Cerrado: US investment spurs land theft and deforestation in Brazil

by Alicia Prager and Flávia Milhorance | 29 Mar 2018
  • In Brazil, large swathes of land are owned by the state, but can be legally claimed by small-scale farmers if they cultivate crops and homestead on it, though they may lack legal title. In the 1990s, 240 small-scale farm families laid claim to lands in Cotegipe municipality, Bahia state.
  • Over time, local elites allegedly drove them off those lands, using intimidation and violence, and then laid claim to 140,000 hectares (540 square miles) — an area bigger than Los Angeles. That land was sold and resold. Today, it is occupied by the Campo Largo farm, a minimally productive operation owned by Caracol Agropecuária LTDA.
  • The capital that Caracol used to buy that land has now been traced to its foreign partners. Caracol is apparently owned by the endowment fund of Harvard University, via its Harvard Management Company: HMC, which oversees more than 12,000 funds, is believed to own Caracol through two subsidiaries: Guara LLC and Bromelia LLC.
  • Globally, HMC, TIAA-CREF and other financial firms began investing heavily in farmland in developing nations after 2007/08. Often, say analysts, these lands were originally obtained via land theft. In Cotegipe, 22 families are still fighting to reclaim the small farms they say were stolen from them — a Mongabay exclusive.
Twenty years ago, these men lost the basis for their livelihoods. Possessing little money, they relied on the land on which they farmed to provide them with food. Today, they only get by with the support of state assistance. Photo by Alicia Prager

This is the sixth of six stories in a series by journalists Alicia Prager and Flávia Milhorance who travelled to the Cerrado in February for Mongabay to assess the impacts of agribusiness on the region’s environment and people.

Edjarsson Cardoso places folders full of documents — some more than 20 years old — on the pool table of a dimly lit bar in the rural Brazilian town of Riachão das Neves. With him stand seven other men who wish to prove their right to use farmland, a place they called home, stolen from them all those years ago.

One-by-one, all of them were driven off the land where they once grew their food. After changing ownership for decades, today that property belongs to a Brazilian subsidiary of Harvard University’s endowment fund.

It appears that Harvard’s US$37.1 billion endowment fund and its manager Harvard Management Company (HMC) has invested in the Brazilian agribusiness frontier — investments steeped in past accusations of forged land titles, illegal deforestation and violent expulsion of small-scale farmers from their homes.

This is not an isolated case of financial investments fuelling land grabbing. During the global financial crisis of 2007/08, international investment firms, when faced with turbulent financial markets, increasingly turned toward rural farmland speculation in developing nations, regarding it as a relatively safe asset.

This investigation reveals one example, showing how international financial capital is used to adversely impact the people and forests of Brazil. At the heart of this particular dispute is a land parcel covering 140,000 hectares (540 square miles) — an area bigger than Los Angeles — that was acquired through allegedly illegal, and sometimes violent, means, according to a Bahia state report, to which we gained access.

Gradually, small farmers were driven off the land they occupied via threats of violence and intimidation. Since then, they’ve taken legal action, seeking the return of their property. Along the way, the farmers have collected and safeguarded every legal document, in the hope that these papers would one day establish the validity of their claims. Photo by Alicia Prager

Threats lead to expropriation

A small part of this 140,000 hectare parcel was lost by the men standing around the pool table — land which they are trying to regain, located on the left bank of the Rio Grande in the municipality of Cotegipe, Western Bahia, Brazil. Today, the 140,000-hectare area (where the Cerrado and Caatinga biomes meet), is occupied by the Campo Largo farm, a minimally productive operation that grows some eucalyptus trees and grazes cattle. But in the early 1990s, that land was held by the Brazilian government (terras devolutas), and was being settled legally by 240 small-scale farm families.

Those families took out loans to build their homes on the land, and started growing corn, beans, rice and manioc for their own consumption. They also began paying the taxes due on the land, and awaited legal regularization and recognition by the government. They lacked ownership titles, a common situation in rural Brazil where the government holds onto large land blocs until small-scale farmers, known as “posseiros,” lay claim to it by putting it into cultivation. Previously, most of the families had worked for large-scale farms. But they were on track to earning economic independence for themselves and their families.

