Case study casts doubt over ESG claims of Canadian pension fund PSP’s major agriculture investment on Maui

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Case study casts doubt over ESG claims of Canadian pension fund PSP’s major agriculture investment on Maui, calls for greater scrutiny into the community impact of investments

Responsible Markets today published a case study of an approximately $600 million investment that the $135.59 billion Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP) is making in a former sugar plantation in Maui, Hawai’i. The report found evidence that the Montreal, Canada based pension plan, which invests its capital through PSP Investments, is not living up to its own environmental, social responsibility, and corporate governance (ESG) principles, resulting in adverse impacts on Maui’s environment and residents.

The study entitled “From the Mountains to the Sea: When Big Money Moved in on Maui’s Agriculture” takes a comprehensive look at Mahi Pono LLC, capitalized by PSP. Mahi Pono was created in December of 2018 under management of Pomona Farming, a subsidiary of the California based private equity firm Trinitas Partners. It now owns and operates over 41,000 acres of farmland in Maui’s central plains, which it acquired from long-time plantation owner Alexander & Baldwin.

Among Responsible Markets’ findings is that the success of the Mahi Pono investment is dependent on securing water rights at exceptionally low rates, at a direct economic and cultural cost to the indigenous Hawaiian people, and on the continued diversion of water away from East Maui, a practice that undermines Hawaiian farming communities. Rather than creating local food security as the company has promised, the Mahi Pono business plan is dependent on export crops. Additionally, the company operates secretively and with little transparency, and has failed to generate the number of jobs promised.

“Through Mahi Pono, PSP is seeking to profit by exploiting the resources of the Hawaiian people,” said Shay Chan Hodges, a co-organizer of Responsible Markets’ initiative, the Maui ESG Project, and co-author of the report. “This is not an ESG investment; it is merely a new version of the extractive practices of plantation capitalism that have been so damaging to Maui’s culture, environment, and economy for over 100 years.”

“The Mahi Pono case study illustrates the importance of early community engagement and ongoing partnership in land-based investing,” says Delilah Rothenberg Founder and Executive Director of the Predistribution Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort to improve investment structures to share more wealth and influence with workers and communities, and ultimately address systemic risks including income inequality and climate change.

“With capital flows that are so intermediated, meaningful relationship development is often overlooked by distant investors – even asset owners and allocators who are taking measures to integrate ESG. Yet this lapse jeopardizes investors’ returns and perpetuates legacies of colonialism, with foreign powers undervaluing the risk that locals take and the value they offer with their land, resources, and labor,” concluded Rothenberg.

“Large private market agricultural land acquisitions in Hawai’i are all too familiar – wealthy investors parachuting in, missing a golden opportunity to ‘build back better’ for all impacted community stakeholders,” says Lisa Kleissner, impact investment pioneer and co-founder of Hawaii Investment Ready. “While access to water is the hook in this report, the water issue serves to underscore the lack of alignment between Mahi Pono’s objectives and the community’s needs. This report comes to the rescue by laying out in clear, pragmatic terms how Mahi Pono LLC and, for that matter, any private investor in agriculture can move investor/community discourse to a new, mutually beneficial level. First, ancestral rights must be acknowledged and addressed. And secondly, the business and financial model must demonstrate evidence-based community-aligned economics.”

The report shows how investors use the language of ESG and impact investment to promote, and invest in, economic opportunities that do not necessarily have a net positive ESG benefit. Responsible Markets calls on PSP and its staff to meet directly with community members and other stakeholders on Maui to understand the problems Mahi Pono is causing as well as the missed opportunities for positive transformative investment. True community intelligence is invaluable and cannot be outsourced to investment managers and advisors.

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