As one of the nation's most prestigious academic institutions, Harvard University carefully invests its endowment in order to maintain its funds. One of the university’s most lucrative investments has been in natural resources, particularly timber companies in Argentina. Since 2007 Harvard has owned the Empresas Verdes Argentinas Sociedad Anonima (EVASA) and Las Misiones companies, both of which are large plantations located in the Iberá wetlands of the Corrientes province. Their investments include 217,166 acres of land worth $55.2 million. Over the past seven years, these companies have expanded the size of their plantations, subsequently threatening the nearby wetlands.
A report released by the Oakland Institute and the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition shows that Harvard’s investments have damaged the ecosystem and endangered local farmers.
According to the report, the lumber industry has had various negative environmental impacts in this region, most noticeably a loss of biodiversity. Ecologist Juan Jose Neiff states, “The timber plantations generally reduce fauna complexity and cause species segregation, leading to an associated loss of biodiversity and scenic value.” Additionally, residents have noted changes in their local environment, such as the reduction in diversity of bird species and an increasing amount of small forest fires. Although the providence legally requires buffer zones between timber plantations and wetlands, these companies have allowed their plantations to grow beyond these borders. This reduces the water level of wetlands, which in turn affects its biodiversity. Additionally, plantations can deplete the soil beneath them, altering the composition and creating infertile soil in the future.
These lumber plantations not only have adverse effects on the environment, but also on their surrounding social communities. Roads that were once only occasionally travelled now see heavy truck traffic, creating noise and dust pollution. After local protests in the town of Chavarría, EVASA made small efforts, such as watering the road to reduce dust, to appease the community members. Although the province has stepped in to create a new road, these companies often disregard local laws. These areas, which rely largely on agriculture to make a living, have seen an exodus of younger generations who travel to the city to find work. Primary school attendance has dropped, and many sell their land to the lumber industry to earn money. The residents complain that the nearby industry destroys, rather than creates, employment opportunities. Those who wish to work for the companies are limited to seasonal employment that only is available every six to eight years. Those who have find work claim that the conditions were unsafe and dormitory housing provided through the companies was unsanitary.
Lumber company laborers rarely openly denounce these conditions for fear of being terminated. Although workers are exposed to unsafe chemicals and must live in less-than-adequate housing, if they miss a day of work for any reason at all, they lose their job. Those living nearby have protested the industry’s irresponsible practices but most efforts to solve the issues have been temporary. The lumber companies briefly follow regulations when chastised or when anticipating inspections, but continue to disregard the law in order to grow their plantations.
The report suggests that Harvard take responsibility for its investments and improve the social, economic, and environmental impact that these companies have on their communities. It recommends that the university take action in regard to the following recommendations:
regulating the size and location of plantations
building a road in Chavarría to facilitate transport
expanding fire protection services
hold public meetings to encourage communication between community members and NGOs
establish wage and benefit policy for subcontracted laborers.
Harvard University has always had a reputation as one of the leading universities in the world. As a result, it must be careful to make responsible investments. Taking the previous issues into account, this institution must take responsibility for the negative impact that its lumber companies have had in Corrientes. Harvard should take action to put an end to some of the reckless practices of the Argentine lumber industry in order to serve as an example of socially responsible investment and business practices.