Instead they faced threats and violence — intimidation aimed at making them abandon their land claims.

“Armed people started arriving there, putting [up] fences, burning our crops, destroying our houses,” remembers Edjarsson Cardoso, leader of an association representing 22 families, each claiming 50 hectares (123.5 acres). Cardoso fled his farm back in the 1990s and settled in Riachão das Neves, a neighboring rural town, where he now lives frugally on a state pension.

Many others, fearing violence, likewise gave up their land. But 22 families kept fighting to reclaim their collectively owned total of 1,100 hectares (2,718 acres), a small portion of the Campo Largo farm’s vast holdings.

We don’t ask much. We just want to put an end to the gunslingers, and have the right to come and go. I myself was threatened by armed men back then,” remembers Antônio Augusto França. “We have been suffering the consequences [of the land thieves] for 24 years. We are all poor, old, tired, and sick today.“

From left to right, Antônio Augusto Fabrício França, Juseli josé do Rego, Celio Rodrigues, Silva, Edjarsson Magalhães Cardoso, Graciano da Silva, Nelson Carvalho dos Santos, and Pedro dos Santos Serpa. They are united in keeping alive a fight to get their lands back. While many other families have left the area, these men refuse to give up. Photo by Alicia Prager

Forged titles and illegal deforestation

After receiving reports of escalating violence, the state of Bahia decided to intervene. It mapped out the contested properties and documented the alleged land conflicts. In 2014, the government’s agrarian department (CDA) issued a Rural Discriminatory Action. The state investigation concluded that the farmland was indeed taken from the state via “absurd notary irregularities,” and via the expulsion by physical violence of rural workers, along with “worrying environmental distress.” The CDA also confirmed one death due to the conflict, but has not revealed further details of that fatal incident.

“This constitutes — in territorial extension — the biggest [discriminatory action] ever done in [Bahia] state,” wrote Bahia prosecutor Estácio Marques Dourado in a case summary. Dourado forwarded the finding to the State Prosecutor’s Office (PGE), asking it to cancel the “forged, irregular and, therefore, illegitimate” private titles.

However, the case never went to court.

“I can say there has been pressure from agribusiness politicians for the [legal] process to stop,” says Mauricio Correa, a member of the Association of Lawyers of Rural Workers in the State of Bahia. Now, the lawyers association plans to pressure PGE to reopen the case.

Mongabay contacted CDA, but Marques Dourado no longer holds a position there, and we were unable to locate him. PGE responded that the case is indeed pending. To date, the institution has sought a conflict mediation.

“This issue transcends a land litigation, and involves the region’s main economic activity, which creates jobs, and [the lawsuit’s] consequences would have serious social side effects,” said the chief prosecutor of the PGE administrative office, Bárbara Camardelli Loi, in a statement.

The prosecutor adds that the property’s current owner, Caracol Agropecuária LTDA, has not managed to verify its ownership through documents and, “even less, [explain how] it managed to form the latifundio [large property] registered in the name of the company today.” That, she says, is the reason that “the attempt [at mediation] did not succeed.” In February 2018, Camardelli Loi recommended the opening of a lawsuit against Caracol, which should happen soon, according to PGE. If Caracol loses the case the 140,000-hectare Campo Largo farm could see its reintegration as land belonging to Bahia state.

Warning sign, reading: “Access prohibited“ on the the Campo Largo farm claimed today by Caracol Agropecuária LTDA — land originally settled by small-scale farmers. Photo by anonymous

International ownership

The lands allegedly seized by violence and intimidation have been passed from one owner to another, first from a Bahia state deputy named Márcio Cardoso, then to a large-scale farmer, José Oduvaldo Oliveira Souza, and ultimately, to Caracol Agropecuária LTDA, a company from southern Brazil. This last transfer of ownership occurred on portions of the disputed farmland between 2008 and 2012.

