Harvard needs to address allegations in recently released study.
Harvard’s endowment may or may not be political, but it can certainly have enormous consequences on people around the globe. According to a report released by Responsible Investment at Harvard, those consequences are particularly acute in Argentina’s Iberá wetlands, where two Harvard-owned timber companies are making significant profits while causing significant hardship for the area. Politics aside, Harvard has a responsibility to ensure that local communities are not treated unethically by companies that it has a significant ownership stake in.
Responsible Investment at Harvard paints an alarming image of Harvard’s impact in the region. They report that the timber companies impose unsanitary and unsafe conditions on their workers, use toxic herbicides, destroy the region’s biodiversity, and refuse to pave roads despite the detrimental effect of dust on locals’ health. These findings are based on the eyewitness experience of the authors of the report, as well as on conversations with local workers and townspeople. If these allegations are true, Harvard is endangering the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people living in Argentina. Since the returns these plantations bring in contribute to the finances of the University, current Harvard students may be in the undesirable position of benefitting from the misery of other people in very concrete ways. Such an idea is ethically unacceptable.
Harvard, for its part, has not been forthcoming concerning the findings of the report. In the only statement thus far released by any Harvard official, University spokesperson Kevin Galvin asserted that both timber companies in question operate fully in compliance with Argentine law. He further noted that the Forest Stewardship Council certifies one company, and will likely certify the other company soon. Yet audits completed recently by the FSC point toward a less certain outcome. No University official has refuted or acknowledged any of the specific allegations found in the report. Neither Harvard Public Affairs and Communications nor the Harvard Management Corporation—which manages the endowment—could be reached to comment for this editorial.
Harvard’s alarming lack of transparency regarding the ramifications of its endowment practices serves to illustrate the great need for organizations such as Responsible Investment at Harvard. Students deserve to know if their financial aid and research are being funded through the pain and suffering of other human beings, and should work against any such practice.
Harvard needs to seriously investigate and address the allegations raised in Responsible Investment’s report, and needs to do so in a transparent and public way. The University needs to take responsibility for the conduct of its holdings and ensure the ethical treatment of local communities.