Ivy League investment in Brazilian ag mired in allegations of land grabbing and illegal deforestation


Warning sign, reading: “Access prohibited“ on the Campo Largo farm claimed today by Caracol Agropecuária LTDA — land originally settled by small-scale farmers Photo: Mongabay

Harvard’s US$37.1 billion endowment fund has invested in a vast farm in the Brazilian ag frontier that has been plagued by allegations of illegal deforestation and violent expulsion of small-scale farmers from their homes, an investigation by Mongabay has found.

The investigation delves into the means by which the land for a 140,000 hectare farm now owned by the fund in Bahia state was first acquired, revealing a legacy of forced evictions, and a recent history of illegal deforestation.

Mongabay obtained the findings of a Bahia state investigation that found the land was acquired through allegedly illegal, and sometimes violent, means.

It was settled by family farmers in the early 1990s, who were forced to abandon their claims due to threats of violence. Edjarsson Cardoso, leader of an association representing 22 families, told Mongabay: “Armed people started arriving there, putting [up] fences, burning our crops, destroying our houses.”

A state investigation seen by Mongabay concluded in 2014 that the farmland was taken through “absurd notary irregularities” and the expulsion by physical violence of rural workers, along with “worrying environmental distress”. The investigation found there had been one death as a result of the conflict, but did not reveal specific details of the incidence.

In a summary of the case, Bahia prosecutor Estácio Marques Dourado wrote that the evictions “constitute — in territorial extension — the biggest [discriminatory action] ever done in [Bahia] state”. He forwarded the findings to the State Prosecutor’s Office (PGE), asking it to cancel the “forged, irregular and, therefore, illegitimate” private titles. But the case never reached court.

“I can say there has been pressure from agribusiness politicians for the [legal] process to stop,” says Mauricio Correa, a member of the Association of Lawyers of Rural Workers in the State of Bahia. Now, the lawyers association plans to pressure PGE to reopen the case.

The company that now owns the land was fined by IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, R$123,000 (US$ 37,000) for illegal deforestation occurring in 2013.

The lands allegedly seized by violence and intimidation have been passed from one owner to another, first from a Bahia state deputy named Márcio Cardoso, then to a large-scale farmer, José Oduvaldo Oliveira Souza, and ultimately to Caracol Agropecuária LTDA, a company from southern Brazil. This last transfer of ownership occurred on portions of the disputed farmland between 2008 and 2012.

The capital that Caracol used to buy the land has been traced to its foreign partners by GRAIN, an NGO that supports small-scale farmers and social movements. Caracol Agropecuária LTDA is apparently owned indirectly by the endowment fund of Harvard University.

A university subsidiary, the Harvard Management Company (HMC), manages the US$ 37.1 billion Harvard endowment. HMC, which oversees approximately 12,000 funds, is believed to own Caracol through two subsidiaries: Guara LLC and Bromelia LLC, according to leaked tax documents.

Both Guara LLC and Bromelia LLC have active registration on the Secretariat of Federal Revenue of Brazil, but work in the U.S., at the same address as the HMC: 600 Atlantic Avenue, Boston.

Mongabay contacted HMC three times, and asked specifically about its subsidiaries. The institution replied that it does not comment on specific investments. However, HMC did send a link to its official policy pertaining to natural resource investments, which emphasises the fund’s goal of improving the properties it acquires — both environmentally and socially.

In 2010, in an effort to restrain an escalation in the purchases of rural properties by foreigners, the Brazilian government tightened restrictions on foreign land acquisitions. Today, the law says that several distinct foreign investors can own no more than 25% of the land within any particular municipality, while investors of the same nationality can own a maximum of 10% of a municipality’s lands. Caracol’s farmland purchases account for well above those limits, at 35% of the Cotegipe municipality.

Harvard’s endowment fund isn’t the only U.S. financial actor active in Brazil’s agricultural sector. Another is TIAA-CREF, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund. It is one of the largest U.S. investment firms, and it manages U.S., Canadian and Swedish pension funds, among others.

TIAA-CREF came under pressure in 2015 for not disclosing the location of its investments in Brazil; there were indications of human rights violations associated with those investments. TIAA-CREF was contacted by Mongabay, but declined to comment.

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