A group of environmental activists outside the New York offices of TIAA on Thursday and a smaller group demonstrated in from of the institutional investment firm’s Washington DC office Friday, handing them a petition signed by over 100,000 people asking them to divest from controversial investments. The specific target of the group was more than $170 million invested in palm oil companies “that raze tropical forests and drive climate change,” as well as $8 billion in farmland investments “that drive up land prices and push family farmers off their land.”

Photo Credit: Friends of the Earth

Investor accused of purchasing farmland from “land grabber,” says they are transparent and stand by their investment due diligence

TIAA is accused of purchasing farmland in Brazil “from someone well-known in the region for fraud and ‘land grabbing’ who has been accused of violence and murder,” according to Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau of ActionAid USA, who organized the march along with numerous activist groups that included academics and TIAA clients Nancy Romer of City University of New York and Nancy Holmstrom, a Rutgers University faculty member.

TIAA, for their part, claimed their due diligence processes were comprehensive and that they stand behind their farmland acquisition techniques in the region but have not directly addressed the accusations, according to Quinn-Thibodeau.

Quinn-Thibodeau says that the institutional investor will not allow independent evaluation of their land acquisitions. TIAA, for its part, is one of the more transparent firms in this sector, but this “speaks more to the issue of how opaque the sector is, rather than how transparent TIAA is.”  TIAA provides information about the countries and states within those countries where it owns the land, as well as total acreage, and it provides information about the general kinds of crops it produces. It also provides information about the degree to which third party certifications cover its farms. “The information provided isn’t enough to determine what is actually happening with TIAA’s farms,” she said.

Farmland  Friends of the Earth due diligence
Photo Credit: Friends of the Earth

TIAA – Colorful protests

The protests were reasonably colorful.

A protester from Sum Of US dressed as a strawberry orangutan to emphasize the point of how palm oil companies are causing forest destruction in Southeast Asia, destroying the habitats of orangutans. Using street theater to emphasize the point, an activist played a TIAA fund manager making investments and buying land, instructing bulldozer drivers to clear out the tropical forest and the local farmers (played by TIAA clients from NYC) who no longer owned the land they had farmed on for generations. The local farmers and Strawberry the Orangutan were able to push the bulldozer back and stop the destruction of the forest and loss of their farmland.

Protesters claim a history of engagement with TIAA. ActionAid USA wrote a letter to Roger Ferguson, TIAA’s CEO, in January 2016 to express our concern about TIAA’s land purchases in northeast Brazil. TIAA responded by saying that the allegations were without merit because their due diligence processes were comprehensive, but they also did not address the specific allegations or provide any details which would prove that their land deals were not contributing to land conflicts and human rights violations, according to ActionAid USA.

The protest was generally ignored by TIAA, but some progress is being made, noted Jeff Conant of Friends of the Earth:

After years of very little response from TIAA, we have gotten in touch with their Director of Social Equity Investment – shortly prior to our petition delivery — and we’re hopeful that we’ll establish some constructive dialogue. But our first concern has been transparency – their annual Responsible Farmland Investment reports speak to some of the issues we’ve raised on the risks posed by direct investments in land – but there is no contact information provided in those reports, which shows an unwillingness to accept real input from, for example, family farmers who feel threatened by land speculation. With $8 billion invested in land, we don’t expect TIAA to be extremely receptive to change on that front; but with a profile that makes them a ‘sustainability leader,’ we hope they’ll see the benefit in taking on board the concerns of family farmer organizations, whether in Brazil or in Wisconsin.