Geographers’ Pension Funds, Land Grabs, and Deforestation: TIAA’s investments and financialization of agribusiness in Brazil and beyond

Type: Panel
Sponsor Groups: Geographies of Food and Agriculture Specialty Group, Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group, Economic Geography Specialty Group
Poster #:
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM (MDT)
Room: Bayside B, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Organizers: Gustavo Oliveira, Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau, Jeff Conant
Chairs: Gustavo Oliveira


Questions surrounding land – who controls it, what is it used for, and what it can tell us about our world – are core issues for geographers. However, many geographers also have their retirement savings invested with the large financial services organization TIAA (formerly TIAA—CREF, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association—College Retirement Equities Fund), a Fortune 100 financial company that describes itself as "the largest manager of worldwide farmland assets." The firm is a global leader in the surging interest in acquiring farmland that has occurred since the 2008 financial crisis. With global demands for food expected to rise in the future, investors are increasingly seeing global farmland as a valuable and potentially scarce asset. Currently, TIAA owns over 1.5 million acres on four continents worth over $8 billion, including major assets in the United States, Australia, Chile, and Brazil. Separate from its farmland holdings, TIAA also has investments in palm oil companies, part of a booming industry that has been connected to deforestation of the rainforest and human rights abuses.

TIAA prides itself in being a responsible investor and played a leading role in developing the Principles for Responsible Investment in Farmland. These TIAA sponsored principles remain controversial among geographers and civil society organizations participating in the UN Committee on World Food Security, which developed its own more broadly recognized guidelines on land tenure (Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos et al. 2015; Oliveira and Hecht 2016). Additionally, on-the-ground research has uncovered widespread land grabbing and environmental destruction in areas of Brazil where TIAA is buying farmland (Pitta and Mendonça 2015; Romero 2015). Additionally, the palm oil industry is connected to deforestation and human rights abuses across the globe (Alonso-Fradejas et al. 2016).

Researchers and social movements have been concerned that corporate investment in farmland undermines land access for and control by marginalized communities (Pitta and Mendonça 2015; Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos et al. 2015; Oliveira and Hecht 2016). Researchers have also alleged that companies such as TIAA circumvented Brazilian laws that prevented large-scale foreign ownership of farmland and that investment by foreign pension funds is contributing to threats to rural communities where land tenure is contentious (Fairbairn 2014, 2015; Pitta and Mendonça 2015). In the United States, family farm advocates are concerned that the growing scale of corporate farms harms rural communities and reduces farming opportunities for young farmers, immigrants, and farmers of color (Williams and Holt-Gimenez 2017). This forum, moderated by geographers interested in the issues, will include representatives of family farm, environmental, and human rights organizations, as well as representatives of organizations involved in responsible investment. In addition to addressing the current situation, panelists will be asked: What can large institutional investors do to support the implementation of human rights norms and best practices in equitable access to land and collective land rights?


Alonso-Fradejas, Alberto, Juan Liu, Tania Salerno, and Yunan Xu. 2016. "Inquiring into the political economy of oil palm as a global flex crop" Journal of Peasant Studies 43(1): 141-165.

Fairbairn, Madeleine. 2015. “Foreignization, financialization, and land grab regulation.” Journal of Agrarian Change. 15(4): 581–591.

Fairbairn, Madeleine. 2014. “‘Like gold with yield’: Evolving intersections between farmland and finance.” Journal of Peasant Studies. 41(5): 777-795.

Oliveira, Gustavo de L. T., and Susanna B. Hecht. 2016. "Sacred Groves, Sacrifice Zones, and Soy Production: Globalization, Intensification and Neo Nature in South America." Journal of Peasant Studies 43(2): 251-285.

Pitta, Fabio T, and Maria Luisa Mendonça. 2015. "A empresa Radar S/A e a especulação com terras no Brasil." (The company Radar S.A. and land speculation in Brazil). Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos, São Paulo (SP): Editora Outras Expressões.

Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos, Grain, Inter Pares, and Solidarity Sweden-Latin America. 2015. "Foreign Pension Funds and Land Grabbing in Brazil." Report. Barcelona: Grain. Available at:

Romero, Simon. 2015. "TIAA-CREF, U.S. Investment Giant, Accused of Land Grabs in Brazil." New York Times, November 16. Available at:

Williams, Justine, and Eric Holt-Gimenez. 2017. Land Justice: Reimagining Land, Food and the Commons. Oakland: Food First.


Type Details Minutes
Introduction Gustavo Oliveira Swarthmore College 5
Panelist Doug Hertzler ActionAid USA 20
Panelist Savonala Horne Land Loss Prevention Project 20
Panelist Maria Mendonça University of Rio de Janeiro 20
Panelist Jeff Conant Friends of the Earth 20
Discussant Gustavo Oliveira Swarthmore College 15

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