Vanderbilt University Divests from 'Land Grab' in Africa

Vanderbilt University has taken steps to withdraw its $26 million investment in EMVest, formerly Emergent Asset Management, an agricultural corporation with farms in five sub-Saharan African countries, including Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe and whose investors included Harvard University. EMVest was accused of ‘land grabbing,’ or taking over agricultural land used by local communities through exploitative practices and using it for large-scale commercial export farming, by the Oakland Institute, a policy think-tank based in Oakland, California, in a June 2011 report publicized in the Guardian (UK). This historic divestment marks the first full divestment made by Vanderbilt in response to student pressure, a first in university history after its refusal to fully divest itself of funds operating in Apartheid-era South Africa.

Through its investment of tens of millions of dollars, Vanderbilt was one of the major investors in EMVest’s agricultural operations. The Oakland Institute’s report, based on first-hand field research and interviews and documents obtained from Emergent Asset Management itself, showed that villagers at one of the farms directly operated by EMVest did not consent to the land transfer or receive any legal written notice of the transfer from the community to the corporation, as well as that villagers were having more difficulty feeding themselves since the large-scale agriculture venture had taken over their lands and farms. The Mozambican farmers organization UNAC also reported that the people working for EMVest had issues with the payment of their wages. Furthermore, the Oakland Institute reported that contrary to promises of job development, EMVest created very few jobs, which were seasonal and low-paid in nature.

Following these allegations, students at Vanderbilt met with university administrators. Administrators refused to seriously discuss the matter with students, stating that  it was not ‘appropriate’ for students to be concerned with endowment issues. Students then organized demonstrations, including a sit-in at the main administration building on February 8, 2012. The student pressure for reform culminated in a nearly two-month long “tent city” in front of the administration building from March to May 2012.

An anonymous source in the Vanderbilt administration reports that university officials internally discussed the fact that the university has terminated its investment contract with EMVest and withdrawn all invested funds. However, the university has not publicly acknowledged its divestment. “Vanderbilt's divestment from Emergent Asset Management/Emvest is a testimony to the power of informed students who, despite the lies and stall tactics of the administration, have prevailed. Their leadership is an example to all that educational institutions, pension funds, and other investors who see smallholder farmers as dispensable and feel entitled to profit from the theft of developing countries' resources can be stopped by the power of truth,” said Anuradha Mittal, the Executive Director of the Oakland Institute.

Vanderbilt University has a $3.4 billion endowment, the 23rd largest of any university in the United States. Its divestment from EMVest marks the second time that the university has taken action in recent history in response to student concerns about investment ethics. The previous case involved HEI Hotels and Resorts, a private equity company that faced unfair labor practice charges, fines, and legal action for violations of labor law; Matthew Wright, the outgoing investment officer at Vanderbilt, made a written statement in January 2012, after students pressed administrators over the issue, that the university had no plans to reinvest in HEI.

“We are glad that Vanderbilt has done the right thing in this case and we hope that Vanderbilt will include students and other community stakeholders in further considerations of the ethical investment of our university’s endowment,” said senior Ben Wibking.

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The Vanderbilt Responsible Endowment Campaign was started in February 2012 in order to end investments in ‘land grabs’ and bring Vanderbilt University’s investments in line with its stated values of honesty, accountability, and caring. Vanderbilt Students of Nonviolence, founded in 2007, is dedicated to social justice through raising consciousness, organizing our community, and developing a sustained activist infrastructure capable of responding to injustice on Vanderbilt’s campus and in the greater Nashville community.

The Responsible Endowments Coalition works to build and unify the college and university-based responsible investment movement, both by educating and empowering a diverse network of individuals to act on their campuses, and by fostering a national network for collective action. www.endowmentethics.org

Contact:

Zach Blume, Student Organizer, Vanderbilt Responsible Endowment Campaign
zach.blume@vanderbilt.edu / (401) 714-3118

Rose Espinola, National Organizer, Responsible Endowments Coalition
rose@endowmentethics.org / (347) 864-7633

For questions regarding the Oakland Institute’s research:

Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director, The Oakland Institute
amittal@oaklandinstitute.org / (510) 469-5228

The Oakland Institute is an independent policy think tank, bringing fresh ideas and bold action to the most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues of our time. www.oaklandinstitute.org

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