Fabio Vaz

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1998
Individual Brazil
This description of Fabio Vaz's work was prepared when Fabio Vaz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998 .


An agricultural technician inspired by Chico Mendes' mission, Fábio Vaz is fighting to establish a new paradigm for sustainable development in the Amazon region, to enhance the living conditions of people in the forest both socially and economically.

The New Idea

For some years, Fabio Vaz has been a force for the preservation of the Amazon. Under his direction, the Amazon Working Group (GTA), which started out in the early nineties as a fledgling association, has grown to include over 300 organizations and is recognized as the authority on Amazonian issues in Brazil. However, after the GTA’s initial success, Fábio has come to a crossroads. He believes that the future of the Amazon and its peoples depends largely on how well they can begin to market and sell products indigenous to the region. He realizes that pursuing conservation policies alone will not salvage the region. Fábio is thus breaking away from the GTA to form a new project -- the first serious attempt to create both the capacity and the network for marketing agro-forestry projects from the Amazon region.

To launch this initiative Fabio convened the first ever Expo-Amazonia in Rio de Janeiro in 1998, highlighting various products from the Amazon and developing partnerships with major businesses within and outside Brazil. He intends to establish a network for Amazonian agro-forestry products, through regional marketing centers (to bring together producers from a selected region or sub-region of the Amazon) and one general marketing headquarters. This system will enable producers to share the costs of transportation, storage, quality control, production management, training, and operating credit.

The Problem

The end of the 1980's and the beginning of the 1990's were marked by the creation of new political spaces, fought for by diverse social movements in the Amazonian Legal States. Extractive reserves, re-drawn borders for Indigenous territories, protected lakes -- all became reality, forming thousands of areas to be preserved and occupied by their communities. Yet the greatest challenge still before the Amazonian peoples remains the question of how to devise appropriate, locally-controlled, sustainable development policies within the region. Despite the importance of the creation of the extractive reserves, many people who live in them are unable to meet their most basic needs with what they earn from rubber tapping, nut gathering or similar extractive activities. Moreover, there are other populations in the Amazon area who do not live in reserves, and whose products cannot compete in national and international markets. Moving beyond the initial phase in areas of conservation, the need has arisen to create concrete solutions for economic sustainability for the peoples of the forest.

Although some ideas have emerged in the area of economic development within these communities, they have often run into serious problems, due to the low production capacity (relative to market demand), poor product quality, deficient appearance, the absence of promotion and marketing, a lack of personnel trained in entrepreneurial management and production, and a paucity of market research. Over and above these impediments, intermediaries tend to stifle the development of the local initiatives because they can afford to negotiate better prices for raw materials. The national market could play an important role in the development of a sustainable economy for the Amazon area, but private companies are often unaware of potential opportunities in Amazonian commodities. Meanwhile, international companies engage in some partnerships, but only on a very specific basis, and do not address the question of economic development in the community as a whole. Moreover, local organizations have shown inefficiency in their inability to overcome internal obstacles and meet demands. Given the simultaneous agendas of public policy and social mobilization, marketing tasks are shifted to a lower priority in their agendas.

The Strategy

Fábio's leadership in the region was established during three years at GTA, where he designed a logistical assistance network for the 355 functioning organization members, widening their participation in public policy debates, and actively accompanying the Program of Development Extractors -- a special credit program from the federal government. He developed research consultancies, including portfolio organization for non-wood forestry products, that will offer 40 different investments based in 18 regional products. Fábio also prepared a diagnosis of the current marketing situation, to serve as a basis for the planning and formation of commercial centers that will be developed in the region. Fábio then conducted the Expo-Amazonia in São Paulo state to form a series of partnerships with institutions and the private sector, such as supermarket chains, an international rubber company, and others. Not only was the Expo successful in laying the groundwork for these partnerships, but it also provided (in many cases the first) direct feedback to the producers about their products.

Currently, Fábio is consolidating the initiatives he has already begun, winning access to financing and special credit for local producers, building on the network experiences of constituents of 14 regions throughout Amazon, enhancing the implementation of programs in professional production training, promoting forestry, and identifying partnerships with the private sector to market agro-forestry products. Fábio plans to transform "Amazonia" into a seal of quality, a brand name with the potential for strong impact in social marketing as well as a tool for educating national and international civil society.

Fábio's idea goes beyond mere management or organizational consulting, to develop a structure unique to the community production sector and its commercial clients. The agro-forestry base will promote greater business flexibility and efficiency, and will also eliminate existing intermediaries between the production sector and commercial clients. Fábio wants to provide all of the Amazon's producers with commercial capacity in proportion to the evolution of self-managed commercial relationships among these groups.

The General Marketing Center Fábio is creating, with the goal of promoting and marketing agro-forestry products in national and international markets, will raise market prospects for products connected to the work of the Center and its affiliates, by identifying and implementing partnerships with the private sector to market agro-forestry products. Fábio will continue to promote products through marketing events such as the Expo-Amazonia fair, an initiative that was a complete success in terms of creating partnerships between producers and private businesses in the Rio-São Paulo area. He is planning to develop and manage a thematic shop for agro-forestry products, and a database with product information from the regional commercial center, with information about potential clients and suppliers. Fábio is also designing a management-training program together with the regional centers, directly or in partnership with other institutions that will lend their services. Within five years he hopes to have established a comprehensive network for rationalizing production decisions and coordinating distribution of products which will generate significant income for community groups in the Amazon, in ways that are responsive to and respectful of environmental concerns. This model can then, in turn, serve as the basis for similar efforts on behalf of indigenous groups in other ecologically precarious regions, where a population’s right to subsist competes with environmental conservation or external economic interests.

The Person

When he was 14 years old, Fábio decided to leave his hometown to go to São Paulo to study agriculture and cattle raising. Impressed by Chico Mendes' struggle to protect Amazon rainforest, Fabio decided to commit himself to working on the issue. In 1983, Fábio went to Xapuri to work with Chico Mendes at the Rubber-Tappers Union on cooperative education. There, he actively participated in the creation of the Xapuri Extractors Cooperative, and organized the planning and the implementation of the chestnut harvesting group, which is now responsible for the management of a chestnut plant and rubber factory.

Invited to take the role of the executive secretary of the Amazon Work Group, in Brasília, Fábio managed the process of transforming an institution that was becoming less effective and relevant into one that, in effect, substantially influences decision-making related to public policy and the preservation of Amazon. Fábio's mission is to promote economic and ecologically sustainable development in the region, as demonstrated by the initiatives created within the scope of the GTA's actions. But this is not enough for him. In fact, Fábio wants to integrate the Amazon economically and ecologically with the rest of Brazil.