Forester and Sustainability Activist
Fellow project website:www.tassoazevedo.blogspot.com
A chief architect of innovative environmental protection systems in Brazil, Tasso has repeatedly created original, strategic, far-reaching solutions that align sustainable livelihoods with protecting forests and the climate. He also built and manages collaborative technology platforms that accurately measure greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and map land use, land degradation, land cover, and forest loss across Brazil. They make high-quality, real-time images and data available for free to anyone who wants to use them, enabling targeted, evidence-based, effective interventions to protect the climate, forests, soil, water, and biodiversity.
THE NEW IDEA
Ashoka Senior Fellow Tasso Azevedo has repeatedly blazed new pathways and forged strategic alliances connecting sustainable livelihoods with conservation, so that instead of fighting powerful economic disincentives, people are powerfully motivated to protect and sustain the ecosystem that sustains them. Tasso has been a chief architect of a new management system for Brazil’s land sector. His innovations shaped environmental policy, connected conservation and sustainable livelihoods, balanced stakeholder interests, and empowered actors across society. In a subsequent phase of his work, he has focused on supplying a broad range of actors with monitoring data they need to identify environmental losses rapidly and precisely, so they can take action to stop them. By opening up the flow of information and resources, he has forged productive relationships among civil society, government, and the private sector, aligning and empowering them to take collaborative, effective action to protect the environment. That approach has become influential globally.
Tasso’s career revolutionized Brazil’s approach to environmental protection, applying insights that have become influential globally: Defending the environment is ultimately in everyone’s interests and requires alignment of the needs of people (who vote and ultimately decide society’s course regarding the environment) with the needs of the environment. Interventions require the support of diverse stakeholders and the work of a broad range of actors to succeed. They also require accurate, current information about where and when losses are occurring so defenders can act quickly and effectively.
Just out of college, in 1995 Tasso co-founded the CSO Imaflora, the leading sustainability certification organization in Brazil, where he pioneered the basic systems and mechanisms for certification of sustainably produced forest and agricultural products in Brazil. His work brought together different stakeholders from farmers and foresters to indigenous communities and CSOs to forge an agreement on protecting sustainable livelihoods while conserving forests. At a time of great distrust between business and civil society in Brazil, this shifted mindsets from focusing on division toward acting on shared interests.
Tasso Azevedo founded MapBiomas in 2015… The network publishes annual monitoring data on land use and land cover, as well as alerts on deforestation, degradation, and regeneration. In August, 2021, it launched the MapBiomas fire, water and mining platforms. [MapBiomas data shows that] mining on indigenous lands increased by 495% in the last 10 years; 20% of Brazil’s territory has burned at least once since 1985; agriculture has advanced 81 million hectares in the last 36 years. - NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
In early the 2000s, Tasso joined Brazil’s Ministry of Environment, where he was a highly effective intrapreneur creating systemic change from within. For example, he wrote and passed landmark bills for forest preservation, balanced with permits for extracting resources sustainably. He spearheaded the National Plan to Combat Deforestation in the Amazon which helped reduce deforestation in Brazil by 75% between 2004 and 2014 – representing the most significant decline in deforestation and CO2 emissions globally. One critical aspect of the Plan was partnering with Brazil’s space research institute to use technology to monitor deforestation in real-time, which proved to be one of the keys to stopping it.
On leaving government, Tasso expanded monitoring by founding two open-source, multi-actor technology platforms that closely track greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and land use changes on a national scale: the Brazilian Annual Land Use and Land Cover Mapping Project, better known as MapBiomas, and the Greenhouse Gas Emission and Removal Estimating System (SEEG).
SEEG continuously monitors all types of GHG emissions across all sectors in Brazil, and publishes annual assessments of them. MapBiomas is a collaborative network that includes CSOs, universities, Google, and tech startups. It uses remote sensors and satellites and digital mapping technology to reveal land use changes and deforestation across Brazil in real-time. It makes high-quality imagery and data freely available to scientists, governments, indigenous communities, civil society, the private sector, and anyone else who wants to use it.
The land sector (agriculture, forestry, and other land use) accounts for 23% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, and it accounts for half of Brazil’s emissions. Tropical forests are an especially powerful factor that needs careful management.
Brazil is the second most forested country in the world, with more than half a billion hectares of forest. In addition to its crucial value as a carbon sink and a biodiversity hotspot, Brazil’s forests are essential to the country’s economy, livelihoods, and food security. The Amazon alone releases 20 billion tons of water into the atmosphere each day. That accounts for 75 percent of Brazil’s rainfall, on which its agriculture and energy sectors depend (its main source of electricity is hydroelectric power). Yet Brazil today has by far the highest rate of deforestation globally, driven by the production of commodities such as timber, soy, beef, and palm oil.
In the early 2000s, Brazil faced historically high levels of deforestation. Weak governance coupled with corruption hindered sustainable management of public lands, which comprise 75 percent of the Brazilian Amazon. This led to a spike in illegal logging and land grabs encroaching on the rainforest.
