An investigation has revealed that the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association—College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF, now TIAA)’s ties to a land grabbing scheme in Brazil had previously unnoticed connections to the Clinton Foundation, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Open Society Foundation and Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Group. The land grab occurred at the same time as a leadership reshuffle at the TIAA and contributed to a worsening situation where poor Brazilians were forced off of their land and activists seeking to stand in the way are increasingly being threatened and in some cases, murdered.
I. The TIAA Participates Financially In Corporate Efforts To Disenfranchise Poor Landowners In Brazil
The TIAA is a Fortune 100 financial services organization that is the leading retirement provider for people who work in the academic, research, medical and cultural fields. As of June 30, 2016, they served over 5 million active and retired employees participating at more than 16,000 institutions, with $889 billion in combined assets under management. The TIAA has since 2008 participated in the purchasing of Brazilian farmland through the group Radar Propriedades Agrícolas which is 81% owned by a TIAA-CREF unit and 19% by Brazilian billionaire Rubens Ometto Silveira Mello through his sugar and biofuels company Cosan. Cosan is described by NPR as being one of Brazils most notorious “land grabbers.” Cosan tells the Brazilian authorities that it controls the venture through its seats on the board but the TIAA lists Radar as one of its “majority-owned affiliates.”
In 2010, Brazil’s government attempted to change laws concerning foreign ownership of land and bar groups like the TIAA from continuing their involvement in the scheme as part of a wave of rising nationalism and a concerted push to return control over the energy industry to domestic parties. To the bypass this legislation, the TIAA merely created a new vehicle called TIAA-CREF Global Agriculture LLC (TCGA), which was 51% owned by Cosan. The New York Times described the new organization as “largely indistinguishable” from the previous one, with many of the same employees and executives. Other investors included the Second Swedish National Pension Fund (AP2) and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDP) and the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation (bcIMC) of Canada.
After the formation of this group, the TIAA began to ramp up land purchases through Cosan around 2012. Instead of acquiring farms directly through Radar, TCGA funds are invested through a separate company, Tellus Brasil Participações Ltda, (Tellus), that is also managed by the Brazilian sugar company Cosan. As can be seen in the diagram below, TCGA by way of two Brazilian subsidiaries, owns 49% of Tellus with Cosan owning the other 51%. Since Tellus is 51% owned by the Brazilian company Cosan, the company is not subject to Brazilian regulations restricting foreign ownership of farmland.
As these land purchases have increased, international non-profit group GRAIN has highlighted disturbing facts indicating that the TIAA is acquiring farms secured from poor landowners by violent local business figures in a process known in Brazil as “grilagem.” The TIAA refuses to disclose the exact locations of the various farms they hold, but ACORN was able to trace a number of them to the Brazilian states of Maranhão and Piauí. Their investigations reveal that the TIAA acquired multiple farms in Maranhão were acquired from a notorious land grabber and businessman, Euclides de Carli e Joacir Alves. The discovery raises questions about exactly how many farms the TIAA is acquiring from land grabbers across Brazil.
The TIAA’s actions are contributing to what ACORN describes as a larger process of land speculation, expansion of industrial agriculture plantations that are fueling land grabbing, environmental destruction, labour exploitation and numerous social and health calamities across rural Brazil. It has also fueled a culture where local power figures have begun to murder environmental activists in increasing numbers. Some of these murders have occurred in the same states that the TIAA operates farms in. In 2015, environmental activist Raimundo Santos Rodrigues was murdered the state of Maranhão as part of what The Washington Post described as a disturbing rise of activist deaths at the hands of land grabbers in Brazil. This spree of murders has even included government officials, such as the city of Altamira’s secretary for the environment, Luiz Alberto Araújo in the state of Pará. The involvement of the TIAA, whether directly or indirectly, in this trend raises deep concerns about their investment program in Brazil.
II. The TIAA And It’s President Have Close Financial And Professional Ties To The Clinton Foundation, George Soros and Warren Buffet
Though the TIAA’s involvement in Brazil has been reported by the press, there has been no disclosure that the TIAA and their President have close ties to the Clinton Foundation, George Soros and Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway group, both financially and professionally through Swiss reinsurance company Swiss Re. These facts are incredibly important, as the TIAA’s current President assumed his position the same year that the TIAA became involved in Brazil.
The TIAA President and Chief Executive Officer is Roger Ferguson, a graduate of Harvard University and School of Law. Prior to joining TIAA in April 2008 (the same year that the TIAA became involved in the land grabbing scandal), Mr. Ferguson was the head of financial services for Swiss Re, Chairman of Swiss Re America Holding Corporation, and a member of the company’s executive committee. He also formerly served as the Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System and sits on the boards of Alphabet, Inc., General Mills, Inc., and International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc. Mr. Ferguson has close ties to the Clinton family, and was listed by online financial news source Investopedia as a potential pick for Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury. He was also an attendee of the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting.
Mr. Ferguson is also connected financially and professionally to George Soros and Warren Buffet. The George Soros Foundation is a major investor in Leapfrog Investments, a private equity firm. Other investors in Leapfrog Investments include the European Investment Bank, JP Morgan, Prudential Financial, Metlife, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and most significantly the TIAA and Swiss Re. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. sank billions into Swiss Re in 2009, just after Mr. Ferguson took up his position at the TIAA. Buffet has since offloaded a portion of his stake in Swiss Re in 2015, ending a five year long tenure as the reinsurance group’s largest investor.
Senator Elizabeth Warren also holds much of her wealth in the TIAA-CREF’s Traditional fund, where her and her husband each hold accounts in the amount of at least $1 million. Warren’s wealth has brought her large shares of criticism in light of her purported support for working and middle class Americans.
The involvement of the TIAA in Leapfrog Investment alongside Swiss Re raise questions about Roger Ferguson’s incentives to involve the company in investment schemes that have lead to the disenfranchisement of poor farmers in Brazil and contributed to a culture where land grabbers are increasingly emboldened and willing to kill not just environmental activists, but also Brazilian government officials. Mr. Ferguson’s apparent close ties to Swiss Re create further concerns about any potential influence Berkshire Hathaway may have had in the TIAA. The farmland scandal also creates concerns about Mr. Ferguson’s apparent close connections to the Clinton Foundation and Senator Elizabeth Warren, given her involvement with the pension fund and the cozy relationship Mr. Ferguson had with the Clinton Foundation and Global Initiative.
Despite being a publicly traded organization, the TIAA’s Board of Overseers does not appear to have clearly established guidelines about who is involved with the selection process for board members. Even more concerning is the revelation that the Board of Overseers was established by the Carnegie Foundation in 1937 to supposedly distance itself as a sponsor of the organization. Until questions about the leadership selection process at the TIAA can be suitably answered, the apparent involvement of such a large number of special interests in the TIAA will continue to dog the organization in light of their decision to participate in foreign investment rackets that seek to harm both the environment and small time landowners.