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Colleges Involved in Land Grabs

June 15, 2011
Daily Pennsylvanian

by Evan Medina


A recent report implicates several American universities in unsavory land deals in Africa

Several American universities are allegedly involved in purchasing large tracts of land in Africa, which could lead to the eviction of thousands of local farmers.

The Oakland Institute, a California-based progressive policy think tank, released a series of reports this month detailing the effects of land purchases in Africa, calling the deals “land grabs” and indicating that they are potentially forcing millions of small farmers off ancestral lands.

“There is a total lack of governance,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director and founder of the Institute. The reports note that the deals have attracted alternative investment firms like Emergent Asset Management, as well as American universities with large endowments, including Harvard and Vanderbilt universities and Spelman College.

Mittal added that the investigation was only able to confirm that these three schools had made investments. Penn was not mentioned in the reports.

According to a World Bank estimate, investors have leased or purchased nearly 60 million hectares of land in Africa over the past three years, an area almost equal to the size of France.

The Institute found that with investors facing little to no accountability in their transactions, there were several instances in which small farmers were forcibly removed to make room for export commodities such as biofuels.

Mittal explained that the investments have sky-high return rates, which are due at least in part to land speculation in Africa, making them highly risky investments. Questioning the wisdom of such investments, Mittal added that the returns are coming at the expense of Africa’s poor, noting the existence of food riots and land-related conflicts in states with heavy foreign investment like Mozambique.

Land leases are frequently negotiated directly with chiefs and landowners, many of whom are unaware of the terms of the leases. According to the Institute’s country report on Sierra Leone, there has been little media coverage of the deals and most locals are unaware that most of the farmland has been leased to foreign investors.

A spokesman for Emergent defended the deals in The Guardian newspaper in Britain. “Yes, university endowment funds and pension funds are long-term investors,” he said. “We are investing in African agriculture and setting up businesses and employing people. We are doing it in a responsible way.”

Although Penn was not named in this report, its international investment practices have come under scrutiny in the past. In 1987, the University sold off its holdings in companies that would not withdraw from South Africa, which had been under apartheid at the time, and did not reinvest until 1994.

In 1996, Penn created the Trustee Proxy Subcommittee as a “means for expressing social, political or environmental concerns,” according to a 1998 statement by then-Executive Vice President John Fry.

In the late 1990s, the Free Burma Coalition called on the University rid itself of investments made in companies with ties to the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, but the subcommittee voted to continue investing.