Every day, rural communities of Black and Indigenous peoples across the globe face the attempted theft of their territories by corporate powers. Particularly pervasive is land grabbing in the form of land transfer deals that displace communities and/or cut off their access to vital resources. Many of these deals are ostensibly legal, even if in clear violation of human rights. The money trails surrounding them can be difficult to trace, as they tend to be intentionally opaque. But social movements and their allies are increasingly doing their own research, connecting dots, naming names, strengthening alliances across borders, and waging sophisticated campaigns to bring visibility and justice to these issues.
At a recent workshop sponsored by Grassroots International for the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s 2021 fall retreat, participants heard from two movement leaders from organizations on the cutting edge of global resistance to land grabs. Maria Luisa Mendonça is with Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos/the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights of Brazil and Dãnia Davy is with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund based in the US south. Despite their distinct geographies, Maria and Dãnia are engaged in similar struggles that are linked by a common adversary, as well as being linked through the transnational resistance efforts of which both of their organizations are part.
A scramble for land in Brazil with global implications
Maria and her colleagues had been investigating corporate practices contributing to monocropping in Brazil’s Cerrado, a biodiversity hotspot, when they discovered a new set of actors fueling ecological devastation of the region — pension fund managers. Spurred by the bursting of the housing bubble, financial firms set their sights on farmland as a secure form of investment, fueling a global rush on farmland. Notorious among them is TIAA (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund), a fortune 500 company that is the world’s largest investor in and manager of farmland. Working through a complex corporate structure that includes a variety of subsidiaries, TIAA has managed to sidestep Brazilian law restricting foreign investment to acquire at least 800,000 acres of farmland in Brazil. This land is concentrated in Brazil’s Cerrado region, the world’s most biodiverse savannah.
“When a large corporation like TIAA sets up a fund to buy land around the world, that already creates a process of speculation. This puts local communities and small farmers at risk because there is all this money available to buy up land. This increases the process of land grabbing, which is very common in Brazil.”
Maria underscored a number of reasons why these practices by TIAA are highly problematic. First, they are displacing communities who had been relying on the land but lacking formal titles, particularly Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant Quilombolas, and traditional communities (those who have a distinct way of life and relationship to the land that has existed for generations). Second, they are catapulting land prices into an upward spiral. According to Maria:
“Even before we started to work with the affected communities, we knew that when a large corporation like TIAA sets up a fund to buy land around the world, that already creates a process of speculation. This puts local communities and small farmers at risk because there is all this money available to buy up land. This increases the process of land grabbing, which is very common in Brazil.”
These land grabs, in turn, lead to land clearing to make way for industrial monocultures of crops like sugarcane and soy, with both ecological and social consequences. Maria explained that the Cerrado is “like an upside down forest, because the trees are relatively short, but the roots go on and on and on for many kilometers. So it’s a very important source of groundwater, which is connected to the Amazon region. The destruction of the Cerrado creates severe changes in rain cycles that affect the whole hemisphere, from the Amazon in the north to the southernmost parts of South America.” Maria added that at the same time that fires were recently raging in the Amazon, they were also raging in the Cerrado. “This destruction is a direct result of this process of speculation on farmland, which is funding the expansion of agribusiness.”
“This destruction is a direct result of this process of speculation on farmland, which is funding the expansion of agribusiness…”
Making matters worse, the industrial monocropping practiced on the farmland owned by TIAA poisons the air, water, and soil, on top of being extremely fossil fuel intensive. This is devastating not only to the environment but also to the health and wellbeing of surrounding communities. Rede Social has been documenting their experiences, which include such gut-wrenching accounts as:
- “When the airplane fumigates, the pesticides fall on our crops and burn our corn, beans, rice, everything.”
- “Pesticides dry out everything and stay on the ground, and because everything is dry the fires get worse.”
- “I’ve never heard of cancer here before, but now it’s a huge problem…Little children get very sick, vomiting and crying.”
- “When we go fishing in the river, we see fish floating on the surface, dead. It is because of the poison from the plantations.”
In the face of these violations, the research, advocacy and organizing by Maria and her colleagues are making real waves, from progress in the Brazilian legal system to a mounting public pressure campaign targeting TIAA. In 2020, the federal land agency of the Brazilian government and a Brazilian state court determined that both TIAA and Harvard University’s endowment fund illegally acquired hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in the Cerrado. And through the “Stop Land Grabs” campaign organized by Rede Social and allies like Grassroots International, TIAA is increasingly receiving blowback from its clients, particularly those at the universities targeted by the campaign.
“We need support to organize on the ground, but it’s also very important to build international solidarity. And this is what we have been doing.”
At the center of these resistance efforts are the 31 frontline communities in the Cerrado with whom Rede Social works. At the same time that they are standing up against current land grabs, these communities are also working to secure collective land rights to protect against future violations. Connecting these local efforts in the Cerrado with other efforts around the world, including here in the US where TIAA is based, is key. Maria explained: “We need support to organize on the ground, but it’s also very important to build international solidarity. And this is what we have been doing.” She added that environmental funders have a crucial role to play in these efforts, the impacts of which extend far beyond Brazil. “This is a process that affects all of us because we know that agribusiness is the main cause of climate change and the destruction of biodiversity.”
