Luis Felipe Cesar

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2004
This description of Luis Felipe Cesar's work was prepared when Luis Felipe Cesar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.


Luis Felipe Cesar is working to preserve mountainous regions in Brazil and elsewhere by fostering participatory management with the local community, creating sustainable economic opportunities and developing public policies both nationally and internationally to ensure the preservation of these important natural and cultural resources. Working in the mountainous Serra da Mantiqueira in Southeastern Brazil, he has created a working model of sustainable development involving the local community that is ready to be implemented in other mountainous regions in the country.

The New Idea

Mountainous regions in Brazil and throughout the world have an enormous wealth of biological diversity, natural resources and human potential, yet many are threatened by accelerating environmental degradation. Felipe sees local mountain people, not government agencies, as the key to protecting these vital natural resources, in Brazil and elsewhere. He believes that if the people can find ecologically sustainable work in these regions, they will become stewards of the land and protect this important resource as well as preserve their own unique communities. To that end, Felipe has developed a model to integrate environment and communities and increase related governmental awareness and policy on the local, national and international level.
Felipe works directly with the local population on the community level, building their capacity and promoting development with participatory management. He has created spaces for formal and informal training and succeeded in obtaining authorization from the local government to carry out small-scale sustainable agricultural and mining activities in the Serrinha, a community of the Serra da Mantiqueira. This has generated employment and income in the area and made Serrinha a model of participatory management in Brazil.
He also works directly with stakeholders at the national and international level. Within the governmental sphere, he develops links between the mountain community and local and federal governments and is able to influence public policies to preserve and develop these areas. He believes the Brazilian Forestry Code fails to consider specific needs of mountainous regions and must incorporate compensation for environmental products and services for their communities. Felipe also works with an international forests network to seek out and implement best practices and demonstrate the importance of Brazilian forest regions.
Felipe believes preservation and sustainable development policies for mountainous areas will only arise through strategic pressure from civil society, via publications and relations with key government officials. His ultimate goal is for a spontaneous movement of civil society to create a National Committee for Mountain Ecosystems, which will coordinate, support and stimulate activities, establish specific national policies and interact with United Nations agencies.

The Problem

Worldwide, mountain regions are important sources of water, energy, biological diversity, minerals, forest and agricultural products. According to the United Nations, 26 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with mountains; 12 percent of the planet’s population lives in these regions and 40 percent of the population depends on these regions for vital resources like water. These ecosystems are suffering fast-paced degradation, often due to unsustainable agriculture and logging, and are vulnerable to accelerated soil erosion, landslides and loss of genetic diversity and habitat.
Though Brazil is most often associated with its beaches and rainforests, the country has a considerable amount of mountainous areas. One of these is the Serra da Mantiqueira, part of the Mata Atlantica ecosystem. Like many mountainous areas, the Mata Atlantica is an important biological resource, with a high degree of endemism and the greatest diversity of tree species per hectare in the world. It is also an important natural resource, supplying drinking water to more than 100 million people, 60 percent of the Brazilian population. This important region is considered to be the second most threatened ecosystem in the world. While it once spread over 17 states or 15 percent of national territory, now less than 8 percent of the original area remains.
Mountainous regions like the Serra da Mantiqueira are not uninhabited. According to the IBGE 4 million Brazilians live in regions 1000 meters above sea level or higher. These people depend on the mountains for their livelihood. The deterioration of these natural resources causes residents to fight over other people’s land or migrate to lower areas, resulting in the disintegration of mountain communities and disappearance of cultures.
Many countries, especially those covered in mountainous regions, recognize the value of these sensitive areas and have developed wise policies to protect them and the people who live there. But because mountainous regions are a relatively small part of the total land area of Brazil, they are generally undervalued and poorly managed, frequently using large-scale monoculture techniques designed for agricultural applications on lower lands which only serve to further degrade the sensitive ecosystem. In addition, these regions are generally subject to governmental administration that fails to benefit the local communities. Without a say in the management of the lands around them and sustainable economic opportunities at home, many mountain dwellers are forced to leave their communities, creating a vicious cycle of natural and cultural degradation in Brazil’s mountainous regions.

