TORONTO, Nov 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A U.S. investment firm that manages U.S., Canadian and Swedish pension funds came under pressure on Tuesday to give locations of its land investments in Brazil as coalition of campaign groups voiced concerns about the impact on local farmers.
TIAA-CREF Global Agriculture LLC, a fund managed by the New York-based Teachers Insurance and Annuity, has invested about $8 billion in international farmland assets since 2007 when world food prices spiked, the company reported in August.
Partnering with local investors, the company’s land investment in Brazil more than doubled between 2012 and the end of 2014 to reach 633,392 acres, up from 257,877 acres two years earlier, documents from TIAA-CREF show.
But TIAA-CREF does not disclose the specific locations of its Brazilian properties, citing commercial confidentiality, despite a publicly stated commitment to transparency and responsible investment.
Buying farmland is often seen by investors as a way to diversify portfolios but some governments and activists are concerned these deals displace local farmers and give crucial food-producing resources to foreign conglomerates for export.
A report from GRAIN, the Brazilian Social Network for Justice, Inter Pares and Solidarity Sweden said some of the land purchased with the help of a local partner had forced farmers off their land although it did not provide figures.
Much of the land was now being used for industrial plantations to grow sugar cane, soy beans and other cash crops, researchers said.
“For years these pension funds have refused to provide specifics of their land deals in Brazil, saying we should trust their due diligence procedures,” said Annelie Andersson from Solidarity Sweden, one of the groups behind the report titled “Foreign Pension Funds and Land Grabbing in Brazil”.
“What we found contravenes the principles of responsible farmland investment that these companies claim to follow,” she said in a statement.
Under Brazilian law, foreigners cannot buy farm land outright but they can hold minority partnerships with Brazilian investors, said Gustavo Oliveira, a researcher on agricultural politics at the University of California, Berkeley.
TIAA-CREF did not respond to repeated calls and emails requesting comment on its Brazilian land deals.
A spokesperson for Cosan, a Brazilian sugar producer which has partnered with TIAA-CREF, said the firm has a 70-year history of managing farmland in South America’s largest country and is “committed to high standards of responsible investing”.
A spokesperson for the British Columbia Asset Management Corporation, a Canadian pension fund for government employees which invests in TIAA-CREF, declined to comment.
The firm “does not discuss” its positions on “capital markets or our investment strategy”, a company official said.
Activists said they fear the deals are part of a broader push by hedge funds, speculators and wealthy governments to buy up land access in developing countries at the expense of small farmers.
Activists said the lack of transparency by TIAA-CREF over land purchases in the northeastern Brazilian states of Maranhao and Piaui was hypocritical because the fund is a signatory to the U.N. Principles for Responsible Investment.
It is also a founding member of the Principles for Responsible Investment in Farmland, established in 2011 to improve accountability, transparency and sustainability in land deals.
Oliveira said the states of Maranhao and Piaui, where land titles are often unclear and corruption at local land registries remains a problem, have seen significant hikes in agribusiness investment.
TIAA-CREF had invested in 159,218 acres in Maranhao, and 7,851 acres in Piaui by the end of 2014, the company reported.
“Violent displacement is widespread in these regions,” Oliveira told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It’s been common for the law of the gun to determine land possession.” (Reporting By Chris Arsenault; Editing by Ros Russell; please add:; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)