Sunday, July 03, 2011

Vanderbilt University accused of bankrolling African land grab and exploitation of farmers

When I was a university student, one of the prominent movements of our time was the one to pressure universities to divest from South Africa over apartheid. Now there appears to be a new form of exploitation of Africans and once again universities are invested and show no indication of divesting themselves without organized pressure from within their community. One of those institutions is Vanderbilt:

Harvard and other major American universities are working through British hedge funds and European financial speculators to buy or lease vast areas of African farmland in deals, some of which may force many thousands of people off their land, according to a new study.

Researchers say foreign investors are profiting from "land grabs" that often fail to deliver the promised benefits of jobs and economic development, and can lead to environmental and social problems in the poorest countries in the world.

The new report on land acquisitions in seven African countries suggests that Harvard, Vanderbilt and many other US colleges with large endowment funds have invested heavily in African land in the past few years. Much of the money is said to be channelled through London-based Emergent asset management, which runs one of Africa's largest land acquisition funds, run by former JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs currency dealers.

Researchers at the California-based Oakland Institute think that Emergent's clients in the US may have invested up to $500m in some of the most fertile land in the expectation of making 25% returns ....

The company that manages Harvard's investment funds declined to comment. "It is Harvard management company policy not to discuss investments or investment strategy and therefore I cannot confirm the report," said a spokesman. Vanderbilt also declined to comment.

The tacit support of apartheid in the 20th Century showed that universities are not above empowering terrible forms of injustice in third world countries. If these allegations are true, then it is time to start turning up the heat on Vanderbilt to leverage real reforms. Particularly, those of us who are Vanderbilt alumni and Vanderbilt's neighbors in Nashville may need to step in to try to stop the exploitation through food speculation that increases convenience of people in the developed world while increasing poverty and death for others.

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