The Strategy

Felipe is working at the local, national and international levels to preserve these precious natural resources by changing mountain dwellers from passive victims to active stewards of the land, preserving the culture and communities of these areas by integrating local people with the environment.
To keep these residents from migrating from their mountain homes, he is working to create sustainable economic opportunities at home and identifying the compensation mechanisms needed to overcome the production limits of the local populations. For example, he obtained a license from the municipality to quarry stones in the mountain for local use such as building houses, bridges, and other small scale projects. He is now working on obtaining a license for tourist guides, ensuring that proceeds from this activity benefit the local communities. This has demonstrated that it is possible to generate incomes without sacrificing the environment.
Felipe also has many youth-focused activities to establish the residents’ connection with the region from an early age, including training to become guides and environmental guards. In 2000, through his organization Crescente Fértil, Felipe created a youth forest guard, called “Patrulha Ambiental Mirim” (Youth Environmental Patrol), with 12 youths concerned with local preservation. For one year, this group of monitors was accompanied by forest guards who addressed issues of local culture, geography and legislation. Three of these youths became professionals in eco-tourism.
Felipe is also working to ensure a market for local products from Serra da Mantiqueira and other mountainous regions by creating a certificate seal of product origin. Because the high costs and delay in financial return make it difficult for local producers to pursue the certification process, he is pursuing a system of participatory self-certification. This is an autonomous strategy that allows the establishment of quality and origin criteria through agreement by a particular group supported by independent experts. This allows the producers to establish parameters that can be measured and work together to develop market strategies for their products. Felipe hopes this seal will encourage creation of jobs and income by increasing the value of local products and family production systems. On a later, more refined stage, this certification can include factors such as organic quality and links to conservation projects.
Beyond these local actions, Felipe is also working at the national level to support sustainable development of mountainous regions by pushing policies and laws that recognize local property rights and coordinating the actions of the local community with municipality and government bodies.
For example, he succeeded in getting legislation enacted to create the Environmentally Protected Area (APA) of Serrinha, along with a master plan for the municipality. Monthly meetings strengthen the group and foster collective decision-making for local activities and analysis of gaps in existing legislation, as well as proposals for modifications. He also created the “Integrating Actions in Mantiqueira” project, which involves respect for native species, progressive reforestation policies in agricultural areas under degradation, policy based on territorial planning for use of forest products, recovery of traditional knowledge of forest peoples on its sustainable use and the establishment of participatory management for forests to meet local needs.
Felipe’s vision is not only in restoring a single region, but in applying his strategies to other mountainous regions in Brazil and beyond. He has shown that his program in Serrinha of managing water resources and recovering riparian forests for preservation and sustainable use is a model suitable for replication in five other communities in Serra de Mantiqueira. In addition, the youth environmental monitors residing in the Serrinha region suggested setting up a management council for the Mantiqueira APA, which expanded the area of influence of the Serrinha management model as a public policy to an even greater area.
Internationally, Felipe began to implement the “Montanhas e Gente do Mundo” (Mountains and People of the World) project in 2003, which seeks to facilitate communication and meetings between mountain dwellers from all over the planet with global electronic and face-to-face forums, stimulating discussion and implementation of proposals for sustainability of this ecosystem. As a future strategy, Felipe intends to participate more strongly in national environmental events to push the issue of mountains.

The Person

Felipe is from a family of intellectuals, poets and journalists, but from an early age, he knew his future would be very different. Born in 1960, Felipe grew up in the bustling city of Rio de Janeiro, his true love was the family’s country cottage in the Serrinha. As a teenager, he took part in drama groups and student politics, almost invariably assuming leadership positions, but the beautiful mountain retreat always had a special place in his heart.
When the time came to apply for college, his passion for the mountain led him to enter a forestry engineering school. He soon became disappointed by the industrial focus of the course, which stressed monocultures and pulp production, and decided to abandon the program to work in an citizen sector organization called Coonatura, dedicated to the production and marketing of natural organic products. He was a member of its first management group and was in charge of a depot in the city of Rio de Janeiro for one year. At the same time, he started to work with beekeeping in the Serrinha region and divided his time between the bees and Coonatura.
In 1983, Felipe moved permanently to Serrinha to dedicate himself entirely completely to producing honey and supporting community pressure for water quality in the Alambari River. The success of these collective efforts put an end to polluting activities and increased social demands in issues of road maintenance, health, and public use of natural areas. These achievements led to the creation of the Resident’s Association, of which Felipe was the first president. During this period, he started to plant a variety of trees to speed up restoration of local forests that had been devastated in part by coffee production. This brought more visibility to his activities, which appeared on television and were rebroadcast on the first day of UNCED in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.
Felipe’s efforts helped the community to understand their ability to fight for their rights. Around this time, he obtained the support of the municipality, which created the “Ecodevelopment of the Serrinha do Alambari” project and chose Felipe as coordinator. Many other successes followed. Felipe was instrumental in forming the Environmentally Protected Area (APA) of Serrinha. He implemented the urban tree planting program in the city of Resende and planted thousands of trees over six years. He later directed the municipal environmental protection agency, which strengthened and refined the environmental quality protections of the municipality.
In 1994, Felipe created the citizen sector organization Crescente Fértil and took his work to a regional context, helping neighboring communities and providing guidance to the local planning process in mountainous areas located around Itatiaia National Park. He currently sits on several boards, such as APA Serrinha, APA Mantiqueira (municipal and federal), the Agenda 21 Council in Resende, and the Itatiaia National Park Council. These positions enable him to exert his knowledge and talents on both local and national spheres. His work also reaches international levels. He assumed coordination of the Book of Proposals for Forests in the Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and Solidary World, and in the two World Social Forums (2001 and 2002) he planted the Grove of Nations in partnership with the Municipality of Porto Alegre and the Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation.