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A Retirement Built Upon Exploitation

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Small farm house in cerrado region, Chapada da Piteira, Brazilian Highlands, Goias, Brazil
Small farm house in cerrado region, Chapada da Piteira, Brazilian Highlands, Goias, Brazil

Above: People I do not want to oppress in order to retire comfortably

Like a lot of academics, I have TIAA-CREF managing my retirement funds. There’s no real decision made there–I may have other options but I don’t spend much time thinking about this. Maybe when I actually pay off my student loans I can think seriously about retirement, a mere theoretical construct since I can’t imagine ever having enough money saved to do so. But still, TIAA-CREF, other than keeping both the Postal Service and American paper industry alive through its endless thick mailings, has a reputation of social responsibility. So you can imagine, as a labor and environmental history and writer on global exploitation, how excited I was to hear that my retirement is being built on stealing land from farmers and cutting down forests.

But documents show that TIAA-CREF’s forays into the Brazilian agricultural frontier may have gone in another direction.

The American financial giant and its Brazilian partners have plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into farmland deals in the cerrado, a huge region on the edge of the Amazon rain forest where wooded savannas are being razed to make way for agricultural expansion, fueling environmental concerns.

In a labyrinthine endeavor, the American financial group and its partners amassed vast new holdings of farmland despite a move by Brazil’s government in 2010 to effectively ban such large-scale deals by foreigners.

While the measure thwarted the ambitions of other foreign investors, TIAA-CREF pressed ahead in a part of Brazil rife with land conflicts, exposing the company and its partners to claims that they acquired farms from a shadowy land speculator accused of employing gunmen to snatch land from poor farmers by force.

The documents offer a glimpse into how one of America’s largest financial groups took part in what some in the developing world condemn as land grabs. Responding in 2010 to surging international interest in the country’s land, Brazil’s attorney general significantly limited foreigners from carrying out large-scale farmland acquisitions.

Investors sometimes view such deals as a way to diversify their portfolios. But some government officials and activists contend that they uproot poor farmers, transfer the control of vital food-producing resources to a global elite and destroy farming traditions in exchange for industrial-scale plantations producing food for export.

“I had heard of foreign funds trying to get around Brazilian legislation, but something on this scale is astonishing,” said Gerson Teixeira, the president of the Brazilian Association for Agrarian Reform and an adviser to members of Congress, referring to the documents about TIAA-CREF’s farmland deals in Brazil.

Some of the findings are in a new report by researchers from Brazil’s Social Network for Justice and Human Rights, and Grain, an organization based in Spain that tracks global land purchases.

TIAA-CREF’s disclosures show that its farmland holdings in Brazil climbed to 633,391 acres at the start of 2015, up from 257,877 acres in 2012, around the time when it began ramping up deals through a venture formed with Cosan, a Brazilian sugar and biofuels giant.

Grain’s report tracks how TIAA-CREF and Cosan appear to have acquired several farms controlled by Euclides de Carli, a shadowy business figure described by Brazilian legislators, scholars and uprooted farmers as one of the most powerful “grileiros,” or land grabbers, in the states of Maranhão and Piauí.

Grileiros, a term that roughly translates as “cricketeers,” are known for their bureaucratic sleight-of-hand, fabricating land titles by placing them in insect-filled bins to make them seem antique. Some grileiros also force people off their land in a variety of ways, including intimidating land-rights activists and even killing poor farmers.

In Mr. de Carli’s case, Brazilian scholars have described how he pushed dozens of families off their farms, using tactics like destroying crops and burning down the home of a community leader. A prominent legislator in Maranhão has also accused Mr. de Carli of orchestrating the killing of a rural laborer over a land dispute.

This is pretty disturbing. I confess I’m not entirely sure what to do here. But certainly I think we should figure out ways to pressure TIAA-CREF to have more transparency to its members on where the money is going. I know I don’t want my retirement built on oppression.

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