You can’t manage what you can’t measure or even see. Tracking greenhouse gas emissions and sources nationally is challenging, and monitoring deforestation and other changes across vast landscapes in real-time can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Gathering accurate data on emissions and changes in land use and forests has been a perennial problem. In the early 2000s monitoring mechanisms were limited and data was lacking, resulting in limited, ineffective policies and enforcement. Conservation efforts also failed to reconcile the imperative to protect Brazil’s forests with their economic value and communities’ need for livelihoods.
Tasso changed this equation. Recognizing that any hope of protecting the Amazon requires that people living there be able to make a decent, environmentally sound living, he worked to realign conservation and economic interests as the key to avoiding deforestation. His monitoring platforms generate accurate monitoring data on environmental losses to make them transparent and guide interventions to stop them. Thanks in large part to his work, around 2010, deforestation in Brazil plunged to historically low levels. But today, as a result of subsequent policy changes, new economic pressures, and a kind of feedback loop driving more forest loss as the planet warms, deforestation levels are back up again.
Rising temperatures have led to more frequent and severe droughts and fires in the Amazon, accelerating deforestation. Climate change is also causing more intense flooding, faster spread of invasive species, and biodiversity loss, further destabilizing Brazil’s forest ecosystems.
Tasso points out that these changes are directly or indirectly caused by humans. “In general, when you take the big transformations that happen, for example, in the loss of forest, conversion to agricultural use, in the urbanization that advances in rural areas – they are all transformations guided by human action,” he says. “And even those transformations that are not direct, such as the reduction in the volume of water, are indirectly impacted by human action.”
The net effect has been a return to historically high rates of deforestation. MapBiomas reports that in 2021, Brazil’s deforestation rate increased by 20%, more than twice the rate of increase compared to countries with the next worst deforestation problems (DR Congo and Indonesia). But, says Tasso, human decisions and collaborative actions can drive it down again.
[Azevedo’s] work in preventing deforestation continues to produce dramatic results in South America, and his eagerness to involve all parties in preservation efforts is an example for all who strive to protect our environment - STANFORD NEWS
“We know how to reduce deforestation, but we need to make the decision to do so,” he says. “If there is one thing that is different at this moment, it is an important behavior of a significant part of the business and economic sector…. There is the Climate, Forest and Agriculture Coalition and other initiatives that aim to bring together those who were agents of destruction, and engage them to be agents of [protection], an example of those who do it right.”
Tasso has been instrumental in developing and refining the field of environmental and climate monitoring, generating data that diverse actors – – government agencies, banks, and local forest communities – – are using to make bold environmental commitments and that civil society organizations use as an evidence basis to support their advocacy.
He founded and leads two multi-actor “platforms of platforms” which track and share data on greenhouse gas emissions, land use changes, and land cover, with the long-term goal of building a global comparative database with granular, up-to-date information on each country’s emissions status and trends, and the most efficient ways of driving them down.
SEEG, launched in 2013, is the world’s largest digital platform for monitoring emissions across a national economy. It produces annual assessments of Brazil’s emissions at the state and national levels, across all emitter sectors: agriculture, energy, waste management, land use change, industrial processes, and consumer product use. It considers all GHGs in the national inventory, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons, and reveals emissions trends over time. One of its datasets became an influential standard adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change AR5 report to convert other GHGs into carbon dioxide equivalents.
Using a methodology Tasso designed, SEEG generates detailed monitoring data on 600 emissions sources at the state and national levels. Whereas previous monitoring regimes produced reports only every five years, SEEG reports annually. Its data demonstrated the need for updating emissions targets and making them more ambitious and became a key tool for measuring compliance and progress against the National Policy on Climate Change, and for spotting emissions trends or deviations that argued for correcting or adjusting policies.
SEEG recently launched a new system that allows Brazil’s municipal governments (there are over 5,500 of them) to review local emissions data from 2010 to the present free of charge, enabling them to focus their resources on cutting emissions. To help with this, SEEG’s annual reports include a progress and gap analysis and make policy proposals for new emissions targets and strategies to meet them. The reports and their recommendations have become influential and encouraged local authorities to set more ambitious goals.
SEEG’s data and reports are posted transparently and accessibly. Anyone can search the database, and pinpoint how specific emissions sources are tied to specific economic activities. SEEG is currently working to upload concrete proposals for mitigating each emissions source which will also be easily navigable and searchable. The proposals will include an action plan, case studies, and potential funding sources. SEEG’s methodology is open-source and offered to collaborators and adopters via a web portal.
Tasso founded MapBiomas in 1985. Since then, it has produced thousands of reports each week, including mapping land use changes, deforestation, regeneration of vegetation each year, and monitoring surface water and fire scars each month. Since 2019, it has verified and reported every single deforestation event detected in Brazil.
Today, the field of environmental monitoring Tasso helped develop has grown, and there are a dozen alert systems from various providers that monitor illegal deforestation from various providers that can trigger legal action against deforesters remotely, without on-site inspections, greatly extending enforcement of forest protection. The MapBiomas Alert system validates and refines these alert systems, enhancing their medium-resolution imagery to high-resolution, supplementing them as needed with field checks, so they function as ready-touse documentation to guide government enforcement actions, similar to the way a license plate photo documents a traffic violation. So far MapBiomas validated platforms have prompted over 8,100 actions to protect forests in Brazil.
MapBiomas also furnishes businesses with the metrics they need to make ambitious commitments to reduce their impacts. For example, Brazilian banks consult with MapBiomas on how to conduct due diligence to make sure their investments don’t fund companies involved in deforestation.
Both models are intensely collaborative and transparent, and they share their methodologies on accessible digital platforms so that more collaborators can use them. So far the SEEG system has been implemented in India and Peru. The MapBiomas system has been adopted across the Pan-Amazon and Gran Chaco regions, as well as by Uruguay and Indonesia. To scale up faster, Tasso is building and training coalitions of grassroots organizations to use available technologies to produce their own local data independently.
Tasso traces his love of forests to a road trip to he took in the late 1980s to Brazil’s Paraná state with his father, an electrical engineer, to visit a pulp plant he was helping build amid the forest. This was the time when the burning Amazon and the assassination of Ashoka Fellow Chico Mendes were making headlines. For Tasso, the idea that forests could be simultaneously protected and productive, so that they could support both biodiversity and livelihoods, was a revelation. It inspired him to study forest engineering at the University of São Paulo. As a university student, he had his first encounter with the Amazon when he went with a friend to visit her family’s property in the state of Montelus. He was shocked to see loggers clear-cutting part of the property. “I was experiencing a mix of conflicting feelings,” he said. “There was this wonder at the exuberance of the forest, full of life and mega biodiversity. And at the same time, there was despair hearing the sound of the chainsaw and the cracks of the trees falling down, followed by a sort of deafening silence.”
On the drive back to camp, Tasso heard the farm administrator explaining that clearing the forest was necessary to expand the cattle raising since the old pasture was getting degraded and dry. When Tasso asked if this was legal, he was told, “No, nobody sees or cares about it and that’s the way we develop land here.” Nearly 30 years later, Tasso says, “those sounds and words still echo in my head every time I put my feet on a forest.”
Mapping project MapBiomas is working with state governments, prosecutors and even state-controlled Banco do Brasil to flag illegal land clearances and bring the culprits to account with consequences including fines, lawsuits, and loan refusals…. While best known in Brazil, MapBiomas is running similar projects in almost all South American countries and in Indonesia, working in partnership with local scientists. - THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION NEWS
While at university, Tasso displayed his talent for convening people around a shared endeavor that would define his career. He went abroad to attend a symposium of the International Forestry Students’ Association, and finding it personally transformative, he was determined to share it with others. Most students he knew lacked the funds to travel, so he mobilized them to host the next IFSA symposium in Brazil. He built teams to plan, coordinate, and fundraise, pulling off an event that brought together 140 students from 90 countries. Tasso also holds the record of the highest number of internships (20+) that a student has ever taken at the university, reflecting his polymath bent and his penchant for making cross-disciplinary connections.
In 1993, Tasso teamed up with his professor Virgílio Viana to help establish the Brazil chapter of the newly created Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a sustainability certification regime that set global standards for forest management encompassing social, environmental, and economic criteria. Tasso realized that the forestry professionals doing the certification tended to be Americans and Europeans traveling to the tropics. He and Virgilio believed that certification had to be truly global and incorporate local knowledge and expertise. Two days after his graduation, Tasso and Virgilio launched Imaflora to build that vision. It’s now the leading certification organization in Brazil, certifying more than 3 million hectares of forest, and is influential globally. The regime works by bringing diverse stakeholders together and balancing their interests, facilitating dialog, and aligning goals. That became a core theme of Tasso’s career.
In the 2000s, Tasso joined Brazil’s Ministry of Environment, where his game-changing initiatives included:
- Writing and helping pass a landmark bill creating and regulating government forest preserves to prevent illegal logging, instituting a concessionary system that ties permits for extracting forest resources to compliance with socio-environmental standards.
- Launching a major initiative to stop the illegal trade in mahogany, auctioning off seized wood to raise money for community projects in the Amazon.
- Designing and creating the Brazilian Forest Service, which brought diverse stakeholders together to facilitate enforcement and strengthen tracking mechanisms.
- Conceiving and leading the development of the Amazon Fund, currently the world’s largest forest protection fund.
- Spearheading the development of the National Plan to Combat Deforestation in the Amazon. The Plan helped reduce deforestation by 75% between 2004 and 2014. It included a partnership with Brazil’s space research institute to track deforestation in real time, enabling the government, CSOs, and businesses to quickly identify and respond to illegal logging. Tasso later built on that experience to create SEEG and MapBiomas.
Tasso’s belief that everyone is accountable for social and environmental change is reflected in his strategy of engaging and equipping people from all sectors and walks of life to take action. Tasso has established multiple systems which empower others to lead positive change, and which will endure and flourish without him – the mark of highly effective social entrepreneurs.