LAND: The Bedrock of Civilization, Foundation for Fecundity, Axis of Earth Care, and Basis of Freedom

By Andrew Kang Bartlett
Article originally published on Oct. 26 by Presbyterians for Earth Care

It would be hard to understate the importance of land. How we use it is an existential proposition for all forms of life from the tiny to the immense. And as Malcolm X said, “Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice and equality.”

As the climate crisis intensifies, stopping land grabs and defending the land and territory rights of Indigenous, Black and African-descended peoples, family farmers, and traditional communities are core to protecting peoples and ecosystems.

Pension funds are targeting farmland for speculation and expansion of agribusiness, driving the destruction of ecosystems, displacing Indigenous and traditional communities in the Brazilian Cerrado, and family farmers in the United States – particularly farmers of color. Workers and retirees whose pension funds are invested in farmland speculation also face risks to their future stability from the unsound nature of these investments.

In response to this multi-pronged threat, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and a transnational collaboration of old and new partners joined forces to initiate the Stop Land Grabs campaign. We began slowly in 2016 and have been gaining steam ever since. Our strategy connects Brazilian and U.S.-based organizations to raise public awareness, hold financial actors accountable, stop farmland speculation, strengthen community-to-community solidarity, and defend land, food, water and other resource rights.

Financializing Land

Following the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the U.S. housing market, financial corporations began to speculate on farmland, promoting the expansion of corporate agribusiness in the Brazilian Cerrado. The Brazilian Cerrado is the most biodiverse savanna in the world. Its intricate root system plays a crucial role in Brazil’s water system. Much of the agribusiness expansion is for “plantation agriculture” – the monocrop production of soybeans, primarily exported for feed in factory animal farms in the U.S. and elsewhere.  This rush to buy land has led to illegal land seizures and sales, uprooting and violating the land rights of Indigenous, Quilombola (Afro-Brazilian), and peasant communities with ancestral ties to the land. Tactics of intimidation, violence, and fraud have been used against these communities, resulting in human rights violations and destruction of community food systems, water sources, biodiversity, and livelihoods.

Research by our partner coalition member, Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos / Network for Social Justice & Human Rights, exposed retirement fund manager TIAA (via subsidiary Nuveen) and Harvard University as the main funding sources driving these land grabs.

In the U.S., financial corporations like TIAA have spent billions of dollars to acquire hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland across the country. In Mississippi, these acquisitions have taken place in predominantly Black counties, exacerbating the effects of land theft from Black farmers. This land is rented primarily to large-scale farms for commodity crop production, especially of soybeans for animal feed.

This model of corporate land ownership, contract agriculture, and agribusiness monocultures threatens the rights of farmers and communities, the health of local food systems, and the diversity and resilience of rural economies.

Stop Land Grabs Coalition

Together, our work connects Brazil-based organizing and advocacy for Indigenous, Quilombola, peasant and traditional peoples’ land rights with U.S.-based organizing and advocacy efforts led by farmers, students and faculty, and environmental, social justice and human rights NGOs and activists, connecting as well with Canada and Europe-based organizing. Other coordinating members include: ActionAid USA, Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), FIAN International, Friends of the Earth US, GRAIN, Grassroots International, National Family Farm Coalition, Maryknoll, Presbyterian Hunger Program, Rural Coalition, and Uprooted & Rising.

Our Strategy and Where You Fit In

  • I.   Expose financial actors and hold them accountable for their role in land grabs
  • II.  Secure Land Rights for communities on the frontlines
  • III. Support communities in building alternatives

Some accomplishments of the Stop Land Grabs Campaign/Coalition (SLGC) on these strategies:

  1. Exposing financial actors and holding them accountable for their role in land grabs
  • SLGC has held teach-ins and webinars around the country to raise public awareness about the issue of land grabs and connections to social, economic, and environmental injustices, and we’ve inspired action among hundreds of participants.
  • Advocacy based on our research led to a decline in new farmland investments in Brazil. For example, a new global farmland fund launched by Nuveen/TIAA has raised less than 25% of its $2.4 billion target as of July 2020, and exposing Harvard Endowment Fund for its land grabbing led to it slashing its natural resources portfolio by more than half.
  • Meetings with the World Bank resulted in amendments to their land regularization program in the Brazilian state of Piauí to recognize community land rights and stewardship.
  • Organizing on college campuses has birthed five successful faculty resolutions that call on TIAA to provide transparency and accountability in its land grabbing and deforestation investments. The State University of NY system passed a rash of faculty senate resolutions.

