debt.
 
“What a powerful sight at this year’s Harvard-Yale match,” reads Stop Harvard Land Grabs’ statement. “A reminder that every second of every day, Harvard’s endowment is financing industries and systems that marginalize those who are imprisoned in or deported from the US, whose indigenous lands are stolen, or who live under a system of apartheid.”

Stop Harvard Land Grabs’s mission is “to end Harvard’s destructive farmland investments around the world and demand reparations,” they write on their website. The group’s mission also calls for Harvard, informed by those it has harmed, to “address the harm and return resources and wealth to those it has stolen from.” In addition to Brazil, Stop Harvard Land Grabs also directs its energy towards HMC’s land investments across the world, from California to Argentina to Australia.
 
Lydia S. Ghuman, a third-year student at Harvard Law School who organizes for Stop Harvard Land Grabs, explains that the group’s objective is to mobilize Harvard affiliates against the actions of the Harvard Corporation. “We’re really trying to figure out how to make the Harvard student body feel like they are culpable and — I don't want to say responsible for this issue — but that they can influence it.”
 
Ghuman makes sure to stress that “whatever efforts we’re coming up with to organize the student body to be more active around this issue is also informed by and aligned with those in Brazil who are fighting against this issue and also currently suffering from it.”
 
Stop Harvard Land Grabs’ advocacy efforts extend far beyond last year’s Harvard-Yale game. Rachel E. Carle, a Kennedy School student who also organizes for SHLG, says that her first protest action with the group, and the earliest she can remember, took place in 2013. That year, students were first investigating Harvard’s investments into timber holdings in Argentina, and their findings drove them to action.
 
After GRAIN and Rede Social’s report was released, Stop Harvard Land Grabs and Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard protesters sat in a long line across the Science Center Plaza on a sunny October day in 2019, bearing signs decrying Harvard’s landholdings in Brazil.
 
They were joined by Altamiran Lopes Ribeiro, a Catholic deacon from Piauí who aids generational farmers in securing land titles. He often travels around the Brazilian state, meeting people impacted by corporate land investments and communicating their needs to advocacy organizations. The protestors huddled around as he spoke. “The profit that comes from those investments,” Ribeiro told them, speaking in Portuguese, “is a profit that is tainted with blood, pain, and suffering from those communities.”

Three years later, Stop Harvard Land Grabs was back demonstrating in the Science Center Plaza, and marched to University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s office chanting, “From Boston to Brazil, Harvard’s land investments kill!”
 
In November 2020, the group published a report on Harvard’s endowment in collaboration with the Palestine Solidarity Committee, Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, and Harvard Act on a Dream. Alongside calls for accountability and divestment, the report demands that Harvard increase transparency surrounding its endowment’s investments. “The Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign for the last four or five years has just been asking: can you make your investments public? This is all we want,” Ghuman says.
 
Displacement is not alien to Ghuman. Her father’s family was moved according to the lines drawn in the Partition of India, and her mother’s family’s land was seized by military rulers in Ethiopia.
 
“They just lost everything when their land was taken,” she says.
 
“There are many, many students at Harvard, not just me, who are living with the history of land grabs, and many students from Brazil that are here and whose home country is getting ravaged by these investments,” she says. The Harvard International Office estimates that 231 students and scholars across the University currently hail from Brazil.
 
“While this can feel like a really abstract injustice at times, I think it’s also really, really real for so many students,” Ghuman says. “And I feel so horrific that I go to an institution that is doing that to people.”
 
‘Profit, However You Make It’
 
On an unusually warm March afternoon, we walk to the second floor of Robinson Hall to speak to History professor and Department Chair Sidney Chalhoub. When we meet him, he is holding several sheets of paper, covered with notes written in dark black ink.
 
For more than 40 years, Chalhoub has been a historian of 19th-century Brazil, focusing, in part, on slavery and the changing conditions of Brazil’s working class. As we begin our conversation, Chalhoub references his notes before giving his answers, his eyes gliding down page after page.
 
Six minutes in, Chalhoub holds the notes up and says, “The reason I wrote this out is because this is a subject that causes in me a lot of indignation.” He pauses. “And I’d like to just be kind of pedagogical, so that I don’t say anything that I should not be saying.”
 
He looks down again and reads, with a combination of exasperation and passion: “Harvard as an institution professes to fight environmental destruction. It forces science and education on the subject. Harvard’s investments in farmland in Brazil caused significant environmental destruction. It polluted waters with chemicals, dried rivers, caused fires and deforestation. This contradiction between the values of the university and the practice of the Harvard Management Company is not acceptable. Harvard professes to defend social justice, and is concerned with social and economic inequality. There is an Inequality in America Initiative in FAS.”
 
He went on. “Harvard Management Company’s investments in farmland in Brazil contributed to the further concentrated land ownership. It increased the violence against and the expulsion of traditional rural communities from land they had held for generations. I repeat the same sentence. This contradiction between the values of the university and the practices of the Harvard Management Company is no longer acceptable. Harvard professes to defend democracy, transparency, and the rule of law–”
 
Chalhoub stops, looks up from his notes, and says to us: “Am I lying? Don’t you learn all these things?”
 
For Chalhoub, the issue with HMC’s investments runs deeper than what happened in Brazil. “This specific case highlights this contradiction that is right now at the core of the institution in my opinion,” he says.
 
