Retirement system is largest manager of farmland in the world - that contributes to land-grabbing, deforestation and human rights violations
Over the past year, the crises of the coronavirus pandemic, racialized state violence and climate change have prompted protests in the U.S. and across the world. Teachers and students from elementary to graduate schools have called for change in the processes and methods of education to grapple with the environmental, social, and economic justice issues that need to be addressed. Soul searching and pedagogical shifts mean little, however, if our retirement benefits rest on a foundation of structural racism, violations of human rights, and environmental destruction.
TIAA — Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America — manages retirement savings for almost 5 million U.S. college faculty and staff and many nonprofit employees. TIAA states that it is the largest manager of farmland in the world, claiming over 2 million acres on four continents worth over $8 billion. TIAA presents itself as a socially responsible investor; but TIAA’s increasing farmland acquisitions are contributing to land-grabbing, deforestation and human rights violations. While claiming to ensure the future financial security for millions of U.S. middle-class workers, TIAA’s investments are destroying the future for many rural communities and threatening the world’s future through unsustainable agriculture.
In Brazil, TIAA controls over 800,000 acres in monocrop plantations that are destroying forests, soil and watersheds. TIAA acquired land from a family found by the courts to possess illegal titles. Bloomberg reports that the Brazilian government recently found that TIAA violated limits on foreign ownership of farmland, putting almost half a million acres worth about half a billion dollars in jeopardy.
TIAA has also spent almost $4 billion to acquire over 350,000 acres of farmland across seven states in the U.S., including California, where community members accuse financial firms of trying to steal precious water resources. In Illinois, TIAA rents land to operators who produce row crops without the winter cover that prevents soil erosion, and with intensive chemical use that pollutes rivers and threatens community health downstream.
In Mississippi, acquisitions are made in a region where land was stolen from Black farmers over the past two generations and investors benefit from the discrimination, fraud, and corruption that decimated Black wealth. As Vann R. Newkirk II details in “The Great Land Robbery” (The Atlantic, 2019), TIAA has acquired its land in predominantly Black counties where land theft was common. It “has accumulated a portfolio in the Delta almost equal to the remaining holdings of the African Americans who have lived on and shaped this land for centuries.”
Black farmers in Mississippi owned as much as 2.1 million acres in 1910. During Reconstruction freed black workers saved money to buy bits of land in the Mississippi Delta. Then, from 1950-1964, Black farmers lost 800,000 acres of land (worth as much as $6 billion in today’s dollars) due to corruption within the US Department of Agriculture, which denied loans and funding to Black farmers while colluding with white farmers to take that land. Given the history of urban redlining and subprime lending, it may not be shocking to learn that the USDA created massive transfers of wealth from Black to white farmers after 1950.
History is not just in the past. Black farmers are still trying to hold onto their land and new farmers want to farm, but can’t because land is so expensive. As a leader in the financialization of farmland, TIAA is a major reason why. those of us whose retirement funds are invested in TIAA, including University of Iowa faculty and staff, share a moral responsibility to speak out.
One of us, Laura Graham, has been conducting research for over forty years in the Brazilian cerrado-savannah where TIAA is buying up farmland and is familiar with the land mafias and corrupt system of land transactions that plague the region. She served as a member of an expert delegation from the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA) that met with TIAA representatives to discuss transparency and accountability in TIAA’s farmland investment practices. TIAA’s position in that meeting and subsequent interactions convinced her that the firm will only move toward implementation of more ethical investment practices under pressure from its clients.
Therefore we and the UI Charter Sustainability Committee are encouraged that, after a year of intense study, the UI Faculty Senate has passed a resolution calling on the University to push TIAA for transparency and accountability in its investments related to land grabbing and deforestation. Faculty Senators voted overwhelmingly in favor, even after the faculty heard presentations from the CEO and Sustainability Director of TIAA’s farmland subsidiary, Westchester. This is an important first step. We will continue our efforts to make real, meaningful, and sustained change in Iowa, across the country, and with communities around the world.
Laura R. Graham is professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa and president-elect of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America. Meena Khandelwal is associate professor at UI of anthropology and gender, women’s and sexuality studies.