A study released Tuesday alleges that the management of two Harvard-owned timber plantations in Argentina has led to the deterioration of the Ibera Wetlands, the world’s second largest wetlands, and a decline in the quality of life in surrounding communities.
Since the Harvard Management Company, which oversees the University’s $32.7 billion endowment, acquired the two timber companies in 2007, the plantations have expanded in size, encroaching upon previously protected wildlife and threatening local farms, public health, and road quality, the report claims.
The principal author of the study, Samuel F. Wohns ’14, said that the trees planted in the wetlands soak up a significant amount of water, depleting the supply for farmers and households. As a result, crop yields have fallen and community members have been forced to drill new wells on a continual basis, he said. These changes have been burdensome to local people, many of whom have limited financial means.
“We want the University to immediately halt the expansion of the plantations in Argentina...and to review its current practices and respond to community concerns,” Wohns said.
Wohns said that agrochemical runoff has also polluted the water supply, damaging crops and endangering public health.
The report also contends that the pesticides responsible for the agrochemical runoff were sprayed by workers who reported not having adequate safety gear.
Despite accusations of irresponsible practices, both companies have been audited by sustainable management authorities.
“[Empresas Verdes Argentinas Sociedad Anonima] and Las Misiones successfully obtained the internationally recognized Forest Stewardship Council certification in 2010,” University spokesperson Kevin Galvin wrote in an email. “Las Misiones S.A. underwent an exhaustive audit last month that included interviews with workers, members of the local community and environmentalists, and based on that process we expect that Las Misiones also will receive FSC certification.”
However, audits done by the Forest Stewardship Council suggest that environmentally friendly practices on the Harvard-owned plantations have not been fully implemented and that Harvard has undone some of the sustainable practices put in place by a previous owner.
“These projects are within areas approved for commercial activities and have been managed diligently to ensure that they are in compliance with, or exceeding, all applicable rules and regulations in order to minimize impact to the wetlands,” Galvin wrote.
Members of communities surrounding the wetlands penned a letter to University President Drew G. Faust summarizing their grievances. Wohns will deliver the letter to Faust’s office on Friday afternoon, along with other members of Responsible Investment at Harvard.
The report was published by the Oakland Institute, a California think tank, and the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition.
—Staff writer Steven R. Watros can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveWatros.