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Deforestation and agrotoxics linked to Harvard University's land speculation, Piauí, Brazil


Harvard University endowment is one of the world’s largest investors in farmland. In recent years, it has particularly acquired land at one of Brazil’s latest agricultural frontiers in the states of Piauí and Bahia, which has seen the expansion of soybean and sugarcane production. The region is part of the Cerrado biome, a vast tropical savanna that has extremely high biodiversity and is origin of some of Brazil’s most important river systems. On the other hand, it faces high deforestation rates, which over the past decade have been 50 percent above the ones in the Amazon. The advancing of industrial agriculture in the region threatens not only the Cerrado ecosystem, which is considered crucial for the preservation of the Amazon, but also the livelihoods of small peasants, indigenous groups, and quilombola communities, who in most cases still struggle for the recognition of their rights [1][2].

The expansion of the agribusiness is driven by foreign investments, but also the recently adopted and controversial Matopiba Agricultural Development Plan (see also related case in the EJAtlas). The policy plan incentivizes these investments and aims to increase the agricultural production in the Cerrado region, where land prices quintupled between 2003 and 2016. As ‘Chain Reaction Research’ in 2018 noted, 18 percent of all farmland in Matopiba – the Cerrado parts of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia – is owned by just eight companies, including HMC. Other major investors are the US-American pension fund manager TIAA (see related case in the EJAtlas), the Dutch ABP, the Japanese Sojitz, and the British Valiance Asset Management. The arrival of these investors has exacerbated land conflicts in the region and made ‘grilagem’ - Brazil’s widespread practice of grabbing public land and regularizing it through falsified documentation - more and more attractive [2][3]. Like many involved international institutions, pensions funds, and endowments, Harvard University started its investments in Brazilian farmland after the financial crisis and the increase in commodity and food prices in 2008, as natural resource assets were considered stable and increasingly profitable. While previously, it was already a major global investor in timberland (see also related EJAtlas case of Argentina), Harvard soon became one of the world’s largest and most aggressive purchasers of farmland [2][4]. According to 2019 figures, Harvard is estimated to indirectly own 405,000 hectares of farmland in Brazil, all of them in the Cerrado region [1].

As investigations of Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos, GRAIN and other civil society organizations have documented, the university operates through its Harvard Management Company (HMC) and channels investments through Boston-based subsidiaries and a complex offshore structure. This involves a large number of subsidiaries registered in tax-havens (see also ‘Project details’ below) and exacerbates the assessment of specific holdings. From offshore companies, money flows to specific investment countries, where Harvard typically operates through contracted local agribusiness companies. In Brazil, HMC acquired farmland through three agribusiness operators: Insolo, Gordian Bioenergy (GBE), and Granflor. Insolo started to buy land in the Cerrado in the early 2000s. It is today to 96 percent owned by Harvard and has bought at least six farms in the state of Piauí. Similarly, the sugarcane and ethanol company GBE was made part of Harvard’s corporate structure and has bought land in Piauí and Bahia. Granflor has been mostly focusing on timberland, but recently also invested in farmland in the state of Bahia. These Brazilian companies work with several further subsidiaries [2][4].


The aggressive purchasing of farmland has violated the rights of a number of peasant and traditional communities in Piauí, as NGO reports reveal. In the center of the conflict are farms of Harvard’s subsidiary Insolo in the southwest of Piauí, which cluster in the municipalities of Santa FilomenaBaixa Grande do Ribeiro, and Gilbués – a region of formerly lush savannas, fertile land and abundant waters. Here, several farms established in the Quilombo and Riozinho plateaus have destroyed forests and threatened the livelihoods of traditional communities. [2][4]

Recent NGO reports - which among others resulted from the 'Caravana Matopiba' project that investigated agrobusiness impacts in the south of Piauí (see also related case in the EJAtlas) - revealed the drastic consequences of the recently established industrial plantations in the region. The heavy use of pesticides and other chemicals even spread by airplanes has reached people’s homes and fields and led to crop damage and health issues. As the farms are situated in highland plateaus, agrotoxics are drained to the valleys and pollute drinking water, especially during raining season. While the contamination has caused the death of fish, the installed massive irrigation systems have led to the general depletion of water sources. [4][5]

For example, the Harvard/Insolo-owned Fazenda Fortaleza (Santa Filomena) has caused deforestation, the drying up of waters, and rising pollution through pesticides such as Roundup that destroyed crops and killed fish. Together with the nearby Fazenda Ludmila, which is managed by TIAA, the farm has displaced members of the traditional community of Baixão Fechado who used to live from hunting, farming, and raising livestock. As GRAIN and Rede Social report, they now have to purchase water and suffer from health problems such as dizziness, stomach aches and a rise in cases of cancer [2]. 

