Harvard’s investment practices have come under fire frequently in recent years, as protesters on campus have called on the University to divest from fossil fuels and private prisons.
This time, the criticism is coming from groups hundreds of miles away — and it’s aimed at the University’s vast but little-known farmland holdings.
A report released last week details the web of companies with which Harvard Management Company, the university’s investment arm, directly invests in farmland around the world, risking conflict with communities from California to Brazil.
The report, published by activist groups Genetic Resources Action International and Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos, claims to provide “a comprehensive analysis of Harvard University’s controversial investments in global farmland.”
It traces the history of Harvard’s farmland acquisitions since the financial crisis nearly a decade ago, estimating that HMC has spent more than $1 billion to buy up more than 800,000 hectares of farmland around the world.
“Shielded from public scrutiny, the University’s endowment fund quietly accumulated into one of the largest farmland portfolios of any financial company in the world in less than a decade,” the report reads.
Unlike other universities and large endowments, HMC has invested directly in natural resources, though it has moved to scale back those holdings since CEO N. P. “Narv” Narvekar took office in Dec. 2016.
HMC profited well from natural resource investments in the 1990s and early aughts. From 2005 to 2013, HMC expanded its investment in emerging markets, including investing in farmland in Brazil and Eucalyptus farms in Uruguay.
Narvekar, though, has changed tack. He oversaw a $1 billion write-down in natural resource assets last year, and the Wall Street Journal reported in December that Narvekar said some investments carried more risk than previously calculated.
“For years, HMC benefited from an internally managed natural resources program that generated strong returns. At this stage, however, while most assets remain attractive, a few have significant challenges,” Narvekar wrote in HMC’s 2017 financial report.
“Our natural resources platform will take multiple years to reposition,” he added.
In March, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that HMC was exiting from a $150 million investment in forest and farmland in northeast Brazil, and that the failed investment contributed to the 2017 write-down.
While HMC is moving away from natural resources, its investments over the past decades have left marks across the world that this new report now aims to bring to light.
It can be difficult to monitor Harvard’s natural resource investments because HMC uses subsidiaries to invest in farming operations, which can obscure the University’s involvement. The GRAIN and Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos investigators collected tax documents and other local records to piece together their account of Harvard’s farmland investments, according to the report.
The 16-page document relays stories of locals in Brazil and elsewhere who say they were unfairly pushed off of land that Harvard now owns, or who say they have suffered health problems from Harvard-linked farms next door.
After HMC acquired farmland in South Africa, local managers sought to impede workers' ability to access family burial sites on property where workers had “occupational” rights, the report claims. The University later directed its local farm manager to sell the land, according to the report.
Some villagers in Brazil say that pollution from pesticides on properties connected to Harvard has caused an increase in the number of cancer patients, according to the report.
“Harvard’s decades of farmland deals has generated many casualties, from Brazilian peasants to South African farm workers to rural Californians,” the report reads.
The University has faced a number of legal challenges related to its land holdings in Brazil, where the practice of falsifying land claims is common, according to the report.
In the country’s Bahia region, a state commission found in 2014 that a Harvard subsidiary may have acquired land titles that had been illegally obtained and involved violent displacement of locals from public lands. State prosecutors have now indicated they may sue to reclaim some land linked to the University.
The report calls on Harvard affiliates to press HMC to end its farmland investments and land conflicts, as well as cover any monetary damages the local communities may have suffered.
Brazil is not the only place where locals are pushing back on Harvard’s management of lands. In the Cuyama valley, a drought stricken area of California, local residents are criticizing a Harvard owned vineyard that could diminish the valley’s water supply.
Harvard’s natural resource assets have also come under fire from within one of the University’s own governing bodies. Kathryn “Kat” A. Taylor ’80, a former member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, resigned her post after criticizing Harvard for investing in “pernicious activities.”
In her letter, Taylor said Harvard’s engagement in “land purchases that may not respect indigenous rights” played a role in her resignation.
“But we don’t know what we don’t know, especially now that so much of the endowment is held in opaque funds,” she added.
University Spokesperson Melodie L. Jackson wrote at the time in an emailed statement that Taylor’s support for divestment was long known to the community.
Responding to the new report, HMC spokesperson Pat McKiernan wrote in an emailed statement that the natural resources team has increased supervision of their asset managers.
“The team has also instituted a more proactive approach to working with managers of new and remaining assets—a partnership that provides more oversight and ensures that we can leave the land and community better than when we first invested,” McKiernan wrote.
—Staff writer Eli W. Burnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
—Staff writer Andrew J. Zucker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewjzucker