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Harvard’s Timber Plantation Causing Environmental and Social Havoc in Argentina

November 4, 2013
Earth Island Journal

Local residents join with Harvard students to ask university to be a better neighbor

Timber plantations owned by Harvard University may be harming northern Argentina’s Iberá Wetlands and the communities in the wetlands region, according to a report recently published by the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition and the Oakland Institute. Emilio Spataro, the president of the NGO Guardians of the Iberá, first alerted the Responsible Investment Coalition to the environmental threat posed by the plantations. The pine trees “have transformed the region into a green desert,” Spataro says. “It’s green because there are trees, but there’s nothing else. Animals go through the plantations and find nothing to eat, so there are no animals. And there are no plants.”

Harvard is the sole owner of both EVASA (the Argentinean Green Companies Corporation) and the Las Misiones Corporation, two companies run by the same manager and which together own 87,884 hectares of land in the Iberá Wetlands region, of which 39,417 hectares are planted as a monoculture pine plantation. The university has invested $50.9 million in the plantations and reaps huge financial rewards from the harvests. According to one estimate, timber plantations in Argentina offer annual returns between 10 and 20 percent per year.

But Sam Wohns, a member of the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition and the primary author of the report on the wetlands, says the economic returns have come at a high environmental and social cost. The plantations have reduced biodiversity and groundwater in the region and have led to the forced migration of the young people of nearby communities to Argentina’s cities.

The Iberá Wetlands are located in a semi-tropical region in the Corrientes Province of northern Argentina. One of the largest freshwater reserves in the world, the wetlands cover more than two million hectares (nearly 5 million acres, or roughly twice the size of Yellowstone National Park). According to Emilio Spataro, of Guardians of the Iberá, the wetlands comprise various ecosystems, including lagoons, scrubland, and savanna, and are home to more than one quarter of all the flora and fauna species native to Argentina. For hundreds of years, small agriculturalists —who, to this day, speak an indigenous language, Guaraní, and not Spanish, among themselves — have lived in the wetlands region.

The timber plantations threaten the region’s rich ecology and cultural heritage, Spataro warns. Since pine trees consume more water than native plant species, the plantations have reduced the Iberá’s groundwater. The pine tree monoculture also puts the region’s biodiversity at risk. And the plantations’ use of herbicides and pesticides has polluted the air and water. “Planting hundreds of thousands of trees of the same species over thousands and thousands of hectares, … has completely changed the characteristics of the landscape and the natural composition of the Iberá,” Spataro says. “Pine trees have replaced the wetlands, the grasslands, [and] the savanna.”

The pine tree plantations have impacted not only the environment, but also the communities in the Iberá Wetlands region, allege both Wohns’ report and local residents. Adrián Obregón, who lives near the Iberá in the town of San Miguel, says the timber plantations’ activities have made it hard to get by. “We, as small farmers, don’t use pesticides and herbicides, but the timber plantations use tons of pesticides and herbicides, which affects our crops because it pollutes the groundwater,” he explains. “Also, [the plantations] dry up the groundwater, so we can’t produce what we should.”

As the result of lower standards of living in communities near the Iberá, many young people have had to leave to look for work in Argentina’s cities, according to Harvard student Sam Wohns’ report. Since work on the timber plantations is often outsourced, poorly-paid, and precarious, young people don’t see it as a viable career.

Much of the information in Wohns’ report comes from his conversations with community members and company employees, and he acknowledges the need for further research. “This is the kind of research and work that Harvard and the Harvard Management Company, which is responsible for Harvard’s $32.7 billion endowment, ought to be doing themselves, not just in the Iberá Wetlands, but with all of its investments,” he says. Wohns added that the university has a special responsibility in the Iberá: “As the one hundred percent owner of EVASA and Las Misiones, Harvard is responsible for the conduct and practices and policies of those companies.”

Wohns says the university’s conduct in the Iberá Wetlands is not an isolated case. For example, a Chilean timber company owned by Harvard “has been fined by the Chilean courts over and over again for violating environmental laws,” he says. “There seems to be a pattern in the university’s investments in Latin America of ignoring local norms and customs and law.” Wohns says he and other members of the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition hope to change that pattern by urging the university to apply the same principles it employs on campus to its overseas investments.

The Harvard Management Company responds to the report’s allegations by saying the Forest Stewardship Council has certified EVASA’s plantations as sustainable, and HMC spokesperson Kevin Galvin says he expects an FSC certification for Las Misiones in the near future. Nonetheless, the Council’s 2013 audit of EVASA  (Spanish) indicates a number of issues, including the failure to hire local workers, the destruction of local roads, and the failure to take adequate steps to protect a threatened dwarf palm species (Butia paraguayensis).

According to Kevin Galvin, the timber plantations “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. Both sites are operating with the full support of the local authorities and neither has been subject to an environmental or labor claim by the Argentine authorities.”

But Emilio Spataro, of Guardians of the Iberá, counters that “Harvard can’t excuse itself by saying it follows the law, because … it has the power and influence to do things right even when local governments … let it do things wrong.” In a recent letter to the university, local communities ask that EVASA and Las Misiones not expand timber plantations within two kilometers of towns, that the companies immediately review their environmental practices, and that they formalize all of their employees to create real economic opportunities in the region.

Spataro says Harvard needs to look beyond the financial bottom line. “Harvard is making money off of the environmental destruction of the Iberá and the poverty and lack of opportunities for workers in the Corrientes Province,” he says. “No one is asking Harvard to leave. We only want it to do things right.”