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University Accused of Participating in African Land Grabs

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Originally published by The Vanderbilt Hustler


By Kyle Blaine

Mounting evidence suggests Vanderbilt University’s investment in emerging African markets may be creating a commodity crisis in the region, even as university officials and a hedge fund manager directly involved in the fund tout their potential for high returns and local benefits. 

The Oakland Institute, a California-based policy thinktank, released a report in June entitled “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa” implicating 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. 

“The same financial firms that drove us into a global recession by inflating the real estate bubble through risky financial maneuvers are now doing the same with the world’s food supply,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute. “In Africa this is resulting in the displacement of small farmers, environmental devastation, water loss and further political instability such as the food riots that preceded the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.

In response to the report, Vice-Chancellor for Investments Matthew Wright called into question the truth of the report and said university investments undergo a thorough process of investigation and due diligence. However, Wright said his primary role is to serve the financial interests of the university. 

“The social (benefits) are not the number one priority. This institution requires us to provide a contribution to it so that it can maintain its quality of education and the quality offering it’s providing,” Wright said. “We can have the best social portfolio in the world but at the end of the day, if we’re not growing the portfolio, we have to have those calls and those letters go out in the summer where people’s scholarships get cut or programs get cut.” 

Wright said the growing middle class in emerging markets presents new investment opportunities and  provides benefits for those countries. The university reported its investments in Southern Africa to, the organization responsible for the annual College Sustainability Report Card. According to its report, the fund provides job training, housing, transportation and medical treatment for local workers. 
In an email statement to Reuters News Agency, Emergent said the Oakland institute report “misrepresented” its investments in Africa.

“Our focus concerns increasing food production involving commercial farms and smallholders alike, uplifting communities through, for example, the provision of employment, access to agricultural support for improved crop production, access to markets for small scale farmers, access to clean water and various facilities and health care,” the statement read. 

A letter sent in June to Chief Financial Officer Brett Sweet and Wright by 47 faculty and students said the investment practices alleged by the report “erode the livelihoods of thousands” and conflict with the university’s values.

“These projects displace thousand of people and monopolize natural resources, especially water. The claims of the London-based firm, Emergent, that it is investing in agricultural production and employment are highly questionable to say the least,” the letter read. 
Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology Lesley Gill, the lead signatory on the letter, was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

The doubts expressed in the letter have been expressed by national media as well. A New York Times article published on Sept. 21 said that the world’s poorest people are being thrown off their land to make way for foreign investors to grow food on a commercial scale and exported to countries overseas as part of a global scramble for land. 

The Vanderbilt Campaign for Fair Food will host a “Land Grabs Teach-in” on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. to promote awareness of the issue. The teach-in will be in Buttrick 101.

“We hope that Vanderbilt students will come and learn about the issue of land grabs in Africa and what the alternatives are for Vanderbilt, and what we can do to promote fair food both here and in Africa,” said member of the Vanderbilt Campaign for Fair Food Ben Wibking. “As a campaign and a student concerned about the issue, we want to emphasize the right of small farmers in their communities to be able to have democratic control of their community resources.”