2.  Securing Land Rights by accompanying communities on the frontlines

  • We provided documentation critical to annulling over 124,000 hectares of illegal land titles, demarcating 400 hectares of land belonging to traditional communities, and winning legal recognition of land rights for three Indigenous and traditional communities in the state of Piauí in 2020-21.
  • Working with farmers organizations and educational institutions, we analyzed policy and collected narrative-based data on the impact of corporate land grabs on farmers of color in the Mississippi Delta region.

3.  Supporting communities in building alternatives

  • Collective land rights secured for rural communities in Brazil have made it possible to protect ecological food production, water sources, local knowledge, culture, and biodiversity.
  • Bringing together small farmers in the U.S. to develop alternatives has led to the formation of cooperatives, land trusts, community farms, mentor farms, food processing and distribution hubs, building alternatives to the dominant corporate consolidation and expansion approach.
  • The development of farmer-led policy solutions by community leaders in the Rural Coalition have led to equity provisions in the Farm Bill that ensure assistance and access for young and beginning farmers, BIPOC farmers, and farmworkers transitioning to farming in shaping the future of agriculture.

Help Stop Land Grabs in Three Ways

We need your support to increase our impact and strengthen Stop Land Grabs!

  1. Stay abreast of the campaign with our enewsletter and sign the petition to TIAA.
  2. Check out and share the story map on land grabs developed for campus organizing.
  3. Donate to the Presbyterian Hunger Fund so we can continue this work and to support partners in the Coalition.

Andrew Kang Bartlett has worked with the Presbyterian Church (USA) Hunger Program in Louisville, KY since 2001. The Hunger Program works to create healthy, sustainable and just local food economies globally. Andrew works to equip Presbyterians and others around initiatives, partnerships and campaigns that address the underlying causes of hunger, and he coordinates the U.S. grant-making program. In Louisville, he is active on the leadership teams for the Food in Neighborhoods Community Coalition

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By Jenna Farineau

people with signs in TIAA building in DC

2 Responses to “LAND: The Bedrock of Civilization, Foundation for Fecundity, Axis of Earth Care, and Basis of Freedom”

  1. George Gore

    Helping protect indigenous lands and rainforest is great. Suggesting that voluntary purchases by TIAA to help poor black farmers retire by offering better sale prices is NOT stealing, unlike Putin in Ukraine. Voluntary land sales of old farms or those that did not decimate critical habitat or seize established indigenous lands in any nation could actually help retiring poor and minority farmers. Restricting Brazil from farming any new flat grasslands is a form of reverse discrimination, as it limits a poorer nation and minority people from growing wealth and competing with rich nations. Some critical habitat grasslands should be protected as combined federal/state/local parks (to prevent any one govt. from selling off). Would you prefer TIAA only buy US land from rich white farmers, rather than share the wealth with poor minority farmers in the US and abroad? Due to uncontrollable weather, farming is almost the riskiest business to go into, which is why so many farmers are very religious, and why our govt. finally offered help with insurance to protect farmers and food supplies, as no private insurer could take that great a risk.

    • Andrew Kang Bartlett

      Regarding Brazil, it is the community members in Brazil who have had their land taken from them and they are the ones who have brought this situation to our attention. So, no, it is not reverse racism; it is solidarity. The land TIAA is investing in are primarily being turned into enormous soybean plantations. The livelihoods of many Brazilian farmers have been threatened and industrial farming causes environmental harm on top of the devastating loss of biodiversity in the precious Cerrado.


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