Agricultural Land Investments and Socially Responsible Retirement Accounts - Participate and Advocate
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In This Section

Agricultural Land Investments and Socially Responsible Retirement Accounts

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In This Section

July 6, 2020

Approved by the AAA Executive Board on May 18, 2020

It is well established through anthropological research and scholarship that individual, household, community, and regional vulnerabilities in the face of global environmental change and economic interconnectedness are socially produced. In other words, the benefits and burdens of large-scale economic and environmental changes are not equally distributed. These changes heighten the chasm between winners and losers, making it ever more challenging to narrow the gap and eliminate the structural barriers that prevent those who bear the greatest burdens from overcoming their disadvantages.

The American Anthropological Association acknowledges that everyone who stands to benefit from this structural inequality is to some degree implicated in its persistence, sometimes in ways that are indirect and not readily apparent, but active nonetheless. 

The Association has tools available to help disrupt the forces that contribute to the social production of vulnerability, most notably our convening power, our power to set standards for responsible professional conduct, and our power of voice, highlighting and amplifying the work of researchers, scholars, and practitioners whose findings document both these vulnerabilities and promising points of intervention to reduce or eliminate them altogether.

For at least four decades, a number of large global investment management corporations have been actively involved, either directly or through partnerships, in the purchase and operation of agricultural businesses in several places around the world. These agricultural land investments are generally included in larger diversified investment portfolios and serve as a hedge against volatility in the value of other portfolio holdings. In most cases, these investment corporations are acting on behalf of individual clients whose employers have arranged for employee retirement accounts, and employment benefit that ensures a source of financial stability after employment income stops.

Most of our Association’s members are among those whose employers create retirement accounts and look forward to reaping the benefits that these accounts likely will afford them. At the same time, just as the Association has made a commitment to investing its financial assets in a socially responsible manner, its individual members may wish to bring to the attention of the organizations that employ them the importance of understanding and acting to reduce the adverse social and cultural impacts of their retirement investment policies and practices.

Nearly half a century of anthropological research has concluded that there are a variety of substantive practices through which land claims are maintained and practiced. This same research emphasizes that legal frameworks only acknowledge a very small portion of the practices, with implications for violence, displacement, and environmental degradation. While some agricultural land investments may be conducted with responsible practices and policies, there are a number of well-documented instances in which these investments threaten the rights and resources of indigenous peoples and marginalized communities that retain an interest in the lands or adjacent areas that share air and watersheds.

The agricultural land in question may have been acquired legally, although the laws themselves may have been established or administered in a way that excluded the original occupants from having a say in protecting their legitimate claims to ownership, use, and/or occupancy. The laws, for example, may reflect an attempt to individualize collective rights as part of national economic development policy, imposing an undue local burden on selected communities in the name of serving national or transnational interest.

A clear need for changes in policies and practices extends to all institutional investors operating in this space on behalf of their investment/retirement account holders. To be socially responsible, these institutional investment managers should:

  1. Be fully aware of the local and regional context in which the lands and agricultural operations are situated. This awareness will be developed and maintained by working with community-based groups and attending to the cumulative impacts of purchasing and operations decisions.
  2. Go beyond de minimis compliance with the letter of the law, acknowledging that in many settings local, state/provincial, and national laws were established to favor dominant political interests at the expense of marginalized and disadvantaged communities and individuals. Investment policies and practices should involve free, prior, and fully informed consent (FPIC) of stakeholders whose rights and resources are at risk of harm from land acquisition and agricultural operations supported by institutional investors.
  3. Conduct their land acquisitions in as transparent and accountable a fashion as possible, including subjecting their claims of socially responsible investment practices to regular independent third-party assessment.
  4. Comply with international laws and standards, including protections for human rights and the rights and resources of indigenous peoples as outlined for instance, in the International Labour Organization Convention (ILO) 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Association has a role to play in making its members aware of the potential that institutional investor policies and practices have for adversely affecting the rights and resources of indigenous and other marginalized peoples, even if the Association itself has no business relationship with these institutional investors. AAA can use its convening power to present panels, publications, webinars, and otherwise disseminate rigorous and innovative research concerning patterns of investment and their economic, social, and cultural impacts.

The Association has a role to play in making institutional investors aware of a rich reservoir of subject matter expertise that can assist with the development and monitoring of investment policies and practices that respect the rights of indigenous and marginalized people. This can be done by establishing an expertise database and a volunteer network

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