Harvard Protest Hits Out at University’s Record at Argentinian Plantations
Harvard students and supporters hit out at the university’s management of plantations it owns near the Iberá wetlands in Argentina in a campus demonstration on Friday last week.
The Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition (RIH), a group advocating for better management of the university’s endowment, is critical of the ecological impacts it claims the plantations are having on the wetlands, as well as poor working conditions for local laborers.
As part of over a week of activities related to RIH’s campaign, around 150 protestors gathered to hear speeches by Emilio Spataro and Adrian Obregon who were invited to the campus from Corrientes, Argentina to speak about their activism concerning the wetlands.
Speaking through a translator, Spataro told the demonstrators “we’ve been suffering for years seeing the destruction of the wetlands in our community … we decided to bring the voice of the people who are suffering to the place where the decisions get made, and let them know what effect those decisions have on us.”
According to RIH spokesperson Sandra Korn, the group has been “investigating how Harvard invests its endowment for a few years, and we found that Harvard is the majority or full owner of over 270 companies, including over $3bn in natural-resource companies; so everything from berries to timber plantations.”
She explains that communities near the plantations “have been organizing against the exploitative and destructive practices by the plantations there … so organizers from Argentina got in contact with our group and we decided to work in solidarity, and bring their demands for justice and their request for community participation in how the plantations are run to the Harvard administration.”
According to Korn, two students travelled to Corrientes and published a report detailing the issues faced by local communities, including a lowering of the water table, higher costs for small farmers, increased susceptibility to fires and a greater danger to people’s homes as a result, as well as violations of local labor laws, and jobs provided mainly for seasonal and part-time workers who sleep in unsanitary temporary housing, and who fear losing their jobs if they speak out against working conditions.
Also speaking through a translator, Adrian Obregon told the demonstrators, “a few years ago we tried to get reparations from Harvard for the damage they’ve done on their plantations, and we weren’t able to get anything from them.”
He explained that his own government is only listening to corporations like Harvard, and not the people, saying “they’re not listening to us in our own country.”
During the demonstration, Obregon delivered a 27-page petition with over a thousand signatures to Harvard University President Drew Faust. Korn explained the demands made by the demonstrators: “to stop expanding the plantations until a participatory ecological and community study is done, and to remove all the plantations within 2000m of people’s homes, and to follow all local labor laws.”
Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung spoke in support of the RIH campaign, saying “I’m a Harvard grad, and I’m proud to be a Harvard grad, but there’s so much that’s happening that makes me ashamed.” He says he’s speaking “too often” at similar rallies, including at the Doubletree hotel owned by the university “where workers are not being given a fair process.”
According to Cheung, “it’s not enough to try and educate students to go out and change the world when … Harvard’s actions are in complete contradiction to what they’re teaching all of us to go out and do; the hypocrisy at Harvard has to stop.”
Ed Childs, the chief steward at UNITE HERE’s union local 26 for Harvard’s dining hall workers also spoke in support of the rally, saying “we feel your struggle is our struggle.”
Calling them “two other plantations,” Childs drew attention to the similarities between the situation faced by the Argentinian communities, and workers at the Doubletree hotel and the Harvard Law School during their unionization campaigns, both of which he claims included having to face union busters hired by the university.
Open Media Boston made repeated requests for a press statement from Harvard University, but did not receive a response before the filing of this report.