Luis Fernando Guedes

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2014
This description of Luis Fernando Guedes's work was prepared when Luis Fernando Guedes was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Luis Fernando created the first unified agriculture certification system in Brazil and the world’s first certification standard for sugarcane to promote responsible agricultural practices. He is now sharing his success cases and partnering with key public and private actors to tackle deforestation in Brazil and beyond.

The New Idea

Regardless of being a boon for Brazil’s GDP and one of the biggest employers in its workforce, the agriculture sector has historically been one of the country’s largest contributors to environmental degradation and poor working conditions. Believing that agricultural production can work in concert with the environment and even help protect it, Luis Fernando Guedes created the first unified agriculture certification in Brazil to differentiate beneficial and sustainable agricultural practices from harmful ones. Through certification, Luis Fernando systemically creates market based incentives for farmers to not engage in destructive farming practices, instead encouraging behavior that is compatible with sustainable development and with the goal of countering deforestation across the region.

Through Imaflora (Institute for Agricultural and Forestry Management Certification), Luis Fernando set the social-environmental certification agenda in Brazil and created the first agricultural certification standard in the country using sugarcane as a pilot crop in 1998. He noticed that social and environmental issues are the same across different agricultural sectors and that certification demands credibility and support from the different actors in the field and society in general. Once he identified this framework, Luis Fernando brought stakeholders together, both locally and internationally, to build a coalition of partners to create consolidated monitoring, evaluation, and certification standards across different crops.

Luis Fernando is now at an inflection point with a strategy to spread the success cases of best practices to the mainstream. He realized that research and knowledge are the keys to scale instead of continuing to perform certifications. As a result, he is systematizing Imaflora’s experiences and measuring the impact to spread awareness of and methodology for the positive impacts of sustainable agriculture. Now aiming to change the paradigm of large-scale deforestation across the region, he is implementing a strategy to influence major public and corporate decision makers.

The Problem

The world’s increasingly rapid population growth requires an agriculture system that can provide food for 6.5 billion people. Furthermore, the demand for fast and inexpensive food encourages a model of agriculture based on maximizing productivity. The practices that meet this demand are -- such as the overuse of fertilizers, pesticides, water, and soil; deforestation; and monoculture -- are destructive to the environment. They also threaten human health, degrade rural communities, create unsafe working conditions, and compromise animal welfare.

With regard to the population directly affected by these factors, 64% of farm workers are in the informal sector and without access to basic labor rights. This population is among the most oppressed tenth of the world, living in extreme economic and social vulnerability.

In recent years, although Brazil has begun to reduce the area of land deforested annually, its deforestation rate is still one of the highest globally. Timber, soy, and livestock production are the primary contributors to the loss of forests. Of the millions of cubic meters of lumber removed from the Amazon, less than 25% comes from forests that are under management, while more than 75% of net CO2 emissions comes from the destruction of native forests.

In the early 1990s, global conversations about deforestation tended to be focused on forest conservation, which was viewed as building a fence around a forest while ignoring its economic potential. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) had just been founded and competing proposals for forestry certification were diverting people’s attention from systemic issues in deforestation, such as agricultural practices that influence forest use. In this complex scenario, social-environmental certification enters as a tool that can both differentiate products and producers and incentive improvements in the environment and working conditions.

The Strategy

From a young age, Luis Fernando was focused on bringing well-researched change to agricultural practices in Brazil. He began by adding agriculture to the agenda at one of Brazil’s leading environmental management groups, Imaflora (which was previously Imaflor, the Institute for Forestry Management Certification), and from his position there, he was able to develop a new plan for agricultural management across the country. In 1998, he drafted the first national standard of evaluation, monitoring, and certification for agriculture in Brazil, beginning with one of the most controversial but in-demand crops -- sugarcane. Given the attention from ongoing criticism and boycotts as well as the value of the crop to the economy, Luis Fernando realized that the sugarcane sector had great potential to demonstrate good versus bad practices and was an important place to start his work. Given the varying opinions about what are “best practices” for sugarcane cultivation, it took Luis Fernando two years to bring stakeholders together and reach consensus on monitoring, evaluation, and certification standards in a transparent and collaborative way. However, after flying all over the world to meet with key players, Imaflora’s sugarcane standard was recognized across Brazil and is now implemented in over 25,000 hectares throughout the country.

Through his experience with sugarcane certification and through work with other agricultural sectors, Luis Fernando began to act on a hypothesis he had been considering since his days as an agronomy student. That is, across crops, the social and environment problems are the same. Based on this idea, he co-created the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) in 1999, together with Rainforest Alliance and other Latin-American organizations, in order to harmonize the local standards and bring them into one globally- recognized standard integrating diverse strategies of sustainable agricultural production.

Knowing that the system should be applicable and accessible to any type of farmer, not only large farmers or big companies, Luis Fernando developed a group certification process for small farmers. Given that certification requires an initial investment -- not only in the cost of auditing a farm, but also in the investment of time and resources in any reorganizing practices necessary for the producer to meet certification standards -- group certification enables small producers to pool resources and reduce costs. Through group certification, communities of indigenous people, riparians, rubber tappers, and others that would find these up front costs prohibitive to certification, are able to certify their livelihoods and access training. Five percent of revenue from certification services provided to corporate clients goes to a social fund to subsidize certification of these smaller landowners and other community projects. Today, group certification accounts for 44% of Imaflora’s certified land. After certifying over 700 properties in Brazil and Argentina (261,269 hectares), Luis Fernando realized that Imaflora had created models of success and that the next step was to share these cases to achieve a higher level of influence. To make sustainable agricultural practices mainstream, there must be a clear demand for certified products or other economic incentives for producers. In order to encourage such a demand, Luis Fernando is now using Imaflora’s experiences to show all stakeholders that sustainable agriculture is not only necessary, but also possible through tested pathways.

