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A Steep Price for Harvard's Investment

By Gabriel H. Bayard and Samuel F. Wohns

Adrian Obregon never used to worry about water. The 50-year-old farmer lives in Montaña, an indigenous community in Corrientes, Argentina that lies within the Iberá Wetlands, one of the largest wetlands in the world.

Today, though, enormous pine and eucalyptus plantations, operated by Las Misiones and owned by Harvard’s $32.7 billion endowment, have consumed the groundwater that Adrian’s family previously used for drinking and washing. Adrian told us that he has been forced to deepen his well every year since Harvard bought the plantations, each time spending money he doesn’t have.

Adrian's neighbor Chochón, whose full name has been withheld due to fear of retaliation, said that he was able to buy a water pump on credit, but he’s terrified by the plantations’ proximity. His house was nearly burned to the ground four years ago when the plantations caught fire. He’s afraid he’ll suffocate in another, larger fire someday. The nearest fire department, which consists of four part-time volunteers and a pickup truck, is 20 minutes away.

Adrian and Chochón are just two of thousands of people affected by Las Misiones and EVASA, two timber plantations that we visited on a trip to Argentina last year. From April 5 until April 16, Adrian and Emilio Spataro, another Corrientes resident, are visiting Harvard. For the first time, the Harvard community and administration will be able to hear firsthand from those affected by Harvard’s investments in Argentina.

We know the effects well. Over a year ago, Adrian and Emilio invited us to visit the region after Harvard didn’t respond to their concerns. We went because we knew that research on Harvard's land grabs in Mozambique led to badly needed scrutiny of those investments—and we thought a public spotlight could lead to changes for the better in Argentina.

The extent to which Harvard’s companies mistreat, ignore, and abuse their neighbors was shocking. We saw trucks exiting the plantations driving on the wrong side of the road, making the roads undrivable for locals. Dominga told us about the time she woke up to find strange men building a plantation in her backyard, and Armando told us about the filthy dormitory he lived in for two years on an EVASA plantation. Both of their surnames have also been withheld due to concerns about retaliation.

Although we were the first people from Harvard to be hearing these stories, we vowed not to be the last. And with Adrian and Emilio visiting us until April 16, we know we won’t be the last—hundreds of students are responding to Adrian and Emilio’s call to action.

As Harvard undertakes a $6.5 billion capital campaign, we are reminded that Harvard’s timber plantations exist because of the generosity of alumni donors. There’s only one way to give to Harvard and know that the money will be invested socially and environmentally responsibly—by donating to the Social Alternative Fund, which is managed by an outside investment firm, unlike much of Harvard’s endowment.

We know that Adrian and Emilio’s visit can lead to change because Harvard has changed its investment practices in the past due to student and alumni activism. Following revelations that investments in Chinese oil companies were linked to the genocide in Darfur, Harvard became the first university to divest from the companies in 2005. Last year, after more than 450 donors withheld their money in an escrow account called the Fair Harvard Fund, Harvard created the Social Alternative Fund.

Today, students join with environmentalists and local organizers like Emilio and Adrian in asking Harvard to be a responsible owner of the plantations it directly owns. It shouldn’t expand its plantations but instead should ensure that the plantations comply with all governmental and employment regulations. According to Emilio, Harvard’s plantation managers have not held a public community meeting in Corrientes since 2010—Harvard should tell its managers to re-open dialogue with the community at once.

Everyone on campus should hear the stories of Adrian, Emilio, Chochón, and the thousands of people in Argentina who are being affected by Harvard’s timber plantations. This Friday at 2 p.m., the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition and 10 cosponsoring organizations are holding a rally in Harvard Yard, where Adrian and Emilio will speak about the damage that Harvard’s plantations cause in their communities. We urge students, faculty, and the administration to listen.

Adrian and Emilio are not asking for the impossible; Harvard has direct control over these companies and can obligate them to operate in accordance with the University’s values. By responding to them in completing a comprehensive review of current practices and listening to communities in Corrientes at public forums, Harvard can uphold its commitment to sustainability abroad.

Being 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. We have seen the effects of Harvard’s companies on people like Adrian and Chochón firsthand, and we demand that Harvard do better.

Gabriel H. Bayard ’15 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Samuel F. Wohns ’14 is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.

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