Vanderbilt University in the US has withdrawn its US$26 million investment in EMVest, formerly Emergent Asset Management, an agricultural company with farms in sub-Saharan African countries such as Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, according to the California-based Oakland Institute (OI), an independent policy think tank on social, economic and environmental issues.
Vanderbilt, however, has not publicly acknowledged its divestment.
The university’s action followed pressure from student groups reacting to a June 2011 OI research report that exposed EMVest's tactics of taking over agricultural land used by local communities and using it for large-scale commercial export farming.
Vanderbilt’s full divestment in response to student pressure is a first in the history of the university, which has a $3.4 billion endowment.
Vanderbilt had refused to fully divest its funds in apartheid-era South Africa.
Harvard University recently divested from EMVest following exposure in OI reports.
Through its investment, Vanderbilt was one of the major investors in EMVest's agricultural operations.
The OI's report, based on first-hand field research, interviews and documents obtained from Emergent Asset Management itself, showed that villagers at one of the farms directly operated by EMVest did not consent to the land transfer or receive any legal written notice of the transfer from the community to the company.
The report documented how villagers were having difficulty feeding themselves after the large-scale agriculture venture took over their lands and farms.
Furthermore, the Oakland Institute reported that contrary to promises of jobs EMVest created very few, which were seasonal and low-paid in nature.
Following these allegations, students at Vanderbilt met with university administrators. The administrators refused to seriously discuss the matter with students, stating that it was not "appropriate" for students to be concerned with endowment issues.
The student pressure for reform led to a "tent city" in front of the administration building from March to May 2012.
Students then organized demonstrations, including a sit-in at the main administration building earlier this month, which eventually forced Vanderbilt’s hand.
“Vanderbilt's divestment from Emergent Asset Management/Emvest is a testimony to the power of informed students who, despite the lies and stall tactics of the administration, have prevailed,” OI said in a statement.
“Their leadership is an example to all that educational institutions, pension funds, and other investors who see smallholder farmers as dispensable and feel entitled to profit from the theft of developing countries' resources can be stopped by the power of truth.”