Carlos Alberto “Beto” Ricardo has been a staunch defender of environmental and indigenous rights for the past 35 years. Beto is spearheading a socioenvironmental development approach in Brazil, which brings the traditional knowledge and wisdom of indigenous groups to the forefront and entrenches their rights through public policy changes and economic undertakings.

This profile below was prepared when Carlos Alberto Ricardo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.


Carlos Alberto “Beto” Ricardo has been a staunch defender of environmental and indigenous rights for the past 35 years. Beto is spearheading a socioenvironmental development approach in Brazil, which brings the traditional knowledge and wisdom of indigenous groups to the forefront and entrenches their rights through public policy changes and economic undertakings.


Founder of two of Brazil’s most important social, environmental and human rights organizations, Beto has been a pioneer in advancing the links between human rights, environmental protection, and sustainable development for over 35 years. He has done this through creating innovative “socioenvironmental” solutions that have given indigenous groups the legal rights to millions of acres of land and the tools to remain on those lands in sustainable manners.

In the early 1970s Beto co-founded Brazil’s leading citizen organization (CO), the Ecumenical Center for Documentation and Information (CEDI). By 1992 he had already left an extraordinary footprint on Brazilian history, bringing indigenous rights onto the agenda as Brazil’s 1988 Constitution was being drafted and culminating in winning the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. But Beto viewed this merely as the beginning of Brazil’s transformation, and in 1994 he formed a second major CO the SocioEnvironmental Institute (ISA), whose new idea was to integrate new solutions that were both social and environmental. The groundbreaking nature of ISA’s work was symbolized by the creation and wide adoption of a new term in Portuguese—socioambiental or socioenvironmental.
ISA has pioneered the concept of integrating environmental protection and sustainable development with indigenous groups. ISA’s work has achieved significant impact by influencing public policies and spearheading new laws while effectively developing 70 million hectares through three separate projects, in three different parts of Brazil. ISA has introduced integrated programs from satellite mapping and monitoring against land invasions, to sustainable income-generation, to schools and clinics designed and operated locally, to extending formal citizenship and advocating for needed national policy changes. These initiatives have become models for indigenous socioenvironmental development in Brazil and around Latin America.


Brazil is home to one of the world’s most culturally and historically diverse populations: There are 220 indigenous peoples, 5,000 quilombola communities (descendants of Africans), caiçaras, (i.e. descendants of intermarriage between Portuguese colonists, indigenous populations and African slaves); caboclos ribeirinhos, (i.e. persons of mixed Brazilian indigenous and European ancestry); peasants and traditional communities making up 8 million people and occupying more than one-third of Brazil’s territory. Brazil’s biodiversity is also second to none. Nevertheless, Brazilians usually fail to see this incredible socio-biodiversity as a core asset. In fact, the environment and the various peoples who act as its guardian are still viewed as obstacles and symbols of underdevelopment. They fail to realize however that indigenous peoples, who are among Brazil’s most vulnerable and poorest, subsist thanks to the environment and also help preserve it. In addition, these “forgotten” people are also constantly threatened by socioenvironmental conflicts: Land ownership battles, large hydroelectric projects, and wood contraband, among others. Although the Amazon usually comes to mind when describing such situations, these unfortunate scenarios are also realities for people living in lesser known regions of Brazil, including the Vale do Ribeira, located between the states of Sao Paulo and Paraná, home to the country’s biggest Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica).

Although Brazil’s citizen sector achieved important victories in the late 1980s and 1990s, which brought the government to recognize and protect environmental and indigenous rights, the challenges remain great. The development model adopted in Brazil has been ecologically devastating and has concentrated resources in the hands of the richest few, leaving the majority more impoverished than ever. Due to the economic incentives inherent to this model, practically half of Brazil’s vegetation has been devastated. In fact, none of Brazil’s successive governments have taken into account the environmental dimension of economic growth.
By omitting to recognize the social and environmental dimensions of development, Brazilians have begun to believe economic growth must come at the expense of environmental sustainability. Experience has increasingly shown however, that this belief could not be further from the truth: “Development” can only be development if it is sustainable. A drastic revision of the paradigm of ‘growth at all cost’ is in order.Unfortunately, Brazilians, and the world, have yet to realize that misery, hunger, and injustice are direct derivatives of faulty development models. Brazil’s socio-biodiversity is its most promising asset, and all sectors of society must collaborate in order to achieve socioenvironmental sustainability.


