Robust debate and freedom of speech are fundamental attributes of Harvard. At Harvard Management Company, we are proud to have responsibility for protecting and growing the endowment and supporting that freedom of thought and expression. We aim to invest responsibly in everything we do, but we understand and respect the right of people to challenge and question what that means in practice.
Unfortunately, the latest campaign from Responsible Investment at Harvard falls well outside of a reasonable right to disagree. Their claims in recent Crimson Op-Eds and in YouTube videos about our investments in pine forests in Argentina are full of factual errors. More disturbingly, they show a clear pattern of deliberate misrepresentation.
EVASA and Las Misiones are companies that own land and grow pine plantation forests in the Corrientes province of Argentina. Both have third-party certification from the Forest Stewardship Council to ensure we remain aware of the social and environmental context in which our assets are managed. It also establishes a continuous improvement program that gives confidence that we can meet one of our primary goals: to leave our investments in better health and condition than when we bought them. EVASA sought certification by the independent Forest Stewardship Council under prior ownership in 2009. HMC completed that process as the new owner in 2011. Las Misiones was established later than EVASA and began preparing for the same FSC certification, which was granted just last month.
We like plantation forests. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that well over 30 percent of the world's industrial wood supply comes from plantations occupying less than seven percent of total forest area. The high productivity of plantations takes an enormous amount of pressure off of the world’s precious remaining natural forests, reducing over-harvesting and deforestation. Wood is one of the most remarkable and least appreciated natural resources we have. It provides the raw material for a wide array of industrial and consumer products, from construction materials and paper—to products such as films, thickeners and fabrics—to organic products that offer an alternative to those from fossil fuels. Wood is by far the most energy-efficient building material we have, both in its production and in its use. Sustainably managed forests are essentially carbon neutral, even while producing useful wood products. New plantations absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and then hold it for as long as they persist, which may be in perpetuity.
Well-managed forests, including plantations, also provide many services and benefits to the local environment: shade, shelter, scenic beauty, soil protection, regulation of water quality and yield, rich ecosystems supporting diverse flora and fauna, jobs for local people, recreational areas, and more. Plantations are also often far more bio-diverse than the modified grass pasture land on which they are commonly established. Though plantations can cause negative impacts in some cases if poorly developed or located, with care and attention to planning and management, benefits should far outweigh the costs.
In this context, we are dismayed at the claims made by Responsible Investment at Harvard.
They claim that Harvard's plantations are damaging the environment of the important Iberá wetland reserve by drying it up, contaminating it with chemicals and planting trees in areas designated for conservation, or that will spread into the wetlands themselves. Not so.
In fact we believe the opposite is true–our forests are likely better for the Iberá wetlands than the former use of the land which was large-scale cattle ranching. We aim to demonstrate that with long-term water quality monitoring that has been underway for some time. The Iberá wetland ecosystem is indeed a magnificent natural area of wild land and is worthy of all of the protection accorded to it by the Argentine authorities. It is a huge area, designated into preservation land, buffer areas to protect the core preservation areas and land designated for commercial production, to include cattle ranching and plantation forestry. All of our planted land is firmly and clearly within the commercial zones. Our properties also include buffer zone and preservation land, representing over 55 percent of our titled area, which we will faithfully manage within the rules established for such areas.
Herbicides and insecticides are used at establishment to protect young seedlings from being swamped by grass or eaten by ants, but for the following 15 to 20 years until harvesting and replanting, no chemicals of any kind are applied to the land. The chemicals that are applied at establishment (approved for use by the FSC) break down fast after doing their job and they do not spread into ground water or the wetlands.
The species of tree we have planted—loblolly pine—will not spread naturally into the wetlands. It is a species, unlike slash pine that some others have planted, that will not grow on wet ground and only survives, and in fact thrives, in the well-drained parts of the commercial zones.
With an annual rainfall of about 50 inches, the effect of our plantations will be to regulate (lower the volatility of) water flows, reducing flood run-off and sustaining dry season flows by acting as temporary storage of rainfall. Nevertheless, we are monitoring water flows in long-term studies that will test this thesis so that we can be sure our plantations are not negative and are in fact positive for the Iberá wetlands.
They claim that our plantations are responsible for drying up local residents’ wells. Not so.
One such resident, Adrian Obregon, came from Corrientes to Boston to draw attention to this concern. We are sorry to hear that Mr. Obregon has had to deepen his well, but as discussed above, the possibility that Harvard's trees are responsible for that is effectively zero. Not only would it be highly improbable that pine trees on neighboring land would have such an effect on the water table at well-depth, but more importantly, the trees nearest to Mr. Obregon's house are owned by somebody else. That is easily determined by simple inspection of property boundaries and signage in the area.
Left Alone, Forests Can Bounce Back
Rethinking ReforestationWhile the process of specialization has allowed regrowth of trees largely by eliminating large tracts of agricultural land, there is little reason to think that our environmental gains come only at losses for more agricultural parts of the country.
Study Says Harvard-Owned Plantations Have Damaged Argentina WetlandsA 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.
Group Protests Alleged Environmental Damage
Harvard’s Timber EmpireHarvard could continue to cut corners, sacrificing native forests, subsistence farmers’ land, and ecological well-being in its efforts to turn a profit. Or, it could use its timberland assets to push forward a sustainable model for global forestry. I hope Harvard takes seriously its “commitment to sustainable investment” and that its “distinctive responsibilities to society” lead it to responsible ownership.
A Steep Price for Harvard's InvestmentBeing a student at Harvard is an incredible privilege. The least we can do is listen to those who are harmed in Harvard’s name, and work to make Harvard a positive force in communities from Cambridge to Corrientes.