Land Justice, Not Speculation
BY DOUG HERTZLER
Access to land has become the number one issue for aspiring young farmers in the United States, who come from many different backgrounds. Secure relationship to land is a matter of sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples and social justice for local communities, particularly Black and Brown communities that have experienced displacement and land dispossession. During the next 15-20 years approximately 40-70% of US farmland will change hands. Unless something is done, much of this land will end up in the hands of an ever-smaller number of wealthy people, destroying opportunities for rural livelihoods and access to locally produced foods, while deepening environmental and land injustice.
We are witnessing a takeover of farmland by financial speculators that has some unexpected leaders. The largest manager of farmland in the world is the Teacher’s Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), a trillion-dollar for-profit firm managing retirement funds for employees of colleges and universities, as well as a large number of hospitals and non-profits. TIAA owns over 2 million acres of farmland and about 1 million acres of timberland. TIAA’s largest assets in farmland are in the United States, while its most numerous acres of forests are in Brazil, and it also owns land in seven other countries.
TIAA is also the industry leader in publishing documents and brochures to make farmland speculation and unsustainable agribusiness seem respectable. The company has convinced many public pension funds to contribute to its pots of money for buying farmland. Public pension funds that have partnered with TIAA to buy land come from Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom, along with public funds from New Mexico, New York, Texas, Vermont and Washington.
TIAA has focused its most recent US acquisitions in Mississippi Delta, a region with a large rural Black population and a long history of Black farmer displacement. In Brazil it has used shell companies to evade Brazilian limits on foreign land ownership and acquired thousands of acres from land-grabbers who have illegally titled commons lands belonging to peasant communities of Indigenous and Black heritage with a long history and culture of living in the Cerrado forests and savannah. TIAA’s business partners like SLC Agricola are among the major deforesters in the region. Despite a recent “no-deforestation” pledge, forests have continued to burn on TIAA owned lands.
TIAA claims that by acquiring and consolidating large commodity farms it is helping the United Nations reach its Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger. As an anti-hunger organization, we at ActionAid USA know this is a lie. Hunger is not caused by inadequate food production, but by a lack of access to that food, by poverty and the concentration of food production power in fewer hands. TIAA’s large farms undermine rural livelihoods. Smaller, more diverse farms have long been shown to provide more livelihoods and produce more food on less land without creating the kind of climate damage involved in industrial agriculture and food systems.
TIAA’s latest showcase for “sustainable agriculture” is a 12,000 acre farming business in Ohio with which it has had a land leasing agreement for a number of years helping the company grow in size. TIAA’s promotional materials show a warehouse and a fleet of chemical fertilizer trucks and make vague allusions about moving towards sustainability. TIAA’s measures of sustainability include criteria like whether or not a farming business conducts soil testing and owns equipment that can be adjusted for variable spraying levels. Their corn and soybean farms are not required to have cover cropping and leave tilled soil vulnerable to erosion over winter.
TIAA’s leadership in global land speculation is encouraging a host of similar investors who seek pieces of the farmland pie, many using similar rhetoric about feeding people and being sustainable. Some are wealthy individuals, like Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, but many public pension funds which should be responsible to citizens are continuing to join the wave.
One of the more recent entrants into TIAA’s land funds is the Vermont Pension and Investment Commission which in 2019 committed 100 million dollars, expected to be spread across acquisitions in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile, Poland and Romania. This kind of speculation in land has formed a new wave of colonialism which makes land justice for Indigenous Peoples, Black farmers, and local communities less attainable, and makes land access for new farmers everywhere more difficult.
Representatives of NOFA, Rural Vermont and the National Family Farm Coalition joined ActionAid, Friends of the Earth, and the Network of Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil in meeting with the Vermont State Treasurer and the Pension Commission on two occasions to express our alarm about these investments. The Commission said it was too late to withdraw their commitment but that they would relay our concerns to TIAA. Then they stopped returning our messages. We have not given up; instead, we have turned to organizing a bigger movement.
With the exception of those who have bought into the “get big or get out” farmland contest, many farmers throughout the US understand that the relationship to land, to food, and the freedom to make their own decisions about their work, are parts of the identity of individuals, families and communities engaged in farming. Many understand why land justice is crucial to Indigenous Peoples and to communities that have been displaced from the land.
When we engage in conversation with university and non-profit employees who are clients of TIAA, and with the public employees served by pension funds, they also readily understand why this kind of speculation in farmland is bad for the future and morally bankrupt. Such conversations have led to more than a dozen resolutions passed against TIAA’s land grabbing and climate harming investments. However, many workers across the country remain unaware of how their money is being used. Many financial managers are in denial about the unsustainability of this land grabbing and the future conflicts they are setting up.
People who care about farming need to spread the word about this unfolding crisis and pressure companies like TIAA to change their investments. We also need the state and federal governments to regulate the large-scale acquisition of farmland and make sure that young farmers have secure access to land and that there is land justice for Indigenous peoples and displaced communities.
There are multiple steps that organizations and individuals can take:
Sign and circulate the petition calling for TIAA to divest from land grabs and climate-harming investments: stoplandgrabs.org/en-us/take-action
Email the Stop Land Grabs Campaign at email@example.com to organize a local petition delivery.
Research the farmland acquisition activity of university endowments and retirement funds, and public pension funds in your region and share the information.
Write letters and pass resolutions demanding land and climate justice (see action link above)
Ask your state legislators and Congresspersons to take steps to regulate the large-scale accumulation of farmland by investors.
Doug Hertzler is a Senior Policy Analyst at ActionAid USA, an organization that works to support climate justice and human rights, including the right to food. He was raised on a family farm in central Pennsylvania that has transitioned to organic agriculture. His retirement funds are managed by TIAA and he is tired of their land-grabbing deceptions.