The capital that Caracol used to buy the land has been traced to its foreign partners by GRAIN, an NGO that supports small-scale farmers and social movements. Caracol Agropecuária LTDA is apparently owned by the endowment fund of Harvard University, though not directly. A university subsidiary, the Harvard Management Company (HMC) manages the US$ 37.1 billion Harvard endowment. HMC, which oversees approximately 12,000 funds, is believed to own Caracol through two subsidiaries: Guara LLC and Bromelia LLC, according to leaked tax documents.

Both Guara LLC and Bromelia LLC have active registration on the Secretariat of Federal Revenue of Brazil, but work in the U.S., at the same address as the HMC: 600 Atlantic Avenue, Boston. We were unable to locate either Guara and Bromelia online, not even through their official Brazilian registration. Mongabay contacted HMC three times, and asked specifically about its subsidiaries. The institution replied that it does not comment on specific investments. However, HMC did send us a link to its official policy pertaining to natural resource investments, which emphasizes the fund’s goal of improving the properties it acquires — both environmentally and socially.

Devlin Kuyek, a researcher with GRAIN, is critical of the implementation of these policies. “Many companies deliberately set up structures that make it hard to track them,” says Kuyek. Complex ownership networks are often developed as a means of circumventing Brazilian legislation regulating foreign investments, he adds.

In 2010, in an effort to restrain an escalation in the purchases of rural properties by foreigners, the Brazilian government tightened restrictions on international land acquisitions. Today, the law says that several distinct foreign investors can own no more than 25 percent of the land within any particular municipality, while investors of the same nationality can own a maximum of 10 percent of a municipality’s lands. Caracol’s farmland purchases account for well above those limits, at 35 percent of the Cotegipe municipality’s area.

In addition, under Brazilian law, “Caracol and the Harvard fund have the obligation to make sure that land they acquire is free of conflict. If they don’t do that, it is their fault,” Kuyek says.

In fact, Caracol was informed early on regarding the problematic ownership of the land they were seeking to acquire, during the real estate purchase process, says Martin Mayr, from 10envolvimento, an NGO with knowledge of the case. Mayr explains that the previous property owner was known to have offered the small-scale farmers financial or material remuneration in order to vacate the land before selling it to Caracol.

“Those who didn’t agree became targets of threats and violence through gunslingers,” Mayr says. None of the 240 families is living on the disputed land today.

In addition to the allegations surrounding the land purchase, Caracol has been fined by IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, R$123,000 (US$ 37,000) for illegal deforestation occurring in 2013.

A view of the Brazilian Cerrado, a vast savannah whose native vegetation is fast being converted by industrial agribusiness into croplands and pastures. Brazil suffers from a large-scale plague of land theft, driven by large infusions of foreign investment capital, a situation of which many U.S. small- and large-scale investors are likely unaware. Photo by Alicia Prager.

Part of a global trend

The 240 families who originally laid claim to the land now occupied by the Campo Largo farm lost their land years ago. Today, they and other small-scale farmers and traditional people like them, face a different sort of battleground — an unlevel playing field tipped even more steeply against them due to the investment of large amounts of foreign capital.

“Land grabbing is an historical process, but the dynamics of that process has changed. Today there are international investment structures behind these [property] violations. This is something very new,” says Fábio Pitta, from Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos  , an NGO.

The acquisition by international investors of farmland in the developing world intensified into a major trend after the global financial crisis in 2007-08, as noted by The World Bank. According to Land Matrix, an independent land monitoring initiative, 26.7 million hectares (103,000 square miles) of developing world farmland was transferred to foreign investors between 2000 and 2016.

Looking for stable returns, financial corporations found less risk, and high yields, with agricultural land purchases made in developing countries. They discovered that once land was deforested and converted into agribusiness-scale crop production, or received infrastructure improvements, the value of the property in question tended to rise. This value also can fluctuate according to how much private or public investment flows into a region. In short, after 2007-08, farmland itself became an asset, with the income earned from harvested crops serving as a secondary stream of return.

Despite its restrictions, Brazil is among five nations in the world today seeing the highest rate of foreign purchases of farmland. The Latin American nation is popular among investors because its lands are accessible, and because Brazil is seen as a safer investment due to its political stability as compared to many other countries, Kuyek explains. “But there are many land conflicts and human rights violations connected to [these farmland investments],” he adds.

