Harvard University investments in timberland plantations in Argentina may be harming the local environment and undermining community development, according to a report from a student-led group.
Harvard owns two companies operating plantations in the Ibera wetlands in northwest Argentina that have abandoned wildlife corridors and wetland buffers, according to a 28-page report from the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition. Most of the plantations are certified by a forestry council that sets environmental standards, according to the report.
The study from the coalition, which also includes alumni and faculty, represents the latest effort to influence how the world’s richest university, with a $32.7 billion endowment, manages its investments. For the past year, a different student group has tried to force Harvard to sell shares in publicly traded fossil-fuel companies, which the group considers the biggest contributors to climate change, a campaign dismissed this month by Harvard President Drew Faust.
“The report contradicts what President Faust and Jane Mendillo have said about Harvard’s continuing commitment to sustainable investing,” said Sam Wohns, a senior at Harvard and lead author of the report.
Mendillo is president and chief executive officer of Harvard Management Co., the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based university’s entity that oversees investments.
Kevin Galvin, a spokesman for Harvard, said he had no immediate comment.
The Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition was formed in 2011, advocating for greater transparency in the university’s endowment. It has been conducting research in Harvard’s timberland and natural resource investments in South America this year with support from the Oakland Institute, a public policy group based in Oakland, California, that has sought to document how institutional investments and large-scale economic development can harm communities in poor regions, particularly in Africa.
The coalition said the investigation is based on interviews conducted in Argentina with members of the communities near the plantations, company workers and executives and government officials.
The two companies, Empresas Verdes Argentinas S.A. and Las Misiones, have also let working conditions deteriorate since Harvard first invested in the timberlands in 2007 and then bought them in 2010, the group said in the report. Community members have tried to shut down roads to protest the increased use of logging trucks in the area, which is harming local health, according to the report.
Wohns said that he and another student who worked on the report also got grants from Harvard to help cover travel costs to Argentina.
Mendillo, who took over as head of the endowment in 2008, said last year that the university is seeking to increase direct investments in timberland and other natural resources outside of the U.S. She has been credited with helping to identify timberlands in North America as a profitable investment for university endowments in the 1990s after she was hired by Harvard.
The student coalition said it identified the two companies in Argentina through Harvard’s annual tax filings, which are publicly available because the university is a non-profit. Harvard has about $4 billion of investments in natural resources, according to the report.
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