Similarly, Fazenda Galileia (Baixa Grande do Ribero), in just a few years has caused the deforestation of over 10,000 hectares and the drying up of wetlands located below, affecting water sources and grazing land used by the communities. In 2017, Harvard sold the farm to the Peteca group [4]. The impacts are among others felt in the nearby traditional community of Melancias (Gilbués), which has been living from small-scale agriculture for over 100 years, until land grabbers claimed and fenced off land in the plateaus and erected industrial soy plantations linked to Harvard and other investors. This has led to the depletion of water and contamination through pesticides that are spread by air and pollute water sources, crops, and bodies. In 2018, local movements and organizations sent a letter to the World Bank, which had claimed that international investments would not expel communities, and pointed the recent threats to customary tenure and impacts from the agribusiness [2][5][6].

Another controversial farm is Fazenda Ipê (Baixa Grande do Ribeiro), one of Harvard/Insolo’s largest possessions in Piauí. In May 2018, the Agrarian Court of Piauí stated an area of 27,000 hectares, almost half of the land, were illegally grabbed by Insolo’s subsidiary Sorotivo, pushing away communities that have traditionally used the land. About 24,000 hectares of the farm were deforested since 2000 [2][3].

At a second cluster located further north in the municipality of Guadalupe, at the border with Maranhão state, investment plans of Harvard’s GBE group have pressured the people of the quilombola village Arthur Passos. In 2009, the Afro-descendent community was officially recognized and a process to grant them land titles was initiated but became interrupted in 2013 when the GBE subsidiary Terracal claimed land in the area of Guadaloupe and created Fazenda São Pedro. It erected a 17 km fence, hired security guards to prevent people from entering, cleared forests, and was about to start a massive plantation of tomatoes, sugarcane, and eucalyptus. Confronted with high investment costs, Harvard in 2015 suddenly directed the stop of the project and ordered to sell the land. However, the land was not sold over the following five years and the project turned into a financial disaster. Although unused, it remained protected by security guards, who the company describes as “squatters”. While the land remains destroyed and controlled for speculation, members of the quilombola community in October 2019 reported that they can no longer fish, hunt, graze their cattle, or collect fruits, medical plants, and firewood [2][4][7].

Chain Reaction Research found that between 2000 and 2017 at least 51,154 hectares of forest were cleared on farms now owned by Harvard [3]. In 2019, AidEnvironment found an overlap between Brazil’s latest massive forest fires and farms linked to HMC and other international investors, which was also confirmed by field visits of Rede Social [1][4].

Harvard has also actively invested in allegedly grabbed Cerrado farmland in the west of Bahia, with similar consequences for peasant families, some of whom still struggle to reclaim their land (see also related case in the EJAtlas). What is more, community conflicts arising from Harvard’s land acquisitions were also reported in other regions, including Australia’s New South Wales, where aboriginal sites were destroyed by a HMC subsidiary [2][8]; California, where vineyards established by the university caused the depletion of water for local farmers [2][9]; or South Africa, where land use rights of communities were restricted by the subsidiary RussellStone [2].


Over the past years, HMC seems to have internally and financially struggled with its investment model. According to investment analysts and an evaluation done by the company itself in 2017 and 2018, the farmland investments had performed worse than predicted and led to a significant down-writing of the fund’s natural resources portfolio (from US$ 4 billion to 2.9 billion). Major projects such as the one in Guadalupe had not even started, which led to a loss of an estimated $US 150 million, and most of the acquired land in the Cerrado was only in partial production or left unused. At the same time, several leading managers have recently left HMC but were reported to have financially benefited from inflated valuations of farmland. Internal documents that became public proved that the management was aware of the negative impacts on forests, waters, and communities but has still not adjusted its actions [2][3][4][7]. In 2018, one of the fund’s overseers resigned after raising critique over missing transparency and unethical investments, particularly pointing to issues of water and community land use rights, and publicly stated: “Over the last decade, Harvard’s endowment has severely underperformed financially to its peers, even as we have continued to invest in activities and products that undermine the well-being of our communities, nation, and planet” [2].

