Skip to main content Skip to footer

Harvard, Vanderbilt, Spelman Exposed for Taking Part in “African Land Grab”

Monday, June 20, 2011

Originally published by Democracy Now!


A new report raises questions about the connection of Harvard, Vanderbilt and other U.S. universities to European financial interests buying or leasing vast areas of African farmland. Called “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa,” the report by the Oakland Institute claims farmers in Africa are being driven off their lands to make way for new industrial farming projects backed by hedge funds seeking profits and foreign countries looking for cheap food. We speak with Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute. “We have heard about the role of these private hedge funds in food speculation and speculation of food prices, because they control commodities” says Mittal. “But when they start buying even the means of production—they control labor, they control large tracts of land, they control water, they dictate what is grown and how it is grown—it is the kind of vertical integration of a food system that we have never seen before.”


AMY GOODMAN: A new report claims farmers in Africa are being driven off their lands to make way for vast new industrial farming projects backed by European hedge funds seeking profits and foreign countries looking for cheap food. The study finds American universities with large endowment funds have also invested heavily in African land in the past few years. The reports, published by California-based Oakland Institute, claims this is increasing price volatility and supply insecurity in the global food system. The name of the study is called “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa.”

We’re joined by the study’s author; Anuradha Mittal is with us now. Anuradha, can you talk about the significance of what is happening in Africa and the universities, like Harvard, like Vanderbilt and others, that are involved with this?

ANURADHA MITTAL: Sure. What we are basically seeing right now is this trend that has come to be known as land grabs. And according to the World Bank, in 2009, nearly 60 million hectares of land were purchased or leased all over the world, with most of them, around 70 percent or more, being in Africa. And so far, the media has reported on the Chinese, on the Middle Eastern states, you know, the Qataris, buying and purchasing huge tracts of land in Africa. But the story that we’re not told is one of private hedge funds and equity funds who are looking for arbitrage opportunities in Africa and are also taking over huge tracts of land. And that’s what our study finds, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the hedge funds, the European financial interests, and how Harvard, Vanderbilt and other American universities are linked to them.

ANURADHA MITTAL: Sure. What we find is that there are several outfits—you know, Emergent Asset Management, Chayton Africa, Pharos Fund, just to name a few. And by the way, they’re not just in Europe, but also in the United States. And because they’re promising high returns, from 20 to 40 percent returns, which are based on such arbitrage opportunities, you have universities—Harvard or Vanderbilt, Spelman and many others—who are interested in that trend, and some are actually investing, those exposed by our reports being Harvard and Spelman and Vanderbilt.

AMY GOODMAN: Responding to the report, Emergent CEO Susan Payne told CNN in an emailed statement that, quote, “The allegations set out in the Oakland Report are grossly inaccurate. We are consulting our lawyers and will be issuing a full statement rebutting the allegations.” Anuradha Mittal, your response?

ANURADHA MITTAL: Well, we are definitely looking forward to that rebuttal, because what’s unique about our work is not their word against ours. Our information is based on the documents that were provided by Emergent Asset Management. So really, what they’re saying is that they’re providing false document to investors, and so it’s really their word against their own documents. The things that we talk about—lies about leases, lies to the local communities whose lands are taken away, or the promises that they’re making in terms of benefits to communities—they are verified by the number of people that are employed, by the benefits they’re giving to communities, the actual land lease of the size of land they have. And these are documents that have been provided by Emergent itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Harvard University, in a response to CNN, a spokesperson said he was unable to find any direct documentation for the claims in the study and is seeking clarification for any involvement on Harvard’s part from the firm that handles its endowment.

ANURADHA MITTAL: Well, we were told by Emergent Asset Management that Harvard University is the cornerstone investor. And in fact, they did not deny it in a report to Guardian. They also had told us that they’re contractually obliged not to talk about Harvard being their investor, their cornerstone investor. Harvard Management Corporation has a policy of not disclosing where it invests, but what is also unique in this situation is that they have asked its asset management not to disclose it, not to talk about it, that they are actually invested. And one would think, if it is such a good thing to invest in agriculture in Africa, and when accusations such as those made by us come up, they would stand up and defend, rather than say there is no documentation, because we do have documentation from the, you know, private equity fund itself in forms of email documentation and other phone calls.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the example of Tanzania.

ANURADHA MITTAL: Sure. I mean, a lot of focus has been, again, as I said, on the Chinese or the Qataris or the Libyans in Mali, but we have found absolutely egregious land deals. For instance, in the case of Tanzania, we were able to secure information which shows that a U.S.-based company, AgriSol Energy, which involves Summit Farms, which involves Pharos, a private equity fund, as well as lawyers from a famous reputable New York law firm, are involved in the setup, which basically would take over nearly 400,000 hectares of land in Tanzania.

