Experts Question Report Alleging Harvard's Involvement in Land Grabs

Amidst accusations in a recently published report that Harvard is investing in a “land-grabbing” hedge fund, experts in the field are questioning the document's accuracy.

According to the Oakland Institute, the Harvard Management Company, which oversees Harvard’s nearly $30 billion endowment, has invested $500 million in London-based Emergent Asset Management, a hedge fund that specializes in the agricultural industry.

The report alleges that Emergent and other funds like it have forced villagers off their land, leaving farmers with little land to grow crops. Additionally, many on-site investors have been granted eased restrictions on natural resource consumption, which can lead to price volatility and supply shortages in commodity markets and strains on the local natural environment.

According to Oakland Institute Executive Director Anuradha Mittal, individuals close to Emergent described Harvard as the "cornerstone" investor. The report also names Vanderbilt as another prominent university involved in these alleged land grabs.

“Investors such as university endowments are being lured by promises of high returns—between 20 to 30 percent—promised by private equity and hedge funds investing in land in Africa,” Mittal said.

The report said that these funds advertise developing the land, but Mittal said that they often just hold the land as prices rise with increased demand for real estate. According to the report, the land is also often used for export commodities, such as biofuels and cut flowers.

Emergent has strongly criticized the report, calling it a “catalogue of inaccuracies.”

“We … enhance the local infrastructure and provide services to the community, helping, for example, with accommodation, water delivery, electricity and health support service,” Emergent wrote in a statement.

Harvard spokesperson John Longbrake declined to comment, saying that HMC does not publicly discuss its investments.

Kennedy School Professor Calestous Juma, who has worked with African nations in developing land investment policies, said that this characterization—even the labeling of these programs as “land grabs”—can “demonize” these development initiatives.

“My concern is that when you see everything that is involved in investments in Africa as being described as ‘land grabbing,’ it is a type of demonization—and it might stop these necessary foreign-direct investments altogether,” Juma said. “This does not mean that there are no crooks—there are a lot of bad deals—but it would be unfortunate for the entire enterprise to be prohibited.”

Juma, who was born in Kenya and grew up near Lake Victoria said he was skeptical that the funds in question investments are doing the type of damage the report describes. Juma added that the report does spur discussion on the topic.

“We would like to talk more about welcoming investments in agriculture and not just purchasing land,” said Juma.

Juma repeatedly said that governments “have a strategy behind” these investments. “This isn’t some sort of colonization,” he said.

—Staff writer Gautam S. Kumar can be reached at gkumar@college.harvard.edu.

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