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November 03, 2011

Land grabs contradict Vanderbilt University's values


To the editor:

Vanderbilt has admitted to being financially and personally involved with a company, Emergent Asset Management (EAM), which is hiding behind a fa├žade of “sustainable agriculture.” In reality, what they are doing is exploiting some of the world’s poorest people and their last possessions — their only remaining land.

We know through the Oakland Institute’s on-the-ground research and EAM’s own corporate statements that they are buying up massive acreages of land in Southern African countries and converting it into industrial agriculture operations by coercing communities with force and threats, exploiting workers by not paying them and planning on driving continued speculation. The Vanderbilt Office of Investments, which manages our collective endowment fund, has rejected these claims but has yet to publicly respond.

When I talk to people, sometimes the reaction is that this is far-fetched. This could never happen, right? The fact is, I myself have been to Guatemala while doing linguistics research, a place where U.S.-backed corporations have had an undisputed, well-documented history of doing exactly this in the past, similarly under the guise of “creating jobs in underdeveloped areas” — and then this escalated in the wholesale genocide of the peasants who refused to remain silent.

Disturbingly, EAM’s subsidiaries are based in South Africa, the former home of apartheid. Mozambique, one EAM’s main agro-sites, is the home of a large peasant group UNAC that recently produced a report supporting the fact that these land grabs are not isolated occurrences. These aren’t far-fetched tales, but the facts of our reality.

I see two major problems here. The first is the very real possibility that we, Vanderbilt, are profiting from people in Africa losing their land and food in ways that violate any sensible notion of human rights. I love Vanderbilt, and I know it does good in the world here, but I don’t want our goodwill to be predicated upon human rights abuses in other countries.

The second problem is that, if Vanderbilt has some evidence that contradicts the documentation I’ve seen, why haven’t I seen that? Why isn’t it public? You and I have as great a claim to how this money is used as anyone else. It’s unacceptable that no one has any method of fact checking or holding our administration accountable for its actions. Remember the Vanderbilt Community Creed? Three of those principles were Caring, Honesty, and Accountability. I want our endowment to follow this creed as much as we ourselves are held to it.

And with these principles and facts in mind, I am publically reiterating the coalition Vanderbilt Campaign for Fair Food’s requests, that Vanderbilt University immediately divest from EAM, write a public letter apologizing to the individuals and communities affected and implement serious endowment transparency and public ethical measures.

We are students, faculty and others allied against these ongoing unsustainable practices. In that spirit, I’d like to invite you (faculty too!) to attend a short organizing session and teach-in regarding these land grabs and what you can do to change policy held by the coalition; it will be in Buttrick 101 at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 9. Mark your calendars, and I’ll see you there!

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Zach Blume
College of Arts and Science
Class of 2014
Member of Vanderbilt Campaign for Fair Food

Nashville, Tennessee USA

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