John Vidal and Claire Provost write for the Guardian:
Harvard and other major American universities are working through British hedge fundsand European financial speculators to buy or lease vast areas of African farmland in deals, some of which may force many thousands of people off their land, according to a new study.
Researchers say foreign investors are profiting from "land grabs" that often fail to deliver the promised benefits of jobs and economic development, and can lead to environmental and social problems in the poorest countries in the world.
The new report on land acquisitions in seven African countries suggests that Harvard, Vanderbilt and many other US colleges with large endowment funds have invested heavily in African land in the past few years. Much of the money is said to be channelled through London-based Emergent asset management, which runs one of Africa's largest land acquisition funds, run by former JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs currency dealers.
Researchers at the California-based Oakland Institute think that Emergent's clients in the US may have invested up to $500m in some of the most fertile land in the expectation of making 25% returns.
Emergent said the deals were handled responsibly. "Yes, university endowment funds and pension funds are long-term investors," a spokesman said. "We are investing in African agriculture and setting up businesses and employing people. We are doing it in a responsible way … The amounts are large. They can be hundreds of millions of dollars. This is not landgrabbing. We want to make the land more valuable. Being big makes an impact, economies of scale can be more productive."
Chinese and Middle Eastern firms have previously been identified as "grabbing" large tracts of land in developing countries to grow cheap food for home populations, but western funds are behind many of the biggest deals, says the Oakland institute, an advocacy research group.
The company that manages Harvard's investment funds declined to comment. "It is Harvard management company policy not to discuss investments or investment strategy and therefore I cannot confirm the report," said a spokesman. Vanderbilt also declined to comment.