Colin Butterfield was frantic. The Harvard University endowment executive wanted to unload a disastrous $270 million investment in Brazilian farmland. But the school had no takers, and it was burning through millions of dollars.

“Why I’m freaking out is that we’re running out of money,” Butterfield said in a November 2017 conference call, referring to the project, not the college. “We have no more money.”

Harvard’s fear manifests itself in 2,000 pages of Brazilian court records, including this conference call’s transcript. The trove, reviewed by Bloomberg, is part of a lawsuit filed by the project’s former chief executive who claims that Harvard and its Brazil partner stiffed him out of millions in compensation.

The documents, many in Portuguese, offer a window into a debacle that has contributed to the lackluster performance of the world’s largest college endowment. Part of the reason: Harvard’s backfired bet on the most exotic of investments, direct holdings of agriculture in the developing world.

Auditors wrote down the value of the Brazil farm project by about $200 million after the endowment decided to exit the development in 2017, according to the lawsuit. Even for Harvard, which has a $39 billion endowment, that’s a steep sum, about as much as the Ivy League school spends annually on undergraduate financial aid.

The Brazil farmland failure underscores the hazards of Harvard’s approach, unusual apart from the wealthiest endowments. When these kinds of investments go sour, endowments can’t just put in a sell order and move on. “There appears to have been no exit strategy,” said Devlin Kuyek, a researcher at environmental activist group GRAIN who reviewed the case filings.

Under Harvard’s endowment chief N.P. “Narv” Narvekar, who was hired at the end of 2016, the school has tried to sell off a number of its natural resources holdings as part of its efforts to turn around the fund’s results. Over the decade that ended in June 2018, Harvard’s 4.5% average annual return ranked last among Ivy League schools.

Narvekar has replaced the endowment’s executive team in Boston and let go about 100 employees, downsizing its trading desk and spinning out teams of portfolio managers, as well as outsourcing almost all its capital to external money managers.

The university declined to discuss the Brazil project, citing a policy of not commenting on specific investments. “Since arriving in late 2016, our current natural resources team has made great progress in the multi-year re-positioning of the legacy portfolio—identifying challenged assets to sell or liquidate and improving the management of others,’’ Patrick McKiernan, a spokesman for the endowment, said in a statement.

Harvard started boosting its international natural resource holdings around the time of the global financial panic of 2008. The university’s endowment arm, Harvard Management Co., bought controlling stakes in Latin American teak forests, a cotton farm in Australia, eucalyptus plantations in Uruguay, and timberland in Romania.

The school saw these bets as a way to diversify from the risks of conventional stocks and bonds and achieve better returns. But, in 2017, Harvard wrote down the value of its natural resource investments by more than a quarter, to $2.9 billion from $4 billion.

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