To begin sharing these experiences, Luis Fernando has developed partnerships with the best universities in the country – University of Sao Paulo (USP), Campinas’ State University (Unicamp), and others – to evaluate and systematize Imaflora’s learnings from the field experiences. These researchers, along with Imaflora staff, collect and analyze the data acquired over the years and synthesize it into digestible knowledge products to share with the public. Examples include: publications on best practices circulated in the agricultural sector, a guide for a collective bottom-up approach to developing REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) programs, and a guide for farmers to understand and be able to implement Brazil’s new Forest Code. Additionally, the Forest Code guide is being developed as a mobile application that will both give customized recommendations to farmers and collect information about their farms for Imaflora’s research. Farmers answer questions about the size of the farm, crops, etc., and the app provides the appropriate information accordingly. To help disseminate this knowledge collected to broader society, Imaflora also has a blog and strong partnerships with the media. For example, Brazil’s main newspaper, Folha, regularly publishes Luis Fernando’s articles and one of Brazil’s biggest publishers, Abril, has an online portal focused on sustainability, opening a discussion space around sustainable agriculture and featuring Imaflora’s work.

The next element of the strategy involves working directly with each actor involved in the agricultural supply chain. Luis Fernando has identified the most important decision makers and discussion spaces in each sector, and he is introducing Imaflora’s experience and knowledge to these key players to influence decisions. Besides participating in sector events, Imaflora is active in gatherings outside their immediate sphere, such as the Brasil Certificado (Certified Brazil) Fair, a business fair focused on innovation and sustainability.

Partnerships with big companies are also key to Imaflora’s strategy. Imaflora works with companies to select small farmers to receive technical assistance, access group certification, and even become suppliers in the company’s value chains. Additionally, the companies give visibility to responsible agriculture and educate consumers, in turn generating demand for the certified products. Examples include Imaflora’s long-term work with Nespresso (an international coffee company): Imaflora certifies small coffee providers selling to Nespresso, and supports the company in capacity building with the producers to improve the agricultural practices as well as the quality of the coffee. Imaflora’s partnership with Raizen (Brazil’s fifth largest company and the nation’s leading manufacturer of sugarcane ethanol) involves development of a sustainability program for their sugarcane providers -- dozens of small producers that have little access to new technology and sustainable production practices. The program will support them in meeting environmental and work regulations and gradually adopt best practices of production and conservation.

With regards to economic incentives, Luis emphasizes that, besides the obvious social and environmental benefits, certification provides economic benefits for producers vis a vis the management practices which use resources more efficiently. Imaflora is now conducting research in partnership with Rabobank (a bank working primarily with the agriculture sector) that will measure the wealth increase of producers after certification. Luis is working with lawmakers to legislate incentives for farmers using sustainable practices. Other examples of Luis Fernando’s work in this sphere include his active participation in the drafting and implementation of the National Management of Public Forests Law and discussions around the Brazilian Forest Code, formulating the document sent to Congress by 34 CSOs and 30 forest-based enterprises. Moreover, Imaflora participates in the Public Forest Management Council and is a leader in the Advisory Council of the National Forest Development Fund. More recently, the Institute coordinated the definitions of environmental safeguards for REDD projects, which were taken up by the federal government and used as the official position at the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP) in 2010. The method was systematized and published in four languages and has been replicated in countries in Africa.

Through this approach, Luis is spreading Imaflora’s learnings to counter widespread deforestation in the region. Beginning with partnerships with key players who can help to replicate the best agricultural practices, he is creating create demand for accountability in agricultural habits as part of the solution.

The Person

The ability to see opportunities and make them happen is one of Luis Fernando Guedes Pinto’s most notable characteristics. He was raised in Brasilia under the strong influence of his father, an agronomist and co-founder of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), who taught him the principles of social justice, and mother, a sociologist, who taught him to love nature. With his humble manner and consistently committed ways, Luis Fernando traced his path early on by refusing competitive jobs in multinational companies where he did not see a positive community contribution as well as in public agencies that were notorious for inefficiency. Right after graduating with a degree in Agronomy, he found his place in the newly founded Imaflora - Institute for Agricultural and Forestry Management Certification.

Luis Fernando entered Imaflora to develop the Brazilian agricultural certification standard. His first responsibility in the new role was to create the ten principles for sustainable agriculture and to build a completely new standard of evaluation, monitoring, and certification. Luis believes that the most successful and credible results come from work that is shared with all of the stakeholders. His strategy is always built from the ground up, visiting and listening to everyone involved, following supply chains, educating farmers and entire communities, living with indigenous peoples and rural workers, and assimilating criticism. His approach is one that takes him from interactions with the federal government to indigenous communities, from the soy producer to environmental leaders, and from technical expertise to respect for traditional knowledge.

These touch points from the ground to the bird’s eye view have enabled Luis to achieve support for his certification strategy across sectors. Recognized as the person that led the certification agenda in Brazil and strengthened Imaflora politically and technically, Luis worked at the direction of the Institute for eight years. In this period, Imaflora prioritized agriculture certification and Luis Fernando’s focus was to work with the communities’ productive chains and capacity development, rather than massively scale the number of certified communities. Luis realized that he had already created the success cases to prevent predatory agriculture practices. So then, in order to address chronic and large scale deforestation, rather than scaling the number of certifications provided, he saw the best strategy would be to systematize this knowledge and influence decision makers. That would take the impact to a higher level and allow him to accomplish his broader vision of stopping deforestation. As an introvert, Luis Guedes is a quiet paradigm shifter, but he is preparing Brazil’s agriculture sector to lead at a global level.