Now, what’s problematic about this scheme is that, on one hand, the scheme involves places where refugees have lived. For instance, the two sites of Katumba and Mishamo in Tanzania house refugees from Burundi who have lived there for 40 years. So the scheme is about the government giving them naturalization, making them citizens, but they do not have the right to decide where they live. There would have to vacate the places that they have lived for 40 years, their fields that they have farmed for the last 40 years, the largest church in East Africa that they have made with the community. So they are being turned into refugees once again, for a U.S. corporate interest, and turned away from Tanzania. The choice is they can go back to Burundi or relocate to an unforeseen future.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Ethiopia, Anuradha.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Ethiopia.

ANURADHA MITTAL: Well, you know, it’s the same story over and over again. You look at Ethiopia. In the name of progress and development, which is promoted by international agencies, you have these huge villagization schemes, where hundreds of thousands of people, again, are being moved to clear up lands, in places such as Gambella, so the Indian corporations Karuturi or Saudi Star can move in, while people, again, have a future that they don’t know, which is totally uncertain. They don’t know where their next food will come from. And while we talk about it—this trend bringing economic development, agricultural development and jobs to people—our research finds that, at best, this is a myth. This is poor washing that is being put forward and the absence of transparency and the absence of information being made available to people. Communities are realizing that their lands are given away when bulldozers show up.

AMY GOODMAN: Anuradha, how do you respond to some of the firms saying that they’re providing desperately needed jobs and cash to impoverished regions in Africa?

ANURADHA MITTAL: Well, you know, as I said, this is a very good poor-washing argument. Our research, which was done by having researchers on the ground spend months there, our research, which is based on actually interacting with these investment funds, looking at the business plans, looking at the exact head counts—what we find is, for instance, a 100,000-hectare project in Mali, which is being done by Malibya, claims to create thousand jobs. But research by United Nations clearly shows that in Africa two hectares are enough for a farmer to feed his or her family. So if you divide 100,000 hectares, you would see it could employ at least 50,000 families or sustain 50,000 families. And if you do the numbers, of four or five family members, we know how many people are sustained, compared to thousand jobs, which in most times in mechanized industrial farms are low-paying jobs. They are, you know, seasonal employment. So if you really look at the numbers, the jobs are not the jobs that would provide a decent livelihood.

In the case of Emergent, for instance—I met with a community in Mozambique—it is only about a thousand hectares there, compared to some of the larger deals. But the people were very clear that this village of 7,000 people depends and needs those thousand hectares, and they’re livelihoods are better, rather than working as plantation workers in this large industrial farm.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how food prices fit into this and large migrations of people? I mean, even climate change—does this weigh in, why countries are trying to buy up large swaths of farmland in Africa?

ANURADHA MITTAL: Well, Amy, you’ve struck upon a very important point. First of all, when we’re dealing with climate change, this idea of large plantation-style agriculture, which is being spread around the world, completely ignoring the impact or the amount of CO2 emissions it will lead to, is quite incredible, that instead of moving to sustainable agriculture, ecological agriculture, we are promoting these industrial agriculture.

Secondly, I mean, just the—we have heard about the role of these private hedge funds in food speculation and speculation of food prices, because they control commodities. But when they start buying even the means of production—they control labor, they control large tracts of land, they control water, they dictate what is grown and how it is grown—it is a kind of vertical integration of a food system that we have never seen before. So it is a huge threat for the global food supply, not to mention what it means for local populations. We are devastating and destroying their livelihoods, their food security, which in turn means that when people are uprooted in Mozambique, uprooted in Zambia, the options that they have is to go and work in the mines of South Africa or in the mines of Zambia, and again disrupting communities, destroying lives, with no reversal and no—of these policies. At the same time, with the lack of regulation and with the lack of transparency, any hopes for decent compensation are almost not there.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the links of, oh, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs?

ANURADHA MITTAL: Well, it was interesting, in the course of our work, the funds that we have studied. And by the way, I should mention that we have only released the first phase of our research. In the second phase, we will be informing people more about the other funds that are operating in Africa. And almost all of them have started their careers—the CEOs, the chief investment officers, they have all started their careers in JPMorgan or at Goldman Sachs. And it’s interesting, given the role that—of, say, Goldman Sachs, which has been made very visible in food speculation, to see its trainees, its ex-employees now go off and start these hedge funds, which are now speculating on land and hoping to benefit from arbitrage opportunities because land is cheap in Africa. And I would also add—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

ANURADHA MITTAL: Yes, while they talk about food security, I would urge listeners to visit Emergent’s site, where the CEO says, “We could be moronic and not grow any food, and we will still make money by buying land in Africa.”

AMY GOODMAN: Anuradha Mittal, we’ll leave it there. We’ll link to your report, executive director of the Oakland Institute.