Harvard University investments in timberland plantations in Argentina may be harming the local environment and undermining community development, according to a report by 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 and the Oakland Institute. Most of the farms are certified by a forestry council that sets environmental standards, according to the report.
The study by 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 coalition report.
Mendillo is president and chief executive officer of Harvard Management Co., the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based university entity that oversees investments.
“These projects are within areas approved for commercial activities and have been managed diligently to ensure that they are in compliance with, or exceeding, all applicable rules and regulations in order to minimize impact to the wetlands,” Kevin Galvin, a spokesman for Harvard, said in an e-mailed statement. “Both sites are operating with the full support of the local authorities and neither has been subject to an environmental or labor claim by the Argentine authorities.”
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 investments in South America this year with support from the Oakland Institute, a public policy group based in Oakland, California, that has documented how communities, particularly in Africa, have been harmed by a rush into large-scale agricultural investments after commodity prices soared in the past decade.
The groups said the investigation in Argentina is based on interviews conducted with members of the communities near the pine and eucalyptus plantations, company workers and executives and government officials. They are asking Harvard to limit expanding the tree farms while also helping to improve the local economy and communities, which are among the poorest in Argentina.
The two companies, Empresas Verdes Argentinas SA 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 shut down a road 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. The area they visited is about 444 miles (715 kilometers) north of Buenos Aires near the border with Paraguay, with a wetland that is the world’s second largest. The plantations date back to at least the 1990s and were for some time owned by environmentalists Doug and Kris Tompkins, according to the report.
Mendillo, who took over as head of the endowment in 2008, said last year that the university is seeking to increase direct investments in tree farms 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.
“I have no doubt that many of the large endowments are moving in this direction,” said Dan Apfel, executive director of the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a group started by students at different universities in 2004. “Over time they’re exploring agricultural investments around the whole world.”
While Faust rejected the call to divest from fossil fuel companies, the president has said the university is committed to improving the environment and in the past year set up a social alternative fund for alumni donations and hired a vice president for sustainable investments at the endowment.
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 while the companies are worth about $50 million, according to the report.