Kaitlin Y. Cordes heads investments in land and agriculture at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI), as well as the Center’s work on the intersection of human rights and international investments. CCSI develops practical approaches for governments, investors, communities, and other stakeholders to maximize the benefits of international investment for sustainable development. This includes investment in land and agriculture, which can support sustainable development and help meet growing food security needs.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Cordes on finding creative, yet pragmatic solutions to challenges and opportunities in international agricultural investment and how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can help improve land tenure and human rights for farmworkers.
Food Tank (FT): When you first started your career, were land and food issues always your passion? If not, can you tell us how your career trajectory evolved and when food issues became one of your primary interests?
Kaitlin Cordes (KC): I definitely would not have predicted back in college that I would be focusing so much on land and food issues in my career. I grew up in a small town surrounded by cornfields, so agricultural landscapes were the backdrop of my childhood, and I’ve had a longstanding personal interest in ethical eating, particularly after becoming vegetarian and an occasional vegan starting in college. But when I went to law school, I hadn’t considered working on food issues as a career option and was focusing on business and human rights more generally. In my last semester, I had the privilege of taking a class with Olivier De Schutter, who had just been named the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food. Under his supervision, I started studying and researching business and human rights issues in the food system, and everything started to click—I’d found a way to merge my personal and career interests. I spent some time after law school working for the Rapporteur as an advisor, just as he was focusing on land acquisitions and alternative models for agricultural investment, and that’s when I started working on land issues. And then at Human Rights Watch, where I was a fellow, I was able to delve much more deeply into human rights abuses faced by farmworkers—who are so important for our food system, have some of the toughest and worst paid jobs in the world, and are frequently invisible to even informed consumers.
At my current job, with the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, I get to think and work both creatively and pragmatically on the particular challenges and opportunities of international investment in agriculture and land, and at the intersection of sustainable development and human rights. The Center has provided a great space to dig into food and land issues more deeply, as well as to expand the ways I work on those issues.
FT: What drives you to get out of bed in the morning?
KC: My toddler! But also the privilege of working on issues that I feel passionately about, the knowledge that the challenges are immense, and the hopes that the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice and that my work can add in a tiny way to that progression, toward more just and sustainable food systems and a more just and sustainable world.
FT: Who is your biggest inspiration?
KC: That’s a hard one. I’ve been so lucky to work for and with incredibly smart and effective people in both the human rights and development worlds, and many of them have been role models and sources of inspiration for me. But I’m probably most inspired by, and in awe of, the land rights defenders and human rights defenders working around the world in repressive and dangerous conditions. Their work and lives require an astounding level of courage and sacrifice.
FT: What is one of your most memorable moments in your career and why?
KC: A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to support community members while they were undertaking a Human Rights Impact Assessment of a big mining project. They had identified negative impacts on the right to food as one of the main issues at stake, because the mining operations had destroyed some fields and farms and had cut off easy access to others. It was really interesting to work with them to translate their concerns into the human rights legal framework of obligations and duties, and such a privilege to support community members’ own efforts to investigate and describe the human rights impacts they had identified.
FT: Which SDG do you think is most important in order to improve land tenure security?
KC: There are multiple SDGs that are relevant to issues of land tenure security, but I think the most important thing is having an SDG indicator that can help measure tenure security. The indicators could play a big role in orienting governments’ planning and priorities, which is why my colleagues and I worked to push for an appropriate indicator to measure this. In the final list of proposed SDG indicators, Indicator 1.4.2 measures tenure security. While it’s not the exact wording we had proposed, it is setup to measure both documentation and perceptions, which I think is very important. I see its inclusion as a huge win for the land rights community.
FT: The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) is hosting an Executive Training on Sustainable Investments in Agriculture in July 2017. What is the one thing you definitely hope attendees will take away from this training?
KC: That international investment in agriculture poses many challenges, and that there are a lot of issues that have to be considered, but at the same time there are definitely approaches that stakeholders can take to make investments more sustainable and responsible.
FT: The use of trade and investment treaties and whether or not they should be used to achieve sustainable development and/or climate change goals is often debated in your field. What’s your take on this issue and given the opportunity, what would you stress the most to the Trump Administration?
KC: I think, at the very least, that trade and investment treaties must be compatible with sustainable development objectives and climate change goals. Right now, the application of these types of treaties, and particularly investor-state dispute settlement provisions within them, can actually impede those objectives, and that situation needs to be fixed. Public scrutiny and rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the U.S. have created some new opportunities to think more carefully and holistically about what type of global economic governance could be compatible with sustainable development and climate objectives generally, and have also created space to have more honest discussions about why our treaties in the past have failed so many workers and others here in the U.S. and elsewhere. If I had the opportunity, I’d talk to the Trump Administration, first, about why sustainable development and mitigating climate change are important both for global stability and for Americans, and I’d then urge them to work to ensure that any new trade or investment treaties support, rather than undermine, those goals.