Mass. divests from companies with Sudan ties

by Beacon Staff • November 28, 2007

Early this month Massachusetts and New Mexico became the 21st and 22nd states to sell off investments in companies suspected of doing business with Sudanese oil companies, according to the Sudan Divestment Task Force. Money going into the East African nation may indirectly support the genocide there that has so far claimed more than 200,000 lives since , according to the New York Times.

Signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick on Nov. 2, the new bill demonstrates part of a larger trend of human rights activism against national Sudanese oil companies, whose profits, advocates say, fund the military operations that are responsible for the widespread killings in the country.

The largest companies drawing activists' ire are PetroChina and the China National Petroleum Corporation, two "overlapping and symbiotic" entities that support the Sudanese regime through oil investments there, according to the SDTF.

The Massachusetts Pension Reserves is worth approximately $50 billion, while about $50 million of that money is being divested, according to a Boston Globe report.

PetroChina and the China Petroleum Chemical Corp. were two companies from which Massachusetts is pulling its investments.

A dozen Massachusetts colleges and universities have already initiated or committed to divestment programs, most notably Harvard University, which was the first to pull $4.4 million in April of 2005, according to a SDTF report. Harvard again agreed in March 2006 to sell $8.2 million in holdings, but, in January 2007, the Harvard Crimson reported the university still had investments in companies suspected of dealing with Sudan.

David Rosen, Emerson's vice president of public affairs, said he did not know who Emerson's endowment invested in, and referred questions to David Ellis, vice president of finance, who was not available for comment.

Although past grassroots student efforts and small local organizations have accomplished isolated divestment programs, vast progress was made when efforts were centralized, said Courtney Hostetler, an advocacy analyst for the SDTF, the group responsible for setting divestment procedures and standards.

The SDTF reported that, as of October 2007, Harvard still held approximately $26 million in funds indirectly connected to Sudan.

The Boston Foundation, a non-profit philanthropy group that distributes millions of dollars to local community organizations every year, pioneered a method to divest from specific companies without disrupting other financial strategies.

David Trueblood, the foundation's director of public relations, said the foundation holds stock in pooled accounts, or mutual funds that are arranged through an intermediary bank.

Instead of pulling money from each company in a pool, the foundation decided to exclude the companies involved in the Sudanese Government and invest in the rest, Trueblood said. The Boston Foundation divested $1.55 million from five companies involved in Sudan. This method was developed as a compromise for businesses in need of an efficient yet ethical way to handle the politically sensitive investments.

"We hold funds for the well-being of the region, but we also have to, whenever possible, set a standard for social justice and equity," Trueblood said.

He acknowledged the limited scope of one organization's impact, but said he was confident widespread participation could effect change.

"The last time this happened was during the end of apartheid in South Africa," he said.

"And eventually it made a difference."

Sophomore Jenn Dowding said she thought divestment is a worthy endeavor, but that a college's need to preserve its financial well-being could stand in the way of righteousness.

"The problem is as a college student I want them to invest in our education, so by taking away money from the endowment it would hurt me, but I think it's a good way to get more American involvement in the Sudan," the TV/video major said. "If everyone joined together and did [divest], I think it would be a great thing. But I don't think that will happen."