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Popular Argentine News Outlet, Clarin, Covers RI's Report and Rally

October 26, 2013
Responsible Harvard

The report that we and The Oakland Institute released last week is making waves across Argentina. Several news outlets have published stories, including the one below in the Argentine publication, Clarín. (Please follow the link for the original article in Spanish.) At the time of this blog post, the article already has 115 comments, 1400 Facebook likes and 140 Tweets! Please keep scroll down to read the entire article translated into English.

Harvard owns 80 thousand hectares of land in Argentina and students are accusing the university of causing environmental damage in the Iberá Wetlands

The Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition organized a rally last Friday to deliver a letter signed by seven local community organizations to Harvard University President Drew Faust

Written by Gonzalo Sánchez (Clarin)

Translated by Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition

A report released last week reveals that Harvard University owns 87,884 hectares of land in the heart of one of the world’s largest freshwater bodies: the Iberá Wetlands in Corrientes, Argentina. The lands contain industrial pine and eucalyptus plantations managed by Las Misiones and EVASA, two Harvard-owned corporations.

Harvard finances its world-class educational programs from profits generated from these timber sales. According to official records, the American university also invests in natural resources in other parts of the world. This is the local story of a troubling foreign landowner.

Last week in Boston, a group of students, professors and alumni released a report documenting the environmental damage caused by these investments in Corrientes. The study says that Harvard has expanded the plantations within the Natural Reserve of Iberá into protected areas, including areas that interfere with local land use. 

According to residents and scientists cited in the study, the plantations have reduced biodiversity by changing birds’ migratory patterns, destroying plant life, and damaging the local ecosystem, since the trees absorb huge amounts of water.

According to the study, residents are also worried about long-term soil damage and reduced access to drinking water. Residents in San Miguel and Chavarria said that they have had to deepen their water wells by several meters because they became dry at previous levels. The report also highlights the damage caused to local roads by trucks carrying timber away from the plantations.

“Harvard is trying to make record profits in Corrientes by taking advantage of favorable climatic conditions, a legal framework that grants tax benefits to foreign investors, and an attractive image of corporate responsibility,” said Sam Wohns, one of the students who conducted field research.    

“We have long been concerned about the university’s lack of transparent investment policies, and now we have evidence that these policies are insufficient,” adds Wohns. “I was shocked by the working conditions of the employees. The companies claim to have responsible practices, but the workers I spoke with said that it’s unsafe to work on the plantations.”

Wohns continued: “Most of the plantations are within the wetlands. According to the companies’ own documents, they should be respecting buffer zones and wildlife corridors. Our aerial photographs, however, show that they have planted on top of lakes and streams, drying up a precious natural resource.”

Wohns is in his fourth year at Harvard College, where he studies political economy. He is also a member of the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition, a group that works to hold Harvard accountable for its investment decisions abroad. The Coalition released the report about Harvard’s investments with The Oakland Institute.

The Harvard Management Company (HMC) manages Harvard’s $32 billion USD endowment, which has heavily invested in natural resources in recent years. HMC invests all over the world, including in the Cayman Islands, in New Zealand, and in most countries in South America.

HMC purchased EVASA and Las Misiones for $55.2 million USD. The Perez Companc family owned Las Misiones until 2002, when it was bought by Douglas Tompkins, an American who has been repeatedly criticized by locals for limiting their access to water. In 2007, Tompkins sold EVASA to an investment fund in which Harvard was invested. Now the university owns 100% of the companies. Las Misiones owns lands that Harvard needed in order to obtain tax benefits offered by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Clarin contacted Harvard about the allegations included in the report. Kevin Galvin, a university spokesperson, said: “These projects are within areas approved for commercial activities and have been managed diligently to minimize impact on the wetlands. Both sites are operating with the full support of the local authorities. EVASA has obtained important quality certifications and Las Misiones is expected to obtain them soon.”

Galvin’s comments are inconsistent with the findings of the recently released report.