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Students Organize Against University’s Investments in Africa

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Originally published by The Vanderbilt Hustler


By Kyle Blain

A group of students is calling for the university to divest from hedge funds involved in African agricultural development, following reports the investment is forcing small-farmers in Africa off the land.

Around 50 students and community members gathered Wednesday night at a "teach-in" in Buttrick Hall. The teach-in focused on the history of land grabs in Africa and the details of Vanderbilt's investment in Africa. The Vanderbilt Campaign for Fair Food organized and led the event that was largely based on a report released in June by the Oakland Institute.

In the report, the California-based policy think tank implicated Vanderbilt in an African “land grabbing” investment scheme. The report is based on investigations of investors, purchase contracts, business plans and maps of the region.

According to the report, Vanderbilt, along with Harvard and other U.S. colleges, is invested in African land development through London-based hedge fund Emergent asset management, which runs on of Africa’s largest land acquisition funds. The report claims Emergent’s investments in African land are forcing small farmers off their lands and creating insecurity in the global food system while not fulfilling promises of increased native employment and development. The investments, according to the report, are aimed at developing the land for agricultural exports.

Junior Sebastion Lasaosa Rogers is a member of the Vanderbilt Campaign for Fair Food and led a segment of the teach-in.

According Rogers, the campaign's goals are to persuade Vanderbilt to take three actions: divest from Emergent Asset Management, create a more transparent, ethical, and accountable investment policy, and apologize and compensate those negatively affected by the investment.

During the teach-in, Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, answered questions and provided more detailed insight into the report through video chat. Mittal claims Vice Chancellor for Investments Matthew Wright told her ethical investments were not a priority for Vanderbilt.

"I could not believe this, because this was not Goldman Sachs I was speaking to, but the vice chancellor for investments of a well-respected university," Mittal said.

Wright told the Hustler in September university investments undergo a thorough process of investigation and due diligence, but social benefits are not the number one priority.

Provost Richard McCarty said to the best of his knowledge, the university always looks to investment opportunities with an eye towards the effects it will have on the local population.

"Investment in third-world economies does help the local people too," McCarty said. "There is a negative side, but there is also a positive side and I believe we are on the side of having a positive impact."

Representatives from the Vanderbilt Campaign for Fair food met with McCarty earlier this week. During the teach-in, McCarty was quoted on a slide as saying it was inappropriate for students to have input in investment strategy. According to McCarty, the meetings went well and were successful in clarifying the relevant issues.

The campaign plans to deliver a petition to the Board of Trust at 2:45 p.m. today.

The Vanderbilt Campaign for Fair Food is set to meet with Wright in early December.

Senior Ari Schwartz said the organization cannot assume the university will respond favorably to its requests.

"We have to keep on with awareness, we have to keep reaching different parts of the Vanderbilt community to see if we can build a bigger coalition," Schwartz said.

Freshman Ben Terpstra attended the teach-in and said the event convinced him to take action.

"Vanderbilt's name is being used by Emergent to make themselves look cleaner and legitimate, which automatically stains our reputation and the reputation of everyone who goes here," Terpstra said.