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Activists Protest Harvard’s Land Investments, Allston Expansion at Science Center Plaza

Organizers delivered a petition to Massachusetts Hall, pictured above, where University President Lawrence S. Bacow works.
Organizers delivered a petition to Massachusetts Hall, pictured above, where University President Lawrence S. Bacow works. By Aiyana G. White
By Dekyi T. Tsotsong and Eric Yan, Crimson Staff Writers

Stop Harvard Land Grabs and the Housing Opportunities Program held a rally in Harvard’s Science Center Plaza Friday to protest the University’s previous farmland investments in Brazil and its ongoing expansion in Allston.

Roughly 40 protesters gathered in Science Center Plaza before marching to Massachusetts Hall in Harvard Yard — the location of University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s office. Protestors repeatedly knocked on the building's front door in an attempt to deliver a petition with their demands to Bacow before placing the document at the door.

Protesters chanted phrases like “Boston to Brazil, Harvard’s land investments kill!”

Stop Harvard Land Grabs is a student and alumni-led organization that calls on the University to implement reparations and stop global farmland investments they allege harm people and the environment. The Housing Opportunities Program is an undergraduate group focused on fighting homelessness in the Greater Boston area.

The petition — which was signed by 15 student groups, including Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign — calls on Harvard to disclose its farmland investments, return any land it currently holds, and “pay reparations for the undeniable harm of Harvard’s global land business.”

Harvard has come under scrutiny in recent years for its expansion into Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighborhood, including the recently-opened Science and Engineering Complex and a proposed Enterprise Research Campus. In Allston, where Harvard and its subsidiaries now own roughly one-third of the land, the average home cost shot up by 43 percent between 2011 and 2019.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the rally and the protesters’ demands.

In September 2018, a report published by the activist groups Genetic Resources Action International and Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humano claimed that the Harvard Management Company — the University’s investment arm — amassed a farmland portfolio totalling over 800,000 hectares following the 2008 financial crisis.

The report highlighted the University’s farmland investments in Brazil, detailing stories from locals who say they were unfairly forced off of the land Harvard purchased. The farmland was the subject of a yearslong landholding dispute brought forth by local farmers, who claimed that Harvard did not rightfully hold titles to the land.

In a speech at Friday’s rally, Sidney Chalhoub, a Harvard History professor, said the University's actions in Brazil were “reminiscent of gentrification in urban areas” and “fed old, violent mechanisms of exclusion of traditional communities from their lands.”

“Perhaps these operations were all legal, perhaps not,” he said. “In any case, this is not something that should make us proud of Harvard.”

Vinicius de Aguiar Furuie, a Harvard postdoctoral fellow and an organizer of the protest, said the University needs to “put its money where its mouth is.”

HMC spokesperson Patrick S. McKiernan declined to comment on the Brazilian farmland holdings, citing the company’s policy not to comment on individual investments.

Since the report’s publication, the University has moved away from investment in natural resources, including the Brazilian farmland purchases in question.

In October 2020, HMC’s natural resources team “spun out” into the independent investment firm Solum Partners as part of current HMC CEO N.P. “Narv” Narvekar’s five-year restructuring plan designed to revitalize the endowment’s performance. Narvekar, who ended the five-year restructuring plan one year early in 2021, has called natural resources an “illiquid asset” that yielded poor returns.

Stop Harvard Land Grabs organizer Rachel E. Carle, a Harvard Kennedy School student, said in an interview after the rally that the group will continue escalating its demonstrations until the University meets its demands.

“They've refused to comment on it, they refuse to meet with us, they refuse to meet the bare minimum of our demands, so we'll continue to escalate until they do,” she said.

—Staff writer Dekyi T. Tsotsong can be reached at dekyi.tsotsong@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Eric Yan can be reached at eric.yan@thecrimson.com.

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