Public critique against HMC particularly came from human and peasant rights organizations such as the mentioned Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos and GRAIN, which launched campaigns and documented the farmland investments and corporate structure of the university endowment, but also the organizations Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT) and FASE and international NGOs such as FIAN, Friends of the Earth, the National Family Farm Coalition, ActionAid, Via Campesina, InterPares, Grassroots International, and the joint campaign ‘Stop Landgrabs’, among others.

The organizations also called up students, faculty and alumni from Harvard to speak out against the practices of their institution [1][2][10]. In the following, a student group of the university initiated the ‘Divest Harvard’ campaign and held several protests, urging HMC to refrain from investments in fossil fuels and farmland. Blaming the university for “colonialist investments”, the activists in 2019 stated: “This type of investment in Brazilian agribusiness fuels the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and exacerbates the global climate catastrophe. […] Harvard is ignoring its responsibility of environmental stewardship and once again choosing profit over the health and well-being of people and the planet.” [11]. HMC spokesperson denied some of the allegations and a spokesperson pointed to quality standards and claimed that the investor over the past years has made progress in working in partnership with local managers and communities [4][11].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Deforestation and agrotoxics linked to Harvard University's land speculation, Piauí, Brazil
State or province:Piauí
Location of conflict:Guadalupe, Baixa Grande do Ribeiro, Santa Filomena, Gilbués
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Land acquisition conflicts
Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Plantation conflicts (incl. Pulp
Agro-fuels and biomass energy plants
Specific commodities:Land
Fruits and Vegetables

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Harvard University endowment – estimated to be worth $US 32.7 billion in 2018 [3] – started to purchase farmland in Brazil, South Africa and New Zealand after the global financial crisis of 2008, followed by investments and farm purchases in Russia, Ukraine, the United States and Australia. As of 2018, it globally held 850,000 hectares of farmland, including 404,686 hectares in the Cerrado region [1][2].

Harvard Management Company has several tax-exempt subsidiaries involved in farmland acquisitions, such as Blue Marble Holdings, Phemus, Demeter, and Harvard Private Capital Realty, all registered in Boston. From there, money is channeled through offshore subsidiaries in tax heavens, e.g. in the state of Delaware or the Cayman Islands. These companies, in turn, invest in subsidiaries in the specific target countries. [2] In Brazil, Harvard operates through three company structure. First, the Insolo Agroindustrial S.A., which was founded by the businessman Ivony Ioschpe in the early 2000s and is now owned to 95.8 percent by Harvard. It has facilitated the acquisition of at least six farms of a total area of 115,000 hectares in Piauí. Second, Gordian Bioenergy (GBE), which is run by former Enron managers and specialized in sugarcane and ethanol production. GBE has bought about 30 farms for HMC in Piauí, Minas Gerais, Bahia, Tocantins, and Maranhão. Third, Granflor Agroflorestal, which focuses on timber, but has also invested in farmland in Bahia [2][4].

In the municipality of Guadalupe, at the border of Piauí and Maranhão, land of 45,000 hectares was purchased by Terracal, one of Harvard’s companies linked to GBE, and prepared for a plantation project with a planned investment of US$ 350 million, which was however suddenly stopped in 2015. The loss was reported to be $US 150 million. In the following, the company has been trying to sell the land [4][7]. In the south of Piauí, Harvard’s Fazenda Ipê encompasses 58,000 hectares and was acquired through subsidiaries of the Insolo group, including Sorotivo Agroindustrial, which in 2018 was found guilty of having grabbed parts of the land. The company has also established the 11,000 hectare large Fazenda Fortaleza. In addition, Insolo also acquired Fazenda Nazaré and Fazenda Galileia in the same region [2].

Project area:404,686 ha
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:2008
Company names or state enterprises:Insolo Agroindustrial S.A. from Brazil - One of Harvard's agribusiness subsidiaries, mostly operating in Piauí
Harvard Management Company (HMC) from United States of America - Manages endowment and invests across the globe through subsidiaries
Gordian Bioenergy (GBE) from Brazil - One of Harvard's agribusiness subsidiaries, operates in Piauí and Minas gerais, among others
Terracal from Brazil - A subsidiary of GBE active in the area of Arthur Passos, linked to Harvard
Sorotivo Agroindustrial Ltda from Brazil - Harvard-controlled company that has allegedly grabbed land of Fazenda Ipê in Piauí
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Divest Harvard
Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos
Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT)
Friends of the Earth US
National Family Farm Coalition
Solidarity Sweden
Grassroots International
Chain Reaction Research
Genetic Resources Action International
Movimento dos Pequenos Agricultores (MPA)
Articulação Piauiense dos Povos Impactados pelo MATOPIBA (Piauiense Articulation of the Populations Impacted by MATOPIBA; APIM)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Landless peasants
Local ejos
Social movements
Fisher people
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local scientists/professionals
Students & university employees
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Shareholder/financial activism.