Similar struggles in the US South expose ongoing theft of Black land
The stories of land theft coming out of Brazil are all too familiar to Black farmers in the US South, and not only in a general sense. TIAA is among the largest investors in land in the US, with the Mississippi Delta Region being among its target areas. According to The Atlantic, TIAA owns more than 130,000 acres along the Mississippi River, much of it once belonging to Black farmers. And in recent years, TIAA “has accumulated a portfolio in the Delta almost equal to the remaining holdings of the African Americans who have lived on and shaped this land for centuries.”
“This is part of a much longer and broader historical trend. Colonialism really did a number on us, right?
These practices by TIAA take place in the context of a much deeper history of Black land loss in the US, a history that is critical to understand in order to effectively fight against present-day land grabbing, according to Dãnia. She explained:
“This is part of a much longer and broader historical trend. Colonialism really did a number on us, right? It’s not a coincidence that Brazil was one of the largest places for the transatlantic slave trade, and the United States definitely had a very active and robust transatlantic slave trade participation. I think that’s kind of where everything started going wrong…”
Dãnia elaborated that under slavery, it was out of the question for those of African descent to own property when they were considered property themselves. This shifted under the reconstruction period following slavery. From reconstruction to 1910, Black farmers acquired 15 million acres of land. This surge in Black land ownership, however, was met with multiple forms of backlash fueled by white supremacy. From 1865 to 1950, approximately 6500 Black people were lynched in the US, with lynch mobs commonplace throughout the South. According to Dãnia, lynching “was part of a racial terrorism tactic to push African Americans off of their land holdings.”
“Black farmers today remain the heirs to this very tragic legacy, because the legal infrastructure has continued to perpetuate their vulnerability.”
Hand-in-hand with (ostensibly) illegal acts such as lynchings were a variety of legal means to dispossess Black people of their land. Dãnia explained:
“There was race-based discrimination in access to credit, which made it more difficult to get the more desirable tracts of land, so African Americans ended up purchasing land that tended to be low-lying, prone to flooding, and less productive from an agricultural standpoint. There were also unscrupulous deed filings, filings that were completely fraudulent and African Americans didn’t have an opportunity to contest those because of the way that they were not fully enfranchised in America. There was also eminent domain…And there were disproportionate levies of property taxes to force foreclosure…”
Through these and other means, Black farmers have been stripped of more than 12 million acres over the past century, much of it in recent decades. Dãnia emphasized that while we think of these events as having happened long ago in US history, “Black farmers today remain the heirs to this very tragic legacy, because the legal infrastructure has continued to perpetuate their vulnerability.”
One concrete example of many shared by Dãnia is the still-ongoing fractionation of land, or “heirs property” arrangements that go into effect when a property owner passes away without an effective estate plan, as is the case for many Black farmers of the South who had been denied access to the legal system. The land then goes to the heirs of the deceased in undivided shares. Land speculators seek out family members willing to sell their shares and then, once becoming a co-owner of the property, use legal loopholes to petition the courts to order the sale of the land — and then buy it.
“The African American community has never had a moment to catch its breath and escape this devastating trend of Black land loss, rooted in colonial, white supremacist legislative agendas that have been kept going by a lot of today’s corporate forces.”
In short, Black farmers face a system that has been designed over time to render them vulnerable, and firms like TIAA are preying upon these vulnerabilities through land grabbing practices. As Dãnia sums it up, “The African American community has never had a moment to catch its breath and escape this devastating trend of Black land loss, rooted in colonial, white supremacist legislative agendas that have been kept going by a lot of today’s corporate forces.”
But Black farmers are resisting, and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is an inspiring example of this. Through its membership in the National Family Farm Coalition, a Grassroots International partner, the Federation is involved in the same Stop Land Grabs campaign as Rede Social. As mentioned above, this campaign has been steadily contributing to a groundswell of pressure against TIAA for its land grabbing practices. The Federation has also been working to address the discriminatory government policies and practices that have facilitated Black land loss. And finally, it is working to build power among Black farmers through an approach to food sovereignty centered around cooperative formation and regional marketing channels. Dãnia stresses that, “It’s really imperative that any of our agricultural, climate, credit, and economic policies have a laser-like focus on racial equity, in particular strengthening the opportunities for Black farmers to have thriving successful businesses as a way to prevent Black land loss.”
“It’s really imperative that any of our agricultural, climate, credit, and economic policies have a laser-like focus on racial equity, in particular strengthening the opportunities for Black farmers to have thriving successful businesses as a way to prevent Black land loss.”
The role of solidarity philanthropy in the global struggle against land grabs
As emphasized in the closing remarks by Trina Jackson of Grassroots International, for progressive funders, approaching these issues through a lens of solidarity philanthropy means going beyond resourcing these vital efforts by movements, as absolutely necessary as that is. It also involves examining where we ourselves may be complicit in trends such as land grabbing, for instance through our links to global financial capital. TIAA is a particularly potent example since members of the nonprofit sector are among its clients. And as we heard from Dãnia, this work also involves a commitment to dismantling structural racism and other oppressive systems that have left Black and Indigenous communities particularly vulnerable to land and resource theft from colonization onward. So we have our work cut out for us, but as underscored by Trina, it is within both our capacities and our duties to see it through: “We hope that this conversation has inspired all of us to take the necessary action, because we do have the power, we have the responsibility, and we have the resources to do that.”
“We hope that this conversation has inspired all of us to take the necessary action, because we do have the power, we have the responsibility, and we have the resources to do that.”