In September 2017 a delegation of 30 human rights, land, and food experts traveled around the Matopiba region of Brazil on a fact-finding mission supported by Grassroots International and ally organizations. The delegation found “high levels of agrochemical pollution, diminishing natural resources, land grabbing, as well as significant impact on the health of traditional communities, resulting from increasing soy plantations.”
Industrial agriculture has reared its ugly head in Brazil’s “last agricultural frontier,” formally known as Matopiba. The region is being targeted for strategic agricultural growth, attracting the attention of global investment funds. In particular, the U.S. based non-profit, TIAA, is the leading retirement provider of financial services for the public sector. TIAA, has financed part of this agricultural expansion through convoluted ownership in Brazilian-based firms. TIAA land purchases in Brazil have been linked to one of the most notorious grileiros (land grabbers) in the country, Euclides de Carli. Accusations of Carli’s violent means of obtaining land include the assassination of a farmer and armed robbery.
Brazilian activists warned the World Bank about investing in their land. Afro-Brazilian rights campaigner Maria de Jesus Bringelo shared, “Losing our land is the most violent attack we can face…We lose our history, our lives, our knowledge.” Without access to these resources for income, victims of land grabs are often forced to migrate to the closest urban area to live in poverty, working in low service jobs.
According to data from the National Supply Company (Conab), agricultural activity in the region is expanding rapidly with a growth rate of approximately 25% per year. TIAA has become the largest investor in agriculture in the world, evading Brazilian laws against foreign land ownership to claim the title.
In 2015, an initial report by GRAIN exposed these connections. Despite TIAA’s espoused commitment to transparency, sustainability, and responsibility, the company will not withdraw its controversial investments in Brazilian farmland. Furthermore, it has not taken seriously the stories of violence and coercion by Brazilian residents.
According to the testimonies from the ground, “the presence of large-scale farmers, developers, land grabbers, scouts and militias can be felt throughout the region.” Residents are continually under pressure to move off their land either by violence or intimidation. Even if residents voluntarily sell their land, it will most often be at an unfairly low price.
Rather than engaging the residents through support for their small farms, the government is allowing land to be sold right from under their feet. Communities, farms, and forests are replaced by large agro-industrial farms known to produce soybeans and palm-oil. This type of single-crop, intensive agriculture most often brings destructive practices to previously sustainably-managed areas. Land is cleared for row-cropping, plants are doused with pesticides and herbicides, polluting water resources, and positions of power are given to outsiders. Contrary to TIAA’s principle of “pioneering sustainable farming,” these farms destroy homes, threaten cultures, and poison the environment.
The observers reported community members are already suffering the impact of these plantations. The leader of the Melancias community attested to pollution of the river. Female community members reported falling water tables because of increased water use by industrial farms.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, investment in land has increased significantly. Oxfam reports that land deals by foreign investors in economically developing countries exploded by two-hundred percent from mid-2008-2009. However, these investments are not in large swaths of unoccupied land. In fact, the Matopiba region is home to almost 6 million people, many of whom are indigenous and marginalized groups.
The term Matopiba refers to the poorer northeast region of Brazil, which covers the state of Tocantins and some parts of the states of Maranhão, Piauí and Bahia. According to FUNAI, the government agency for the interest of Indigenous people, there are 35 Indigenous lands in Matopiba, in addition to 36 recognized Quilombolas (Afro-descendant) areas. Over the years these communities have evolved into havens for other marginalized peoples over time.
The Indigenous and Quilombola people rely heavily on the resources of the land for income and food. However, a large portion of that population does not hold formal land titles. The land is both designated and owned by the state, increasing the residents’ vulnerability to land grabs.
Consequently, the mission found that the Brazilian government “remains absent” during this agricultural revolution. Although the government has a direct responsibility to protect Indigenous communities, it has failed to collect their input on these development decisions. The report quotes FIAN International’s Senior Advisor Flavio Valente commenting that: “The Brazilian state has not only been totally absent in protecting traditional communities against the plundering by land grabbers, but also criminal with the promotion of agro-industrial business in the area. This has led to a wave of unacceptable violence against the people with total impunity.”
The fact that a U.S. non-profit is utilizing public money to displace and marginalize communities in Brazil cannot go unnoticed. Grassroots International, along with our partners, is committed to increasing awareness around TIAA’s involvement in these land grabs. To personally join us in asking for transparency, click here. It is paramount that we hold investors accountable to the public to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable communities.
About the Author: Allison Kaika began her internship with Grassroots in September 2017, after spending the summer in DC with the National Family Farm Coalition. She is currently an undergraduate at Boston College majoring in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Food Systems. Upon graduation, Allison hopes to participate in building a more equitable and just food system for all people.