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Hedging on Hunger

Friday, April 20, 2012

April 23-25, New York’s hotel Waldorf Astoria is the venue for the fourth annual Global AgInvesting (GAI) conference. The $3,000 admission ticket is not for the small land holders from Africa or farmers who resemble John Steinbeck’s Joad family. Instead, it targets institutional and global end investors, and fund managers – all mulling over economic opportunities that agricultural lands have to offer.


This year in attendance are several retirement and pension funds including Alaska Retirement Board and California State Teachers’ Retirement System, among others. Philanthropic institutions such as the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation are also present, seeking to translate their investments into development for the world’s poor. Joining them are the fund managers of endowments of several U.S. universities, including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale among several others. They, like Lockheed Martin Investment Management Company, view agriculture as the new soft commodity market where they can see their monies grow. 

Such conferences provide a platform from which fund managers connect with potential investors and make mouthwatering promises. Susan Payne, current CEO of EmVest and ex CEO of Emergent Asset Management, for instance, promises 20 to 40 percent returns, hailing the low cost of African land as “an arbitrage opportunity.” Real estate speculative opportunities are behind her claim, “we could be moronic and not grow anything and we think we would make money over the next decade.” Lured by such promises, Harvard University and Vanderbilt University have both invested in the fund in the past. 

While billed as an ag conference, this event is about making high returns. Ensuring food or water security are not its concerns. For example the first question the water session hopes to address is “What are the real economic opportunities in water now?” 

An examination of over 50 land deals in several African nations over the last four years by the Oakland Institute revealed that land and agriculture investments, touted as development opportunities for host nations, actually come with high costs to local communities. Some of what our research uncovered includes the displacement of hundreds of thousands of small farmers, the diversion of water without environmental impact studies, the use of unsustainable farm practices, the failure to meet job creation and other promises, and special tax and other financial incentives so that the financial returns can be met. 

A key driver behind this land rush is the yearly rental for prime farm land in Africa: often less than a cup of coffee per hectare! In fact the cost of admission to the GAI conference could get one control of over 1,000 hectares of prime farm land. 

As awareness around the impacts of such investments grows, people are taking action. Occupy Harvard and other student groups have called for Harvard to divest from Emergent. Vanderbilt’s Fair Food Coalition is asking for the same. Iowa State University has buckled under media and student campaigns after the revelation of its involvement in a land deal in Tanzania which would displace over 160,000 people. These efforts gain momentum as they connect to resistance on the ground. In South Sudan the President halted a land deal when the local community protested that their lands had been secretly leased to a U.S. investor. In Sierra Leone, civil society groups have launched a national land transparency initiative. 

It is not disputed that the people and resources of Africa have centuries of history of exploitation. It is, therefore, incumbent on us to be vigilant regarding claims that any particular foreign profit driven investment in Africa will benefit the African people. 

Agriculture does need investment. Such investment must be fully transparent and mechanisms to hold investors accountable must be firmly in place. The high economic returns that are promised at these conferences come at a cost to the poor. Africa has given more than enough. 


Anuradha Mittal is the founder and executive director and Jeff Furman is a member, Board of Directors, at the Oakland Institute.


Take Action: On April 24 join food justice activists, African students, OWS groups, and environmental organizations challenging agricultural investment that harms people at the Global AgInvesting (GAI) conference.