Beto began his work in the early 1970s as one of the founding members of CEDI, the most important Brazilian CO of the past 40 years. It fought the 25-year military dictatorship with facts, studies, ideas, and new proposals in the 1970s with the protection of the church, and in the 1980s, by offering an incredibly wide variety of new ideas to a country emerging into democracy and thirsty for new solutions.

Beto led CEDI’s environmental programs in the 1980s, and when Brazil was drafting a new Constitution in 1988, his field research provided new insights and argued persuasively in support of indigenous rights and the future of the Amazon. As a result of the national concern that was generated, indigenous people were given stronger guarantees in the Constitution. In 1989, Beto was instrumental in laying the groundwork for an alliance between Indians and rubbertappers, two groups who coexisted in Brazil’s vast rainforest, but who had traditionally fought each other. Beto also co-founded the Committee for the Creation of the Yanomami Park (CCPY) because in the late 1980s over 45,000 gold miners had invaded the Yanomami. In 1991, in significant part due to the CCPY’s efforts, President Collor issued a decree creating a continuous reserve of 94,000 square kilometers for the Yanomami people. This set a major new precedent and led to the formal creation of hundreds of indigenous reserves which now cover nearly one-third of Brazil.

By 1994, the founders of CEDI agreed it was time to divide into various focused COs and Beto founded ISA, but with a more field and program oriented approach, as opposed to CEDI’s over-arching recommendations. Beto realized that it wasn’t enough to win formal rights to the land. He and his former colleagues at CEDI put together a comprehensive, and eventually an online, mapping system. Not only do these maps give information on topography and vegetation, they also show activity in a given area, such as invasions and planned dam sites. Thus, Beto saw, and showed Brazil, that indigenous groups had been living for hundreds of years in harmony with the environment and that it was outsiders moving into the Amazon who were destroying the Amazon through slash and burn agriculture and huge, single-crop farms.

From its early beginnings, ISA began implementing regional projects with the aim of producing and disseminating knowledge that would enable the institute to shape public policy and consolidate the socioenvironmental development approach. Based on his previous mapping and population surveys that, for the first time, showed Brazil where indigenous groups were located, how many people there were and the diversity of indigenous groups, ISA targeted three major geographical areas to help protect and develop. ISA began its work in Rio Xingu and Rio Negro, in the Amazon, and then expanded its work to the Mata Atlântica in 1999. These initiatives aimed to create replicable participatory approaches to resource management by bringing together traditional and technical knowledge.

In Rio Negro, for example, Beto has created an Indigenous Sustainable Development Program that operates on indigenous territories spanning 10.6 million hectares, and serves nearly 40,000 people. (These indigenous territories were legally recognized as such by the Brazilian government as a result of a campaign coordinated by ISA.) The program has enabled the creation of schools planned and run by indigenous people, supported income-generation projects and implemented the Department of Justice’s Balcão da Cidadania Program to offer citizenship education and juridical services to indigenous populations. In Rio Negro, the Balcão da Cidadania has allowed 4,193 people, of 19 ethnicities, to receive national identity documents and has offered courses on indigenous rights to these communities.

In the Xingu region, ISA’s partnerships with indigenous groups have: Increased opportunities for dialogue with the broader Brazilian population; allowed indigenous populations to become political leaders; trained people in traditional resource management approaches; and protected the indigenous territories’ borders. For example, as part of its resource management initiatives, ISA has successfully helped indigenous farmers to eliminate middlemen thus increasing their sales of local organic produce by 80 percent. ISA has also led the way in reforestation efforts in the Xingu region.
ISA’s mapping technology and expertise have brought about important policy changes. The institute participates in the Amazon’s Geographic Information System and is responsible for generating data about Indigenous Lands and State Conservation Units in six Brazilian states. The Ministry of the Environment recently solicited ISA’s services seeking a socioeconomic and environmental diagnostic of a territory spanning 7.9 million hectares in Para as well as alternative policy proposals. As a result, ISA suggested that the Ministry of the Environment create a mosaic of Conservation Units, an innovative proposal that bridges the gap between various forms of settlements and environmental protection.
So ISA has pioneered an integrated and more holistic approach of environmental protection and sustainable development, learning from and working with indigenous groups rather than imposing outside solutions. ISA quickly overturned the conventional “wisdom” of many years with facts and successful projects. Beto’s mapping showed that, contrary to government reports stipulating that there weren’t any indigenous groups in the huge state of Acre, there are dozens of different indigenous groups and thousands of indigenous people, now represented as a separate department within the state government. The institute has also dispelled the view that there was basically one overall indigenous group by mapping 220 indigenous groups and 5,000 quilombola groups (African descendants) living in almost all Brazilian states. 

