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By working with private landholders, forest communities, and government regulations and incentives, Rodrigo Castro is building a national conservation network to preserve the unique caatinga forest ecosystem.

This profile below was prepared when Rodrigo Castro was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.


By working with private landholders, forest communities, and government regulations and incentives, Rodrigo Castro is building a national conservation network to preserve the unique caatinga forest ecosystem.


Rodrigo is linking conservation to economic growth in Brazil’s caatinga region, through a series of mechanisms that on the one hand help rural landowners comply with existing environmental laws, and on the other, promote the laws’ enforcement and expansion. Faced with an annual deforestation rate of nearly 500,000 hectares, Brazil's caatinga region—the country’s only ecosystem that cannot be found elsewhere in the world -is under considerable threat. Yet unlike the Amazon and other regions in the country, it remains outside the protection of any national conservation network. With the vast majority of the caatinga in private hands, Rodrigo has found a way to unite the interests of rural farmers and landowners and the government in order to create an equivalent network for the caatinga.

Working through the Associacao Caatinga, Rodrigo begins by helping farmers who own what are known as Private Natural Heritage Reserves (RPPN units) to better manage their landholdings, lobby for improved financial and governmental support, educate their communities about private conservation, and finally, engage in income generation and alternative methods for sustainable economic growth. Through this and accompanying awareness building efforts, Rodrigo has created a system that encourages farmers to set aside portions of their property as preservation areas, and through careful land management and the assistance of the Association, improve their economic standings. Moreover, Rodrigo works with the smaller farming communities that typically surround the large private preservation areas. He introduces income-generating projects in these communities that allow them to sustainably use forest resources and benefit from rather than be hurt by conservation.

In an effort to better scale the idea, Rodrigo formed Asa Branca in 2003, in order to link private landholders and local conservation efforts across the entire caatinga region. Asa Branca pools together RPPN owners from different states, and advocates for expanded conservation policies. On the public policy side, Rodrigo and Asa Branca are lobbying for the creation of a state sales tax as a fund for local nature reserves, as well as tax breaks for donations to environmental groups and other conservation incentives. The two complementary organizations work hand-in-hand, with the goal of together building up a social, economic and political infrastructure to foster conservation and development in the caatinga.

Rodrigo is now working to scale up his currently volunteer-based Asa Branca initiative, and ultimately plans to take his ideas to similar semi-arid regions around the world.


Home to a rich and abundant biodiversity, the caatinga, a tropical steppe in Brazil’s semiarid region, is the only Brazilian natural environment that cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. Covering nearly 10 percent of the country’s territory, caatinga stretches across 9 Northeastern states. Since the early days of colonization, however, the caatinga has been subject to heavy resource exploitation and environmental degradation. Having lost 50 percent of its original coverage area, the caatinga continues to face a deforestation rate of 0.5 million hectares each year, leaving widespread poverty and economic desperation in its wake.

With few economic options, locals depend on the region’s natural resources to survive, and often have little choice but to exploit those resources for short-term gain. Common practices include itinerant agriculture and the indiscriminate soil burning that accompanies it, excessive cattle farming, and logging: all with heavy cost to the environment and the region’s long-term productivity. Such uses have drastically reduced biodiversity, and left behind degraded soil, fewer natural resources, and rampant desertification that has transformed more than 40,000 square kilometers in the Northeast into desert.

Despite such serious threats, there remain few preservation areas; indeed, less than half of one percent of the land is designated as a conservation unit. While the long-term economic survival of the region depends on the health of its natural environment, further conservation cannot, however, come at the expense of the development of the region’s local population. The situation is exacerbated in large part by a dearth of effective public policy interventions and the low level of investment aimed at the region’s natural preservation and sustainable development.

One of the government’s few attempts at encouraging conservation has been its creation of Natural Heritage Private Reserves, or RPPN units, aimed at preserving private lands. Landowners can independently decide to designate part or all of their land to preservation, and may then conduct whatever activities they choose, subject to the approval of the agency responsible for RPPN approval and certification. Those activities must not damage ecological balance or harm the survival of an existing species. While RPPN units signify a particularly useful model for curbing degradation and desertification in the caatinga, most rural landowners remain unaware of both their economic value and the regulations that govern them. 

Currently, the only fiscal incentive for creating an RPPN unit lies in an available discount in the Rural Land Tax (ITR), provided in proportion to the size of the property preserved. Expanding the use and development of RPPN units will require additional incentives and outside assistance in land management techniques.


Rodrigo begins by working directly with farmers and RPPN owners, helping them to collectively organize, develop and implement their own management plans, and connect with others in the region. His association teaches the RPPN owners involved in the network sustainable land management techniques, and trains teachers and students to educate their families and communities about conservation practices.

Through Asa Branca, he is working to build up uninterrupted stretches of RPPN units across state lines, in order to better protect wildlife in the region, reduce the threat of fire, and improve soil conditions. Of the region's 31 RPPN units, 16 are thus far members of Asa Branca. The organization provides a framework through which landowners can exchange information, acquire financial and technical support and training to better manage their preservation areas, and collectively lobby for government support. Asa Branca also represents the interests of its members in the National RPPN Confederation, and undertakes extensive lobbying and support programs to foster the expanded usage of RPPN units.

