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 .
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 . 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 . According to 2019 figures, Harvard is estimated to indirectly own 405,000 hectares of farmland in Brazil, all of them in the Cerrado region .
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 .
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 Filomena, Baixa 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. 
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. 
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 .
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 . 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 .
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 .
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 .
Chain Reaction Research found that between 2000 and 2017 at least 51,154 hectares of forest were cleared on farms now owned by Harvard . 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 .
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 ; California, where vineyards established by the university caused the depletion of water for local farmers ; or South Africa, where land use rights of communities were restricted by the subsidiary RussellStone .
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 . 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” .
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 . 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.” . 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 .