Moreover, ISA’s efforts have affected public policies and have had a critical influence on judicial rulings. For example, in 2003, ISA was the first organization to get the Brazilian judiciary to recognize the environmental and cultural destruction caused by the construction of a highway in the middle of indigenous reserves. The Panara people were offered 1.2 million reais (US$690,000) in reparations, as a result of the judiciary’s historical ruling.
ISA now has nearly 150 staff working on those three major projects and a couple of smaller, satellite offices. It acts as a trusted partner with the many indigenous groups, and as a bridge to international groups, which provide the majority of the institute’s US$1.3M budget. In order to ensure the institute’s sustainability, Beto and his team are actively seeking greater contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations, and governmental bodies in Brazil.

Beto aims to gradually step away from the day to day responsibilities of ISA and is already spearheading three major new efforts bringing together all three sectors of society. The first consists of turning food products from the Amazon region into gastronomic products highly demanded by “haute cuisine” chefs. The second initiative, named Passagem da Cidadania (Citizenship Boulevard), is transforming the old, run down historical center of the city into a hotbed for culture. Beto is also co-founding Brazil’s newest environmental organization, the Institute of Democracy and Sustainability (IDS), bringing together prominent political figures such as Maria Silva (i.e. a highly respected environmental leader who worked along side Chico Mendes, and ran in the 2010 presidential elections), and business leaders such as Guilherme Leal of Natura. The IDS aims to bring environmental issues to the forefront of the public discourse by finding sustainable solutions to Brazil’s most pressing environmental problems, while aptly avoiding the traps of party politics.


Beto was born in 1950 into a family of Italian immigrants, which had been persecuted and lost everything during the Second World War. His father started as an office boy in Unilever and, as a self-made man, became the first Brazilian president of this major industrial company. Beto studied at one of the most progressive, intellectually demanding Catholic private schools in Sao Paulo. In 1970, a priest who had lived for three years in the Amazon invited Beto to go with him. This first trip to the Amazon changed his life.

The military government’s policy was that the Amazon needed to be populated and integrated, because it was an empty territory and could be lost to foreigners; but Beto saw a wide variety of people from different looking indigenous groups. He began writing down in his notebook the names and locations of different groups, how many lived where in that area. Over 15 years, this mapping exercise grew and became the foundation for the path breaking mapping project, which changed the entire focus of the 1988 Constitution debate about indigenous rights.

After becoming one of the founding members of CEDI, he continued his work on mapping and understanding the indigenous groups, but still taught as a secure professor at Unicamp University. He and others had long been talking with leading intellectuals like Fernando Henrique Cardoso about the need to create an enduring civil society in Brazil as a counterweight to the military government and a business class focused on growth and wealth. So he quit his university position and worked full-time with CEDI focusing not just on his environmental programs, but also on professionalizing CEDI and preparing it as a platform to create a civil society. Twenty years later, the founders agreed to split CEDI into various spinoff organizations becoming a platform for an entire civil sector.

Beto therefore set off to create the SocioEnvironmental Institute. He brought together CEDI’s Indigenous Peoples in Brazil Program, the CO called Indigenous Rights Nucleus, environmental leaders and leading-edge academics, thus exemplifying the inseparable nature of their work. Not only did ISA introduce the socioenvironmental concept in Brazil it also became a leader on the topic and effectively created an alternative approach to sustainable development.

As Beto looks to the future, he is convinced that his integrated socioenvironmental approach aimed at deep impact in specific geographical areas has proven far more successful than isolated efforts along issues such as education, health, and so on. He sees a new era beginning in Brazil in which real collaborations (not just photo-ops) among the social, business, and public sector are starting to work on integrated development projects. He sees this change as driven not only by the failure of isolated efforts and programs to have a major social impact, but also by the realization by all three sectors that the planet and Brazil are at-risk and that new and innovative approaches are urgently required.