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Fires, Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Food insecurity (crop damage), Genetic contamination, Waste overflow, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Health ImpactsPotential: Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession
Potential: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Loss of landscape/sense of place


Conflict outcome / response:Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Under negotiation
Project temporarily suspended
Proposal and development of alternatives:Organizations such as Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos and GRAIN demand HMC to stop purchasing farmland in Brazil, to generally refrain from investments in monoculture plantations, and to return the land to the communities and compensate them for the destruction, instead of trying to sell the land. This is also what its students, the supposed beneficiaries of the endowment fund, are calling for [4].
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Even though public pressure is now increasing, HMC's speculation and investment in farmland for the seek of profit has so far been fueling the expansion of a destructive agricultural model based on mono-cropping and chemical pesticides, and in doing so, also contributed to the global climate crisis. This ignores the needs and rights of landless peasants and quilombolas and stands in contradiction with efforts to safeguard forests, biodiversity and traditional knowledge and ways of living.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[2] GRAIN, Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos (2018): Harvard's billion-dollar farmland fiasco. September 2018. Available at:

[3] Chain Reaction Research (2018): Foreign Farmland Investors in Brazil Linked to 423,000 Hectares of Deforestation. 17.12.2018.

[7] McDonald, M, Freitas, T. (2019): Harvard Was ‘Freaking Out’: How a $270 Million Brazil Bet Tanked. BNN Bloomberg, 24.09.2019. (Online, last accessed: 05.06.2020)

[11] Chaidez, A. (2019): As the Amazon Burns, Students Call on Harvard To Divest from Farmland Holdings. The Harvard Crimson, 29.08.2019. (Online, last accessed: 05.06.2020)

[5] Caravana MATOPIBA (2018) – Letter to the World Bank. Available at:

[1] Friends of the Earth US, GRAIN, National Family Farm Coalition, Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos (2019): Harvard and TIAA's farmland grab in Brazil goes up in smoke. 18.10.2019. (Online, last accessed: 05.06.2020)

[6] Campelo, L. (2018): Comunidades pedem a Banco Mundial suspensão da regularização fundiária no Piauí. Brasil de Fato, 08.06.2018. (Online, last accessed: 05.06.2020)

[9] McDonald, M. (2018): Harvard Spent $100 Million on Vineyards. Now It's Fighting With the Neighbors. Bloomberg, 15.11.2018. (Online, last accessed: 05.06.2020)

[4] GRAIN, Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos (2020): Harvard's land grabs in Brazil are a disaster for communities and a warning to speculators. 08.05.2020. (Online, last accessed: 05.06.2020)

[8] Hemphill, P. (2015): Harvard University accused of digging up aboriginal burial sites on NSW property. The Weekly Times, 18.03.2015. (Online, last accessed: 05.06.2020)

[10] No Land Grabs (2020): Get TIAA Out of Farms Now! (Online, last accessed: 05.06.2020)

Meta information

Contributor:Max Stoisser
Last update18/09/2020



Protest against land speculation at Harvard University

Photo credit: Steve S. Li

"Divest Harvard - Climate Justice Now"

Campaign image

Burned land in Fazenda São Pedro, part of the GBE land agglomeration in Guadalupe

Photo credit: Daniela Stefano / Rede Social

Map showing farms of Harvard subsidiaries in Piauí and Bahia

Source: GRAIN

Cleared land in the Cerrado

Source: Mighty Earth

Students protest at Harvard University in 2019

Photo credit: Grace Z. Li

Land was grabbed and almost half the forest was cleared to make space for Fazenda Ipê, in Baixa Grande do Ribeiro

Source: Agricultura pelo Mundo, Facebook

Pesticides are spread by airplane

Source: GRAIN

Fires 2019 in are of Fazenda São Pedro

Source: GRAIN

The impacts of industrial agriculture on water of communities such as Melancias, visited by Caravana Matopiba in 2017

Source: FIAN / FASE