According to testimony given to a Brazilian NGO, armed men turned up in 2010 and destroyed the homes of small-scale farmers in Cotegipe municipality, in a successful effort to drive them off the land once and for all. A ruined home is seen here. Photo by anonymous

Cerrado under pressure

The states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia — collectively known as Matopiba, at the heart of the Cerrado, the vast savannah biome — are the latest frontier of industrial agribusiness expansion in Brazil.

As such, Matopiba is now a prime target for land speculation, according to a report by Rede Social. The four states are highly attractive to foreign investors, as land can be acquired cheaply, and property values are projected to rise quickly as large-scale soy, corn and cotton growers move in, with transnational commodities companies like Cargill and Bunge eager to buy up crops for export.

However, according to the Rede Social report, the increased purchase of properties by international investors is “outsourced,” and as a result, indirectly linked to the expropriation of land from small-scale farmers, traditional communities and indigenous groups, who often have lived on their properties for decades, or in some cases centuries, but who do not possess legal land titles.

In such cases, local elites often drive small landholders or squatters off the land, then sell it to international investors, who turn the property over to large-scale agribusiness. This appears to be the sequence of events that occurred to establish the 140,000-hectare Campo Largo farm.

This often illegal process has adverse outcomes for conservation, as it accelerates the pace of deforestation, and the conversion of native vegetation into farmland and cattle ranches in the Cerrado — a Brazilian biome that accounts for 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, and whose rivers and aquifers help supply much of Brazil and Latin America with water.

Harvard’s endowment fund isn’t the only U.S. financial actor active in Brazil’s agricultural sector. Another is TIAA-CREF, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund. It is one of the largest U.S. investment firms, and it manages U.S., Canadian and Swedish pension funds, among others. TIAA-CREF came under pressure in 2015 for not disclosing the location of its investments in Brazil; there were indications of human rights violations associated with those investments. TIAA-CREF was contacted by Mongabay, which aknowledged our request, but had no further comment.

Early in the morning, the men gathered in a little bar, next to the bus station in Riachão das Neves. They showed us the documents they’ve collected through the years during their long legal fight. Despite an official Bahia state investigation finding in their favor, the men and their families have not yet won their battle. Photo by Alicia Prager

Not much is happening on the land today

Of its 140,000 hectares (540 square miles), the Campo Largo farm today uses less than 300 hectares (1.15 square miles) to produce corn, beans, soybean and eucalyptus trees, according to a 2014 state report. Another 14,000 hectares (54 square miles) was used as pasture for 3,200 cows. Year-after-year, the farm has apparently become less productive.

Rede Social’s Daniela Stefano went to Cotegipe in March 2017 and was able to get onto the Campo Largo farm. She confirms that not much seems to be happening there, with cattle grazing and eucalyptus growing the only significant activities. Also, the farm’s employees decreased from 84 a few years ago to 50 today. Large parts of the property have been taken over by native vegetation, she says; she didn’t spot any armed men guarding the farm.

Yet, the situation remains tense as ever. Stefano attended a meeting between the community and Granflor, the firm managing the farm for Caracol. “When the company representative was asked whether Caracol knew that there was a conflict [with the small-scale farmers] before buying it, he left the room,” she says. Neither Caracol nor Granflor responded to our requests for comment before publication.

According to the Bahia state government investigation, the men gathered around the Riachão das Neves pool table had their livelihoods and properties taken from them via an illegal land acquisition, or “grilagem,” as it is called in Portuguese. “The land is now there, unproductive, and we can’t do anything about it,” says Pedro dos Santos Serpa. “The only thing I’m eager to hear is: look, take it, it’s your land, you can produce there.”

Edjarsson Cardoso picks up one of the folders on the pool table and opens it. Every document has been carefully sorted chronologically and stored in a plastic case. He flicks through the folder one last time before he says goodbye to us and leaves the bar. Cardoso is holding on to every relevant piece of paper firmly, in the forlorn hope that these documents will one day be legally recognized, justifying at last a return to the place he calls home.

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Author: Alicia Prager and Flávia Milhorance
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