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Vanderbilt Dealings in Africa Demand Transparency

October 20, 2011
Vanderbilt Orbis

Since June 2011, American universities have been operating through British hedge funds to buy or lease vast areas of African farmland. Reports of land acquisitions in seven African countries revealed that Vanderbilt and other American universities with large endowment funds have invested heavily in African land in the past few years.

While foreign investors, universities in this case, profit from such land grabs, the people who originally live and work off the land are forced to find other means of livelihood.

The Oakland Institute, a California-based policy think-tank whose mission is to increase national and international public participation in social, economic, and environmental issues, released an informational briefing, entitled “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa.” It stated that Emergent Asset Management (Emergent), a private limited liability company based in the UK, claims to be managing the largest agricultural fund in Africa. When Emergent’s operations begin to earn profits through the increase in the value of the purchased land, the universities that have made investments will also see profit.

The universities in question, including Harvard University, Spelman College, and Vanderbilt, have declined to comment on this matter in the past. Furthermore, it would appear that most students at Vanderbilt do not know much about Vanderbilt’s recent land grabbing practices. Junior Ben Wibking said that in late June, faculty members of the anthropology department, students, and other scholars of the university, wrote a letter to the administration expressing their concern about Vanderbilt’s investment.  Following that, about a dozen students gathered to create a campaign against Vanderbilt’s land grabbing, calling for more transparency from the administration.

“There was no public reply [from the administration],” Wibking said. “The administration chose one signatory on the letter to write a reply, and that individual was to remain confidential. The students in the campaign are trying to get in touch with Matthew Wright, the vice chancellor for investments. We asked for a meeting but he declined and referred us to the private response that one of the signatories of the original letter received.”

Wibking added that the members of the student campaign meet at least once a week where they report on efforts to reach out to other student groups on campus in order to educate students and faculty and try to get them involved.

“We also talk about their long-term strategy in order to push the administration to respond to student and faculty concerns,” Wibking said. “We try to model it on a consensus-base where we don’t have a leader or a president where one person doesn’t have decision-making authority. As far as what the group does on a whole, we try to have equal say.”

In addition, students in Professor Lesley Gill’s anthropology class about activism and social change will be hosting an educational forum about this issue in late November. Although their project is still in development, the students hope to raise awareness among the student body and encourage them to obtain more information.

“I think the university should accept responsibility for its investment,” Wibking said. “They should provide evidence that what they’re doing is ethical and beneficial to the populations in Africa or divest and make a public apology and promise that future investments will not take peasants’ land.”