Chalhoub believes that contradiction has to do with capitalism. “Why is it that our management company is still governed by a concept of capitalist growth and profit that we have criticized in the College, in the University in our knowledge production?” he asks “This contradiction is no longer tenable.”
 
Chalhoub has a word for this: savage capitalism. He uses it repeatedly, impassionately, over the course of our conversation. The headless pursuit of profit, turning a blind eye to vulnerable communities and the environment — that is savage capitalism to Chalhoub.
 
“The idea of limitless capitalist growth, and the idea that capitalism is just for profit however you make it, has brought us to this situation that we are in now,” Chalhoub says. “It is what could justify the idea of no transparency, no accountability, and profit at all cost that governs the actions of the Harvard Management Company.”
 
Chalhoub thinks that HMC should factor more than just returns into its investments. “We can live with an endowment that's not as robust as we have now, if this comes with more accountability,” he says.
 
In their advocacy and public forum organizing, Stop Harvard Land Grabs strives for this type head-on reckoning with what Harvard is. The group organizes events, Ghuman explains, “to help students see how this is a business and how it’s a business that functions like many other oppressive socio-economic entities in this country.”
 
Ghuman explains that Stop Harvard Land Grabs is trying to reframe Harvard so people think of it as a corporation rather than as a school. “It’s a corporation, and one of its arms is a school,” Ghuman says.
 
Harvard students, specifically, should be troubled by Harvard’s corporate nature, Ghuman thinks. “If Harvard is a business, we are the consumers, the students, that all of its business decisions are justified around,” she says. “One of their public justifications is ‘this is for the students, we’re raising this money for the students; this is what makes our school so great.’”
 
“Well it’s like okay, well, what if we just don't want this?”

When Chalhoub first began to grasp how HMC’s investments in the Cerrado had unfolded, the investments reminded him of how slaveholding societies in the 18th and 19th centuries worked. “It was exactly the same way of occupying the land, eliminating indigenous populations and rural communities constituted by African descendants who’d escaped slavery by going to the woods,” he says.
 
Almost a year ago, the University published its 2022 report on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, which investigates Harvard’s role in the history of slavery.
 
“This contradiction between a symbolic accountability in relation to past injustice and the continuing perpetration of injustices in the present, skirting accountability for its deeds, is not acceptable,” Chalhoub warns. “What are we going to do – wait 100 years and have ‘Harvard's Legacy of Environmental Destruction.’ Is that the title of the report in 100 years?"
 
‘To Relearn How To Live’
 
An hour and a half into our conversation, a ring cuts through Rocha Frazão’s translation and a new black square rearranges the screen. The camera turns on, and Lopes Ribeiro, the Catholic deacon and land rights defender from Piauí, appears, wearing a white graphic T-shirt and a pair of chunky black headphones. Alves Pessoa and Pereira Mendes immediately break into smiles. “Hi, Altamiran,” Alves Pessoa says.
 
Lopes Ribeiro waves. “How have you been, Mara?” he asks.
 
Lopes Ribeiro works with the Comissão Pastoral da Terra, the Catholic organization that helped villagers in Santa Filomena — Mara’s home — secure land titles and is now doing the same for Pereira Mendes and his neighbors in Gilbués.
 
During our conversation, Lopes Ribeiro lists people we should contact from across the country, recounts incidents of violence in the region, and explains recent business deals between HMC and Brazilian companies. As we listen, we sense that he is Piauí’s go-to person on locals’ issues.
 
After years of speaking with people affected by farmland purchases in Piauí, Lopes Ribeiro believes that HMC is complicit in the region’s violence. “Harvard hasn’t picked up the axe to cut a tree, but they financed it,” he says. “And they not only financed one group, but many.”
 
Lopes Ribeiro tells us that when he was a child in Piauí his family and neighbors tended small family farms. They fished from deep rivers, and the forests teemed with animals. But that way of life is gone.
 
Mendonça believes HMC’s operators “destroyed” some of the land, and that Harvard ought to do something to pay that back. “There was no accountability about the impact that Harvard caused to the communities in the first place,” she says.
 
“Why didn’t it then, for example, compensate the communities that lost their land or try to, for example, reforest some of the areas or recuperate some of the water?” she asks. “It doesn’t solve the problem if Harvard simply sells the land and gets out of there with the profit.”
 
Pereira Mendes has his own message for the wealthy farmers who come into these regions. “Be more conscious about deforestation and illegal mining,” he says. “Yes, it does bring growth to certain places, but to our region it doesn’t bring growth, it brings turmoil.”

But to focus only on locals’ vulnerability paints an incomplete picture of our conversation. Pereira Mendes and Alves Pessoa also spoke about their agency and resilience — in building wells, growing food elsewhere, and most of all, organizing with their neighbors for a collective land title.
 
In the same breath that Alves Pessoa describes losing access to clean water and receiving armed threats, she sums up her way forward. “Nowadays this is how we are living,” she says.
 
“We had to relearn how to live.”
 
— Magazine writer Sazi T. Bongwe can be reached at [email protected].
 
— Associate Magazine Editor Jade Lozada can be reached at [email protected].

Who's involved?

Who's involved?


  • 13 May 2024 - Washington DC
    World Bank Land Conference 2024
  • Languages



    Special content



    Archives




    Latest posts