Asa Branca, together with Ibama, Brazil's premier environmental organization, and the Ministry of the Environment, designed a methodology for RPPN Management Plans: A roadmap to help farmers and landowners sustainably manage land once they have declared it an RPPN unit. To this end, he created an investment fund—Aliança Caatinga—to support farmers' conservation activities and reduce the costs of on-going management. Rodrigo would like to expand the Aliança Caatinga by attracting investors from different sectors who would be able also to influence public policy, and pressure Ibama to speed up RPPN documentation. The fund will be managed by a committee structure, and resources will be granted to projects selected on the basis of optimizing environmental resource usage and community development.

Rodrigo is also working to encourage local governments to enforce environmental law by recognizing and rewarding those that uphold environmental standards. Focusing on the municipalities that are home to RPPN units, he created a Green City Certification program, which annually identifies cities that meet certain criteria regarding conservation and sustainable natural resource use. The program is responsible for developing technical reports, evaluating such aspects as solid residues, water resources, land use and occupation, environmental education, health and infrastructure, and suggesting improvements, which are then delivered to Mayors and Municipal Environmental Councils. 

He is well aware that meaningful conservation will only occur if farmers and other stakeholders see added economic value in doing so. He is seeking ways to apply the protector-receiver principle to private land conservation: that is, to ensure that any public or private agent who protects a natural asset to the benefit of a community is financially compensated for the service. He is working to create what is known as the ICMS Ecológico, an ecological tax to be provided to landowners in exchange for forming RPPN units. Acting in concert with the Green City Certification, the ICMS Ecológico will financially compensate cities in the state of Ceará that manage their natural resources efficiently. 

He is now working to ensure that such measures are enforced at the municipal level. To that end, Rodrigo is driving forward a draft bill in the Ceará state legislature that will institute the ecological tax and ensure that the cities that implement and enforce environmental management policies are properly rewarded.  Having created a Technical and Legal Work Group to draft the bill, he plans to then focus on communicating the importance and scope of the project to the public.

Finally, Rodrigo has designed a series of mechanisms to extend these incentives to Brazil's many small landholders, who depend on the land's resources for basic survival. He pools groups of small-scale family farmers together to form RPPN units, or alternatively organizes them into existing associations and cooperatives. He then provides them with employment training and income-generation opportunities, focusing on skills-training and helping them to collectively take advantage of new emerging markets. Taking advantage of the increasing use of castor bean oil as a source of biodiesel, Rodrigo trains the farmers to grow and harvest castor beans, and in the process, gives them a new role in the production chain. These cooperatives allow the farmers to acquire a sufficient supply to trade directly in the market, and already, ten settlement associations in the region are on board. Rodrigo has entered discussions with Petrobras, Brazil's national oil company, about it buying the farmers' output. He convinced the state government to pledge to build a warehouse in which the farmers will store their production, and Rodrigo is now considering the development of a fuel certification to go along with the efforts.

Rodrigo has forged a number of strong partnerships to support these efforts within the private and government sectors, as well as the citizen sector. His partners now include The Nature Conservancy, FUNBIO (Brazilian Biodiversity Fund), WWF, Instituto Unibanco, Jonhson Diversey, Federal University of Ceará, Instituto Aliança, Banco do Nordeste, Avina Foundation, Ministry of the Environment, National Council for the Caatinga Biosphere Reserve, Northeast RPPN Owner Association, among others.


Rodrigo Castro was born and grew up in the city of São Paulo, and developed an interest in the relationship between humankind and nature from an early age. The grandson of Swiss immigrants, he applied for a scholarship at the Federal Polytechnic University of Zurich to study natural science and explore the world beyond Brazil’s borders. Upon graduation, he returned to Brazil and began work in the Northeast on a series of conservation projects. It was during this experience that he began to ways to address both conservation and social and economic development.

He went on to enroll in an extension course in Ireland, receiving a full scholarship to study Development Studies at the National University of Ireland. There, he conducted his Master’s thesis on a sustainable development model for the Amazonian region and concurrently worked with an organization called Concern Worldwide. This work led him to Mozambique, where for the next four years, he worked on a number of socio-environmental development projects, and went on to work and study in South Africa.

Recognizing the similarities between his work in Africa and the Brazilian Northeast, he returned to Brazil in 2000, and was introduced to the newly established Associação Caatinga.

A natural leader and bridge-builder, Rodrigo played a critical role in restructuring the National RPPN Confederation, and is currently in his second term as its national director. Committed to systematizing his efforts, he went on to publish several environmental and development-related books that have since become references both in Brazil and abroad.

Rodrigo is now working to expand this work throughout Brazil and other semiarid biomes around the world. To this end, he plans to focus heavily on his work with Asa Branca, established with scale and broad impact in mind.