Investing for profit, investing for impact: Moral performances in agricultural investment projects.

Zenia Kish & Madeleine Fairbairn (2018)

Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 50(3), pp. 569-588

Abstract. The recent global boom in agricultural investment has spurred much normative critique of “land grabbing,” but amidst this critical scrutiny investor morality has remained a black box. This article examines the role of ethical narratives in advancing the financialization of nature by comparing how agricultural investment projects are pitched and implemented among two different groups of investors: mainstream agricultural investors and impact investors. We analyze the different discursive strategies used by these distinct financial communities to position themselves as ethical investor-subjects while also showing that, within both groups, some form of moral performance is necessary to maintaining legitimacy and profitability. Mainstream agricultural investors, we argue, perform morality primarily through economic and agricultural productivity, while explicit claims of socially or environmentally responsible investing serve mostly to mitigate reputational risk and preempt the value destruction of potential bad publicity. For impact investors, on the other hand, moral storytelling is essential to value generation. Their solicitation of capital involves persuading potential investors of both the value of their individual projects and the ethical framework guiding the entire sector. Finally, we present two case studies—a large-scale farmland acquisition in Mozambique and an impact investment farming project in Ghana—which demonstrate how moral performances can falter when put into practice. These case studies shed light on the co-creation of economic and moral value in markets by demonstrating how—beyond formal evaluative metrics—the everyday moral narratives of investors play a pivotal role in expanding the financial penetration of nature.

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