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Stanford University announces inaugural recipient of the Bright Award

The Bright Award will be given annually to an unheralded individual who has made significant contributions to global conservation efforts. The inaugural prize recognizes a forestry manager whose innovative efforts have reduced deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and cut Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This news story was originally published November 13, 2013 in Stanford Report.

By Bjorn Carey

Tasso Azevedo describes sustainable forestry practices in a preserve near Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo credit: Gordon Gurley.

Tasso Azevedo, a forestry manager and socio-environmental entrepreneur dedicated to preserving the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, has been selected as the inaugural recipient of the Bright Award at Stanford University. The $100,000 prize is given annually to an unheralded individual who has made significant contributions to global sustainability. It is the top environmental award from Stanford.

Azevedo founded the Brazilian non-governmental organization Imaflora to create alternatives to deforestation and was the first chief and director general of the Brazilian Forest Service. In the past 18 years, his innovative approach in promoting forestry management techniques has contributed to reducing the rate of deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent, and resulted in a 35 percent reduction of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions. His work has inspired similar efforts around the world.

The Bright Award, issued by Stanford Law School in collaboration with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, is the only honor of its kind to recognize significant achievement in conservation in different regions of the world. The prize was made possible by a gift to Stanford Law School from alumnus Ray Bright.

“Tasso Azevedo’s innovative approach to forestry management represents what the Bright Award is all about,” said M. Elizabeth Magill, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean at Stanford Law School. “It was a genuine honor to select Tasso as the inaugural recipient of the Bright Award and a joy to personally inform him of the exciting news. His 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.”

“Tasso is thinking about multiple ways in which he can influence ways forests can be successfully managed in a sustainable way,” said Nomination Committee Chair Barton H. “Buzz” Thompson Jr., JD/MBA ’76 (BA ’72), the Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law and Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “He’s somebody who is thinking very practically and looking at multiple ways he can change people’s behavior, and he has been very effective at doing this at both the governmental and NGO level. These were all characteristics that we had in mind as we searched for a recipient of this first Bright Award.”

Assigning value

Azevedo began his forestry career in 1995, soon after graduating from the University of Sao Paulo. He co-founded Imaflora on the premise that the most effective way to conserve tropical rainforests was to assign them an economic value, while promoting environmentally sound and socially fair management practices. This approach involves processes that certify that commercial forest products were harvested from forests that are responsibly managed.

Under his leadership, from 1995 to 2002, Imaflora became the leading environmental certification institution in Brazil, certifying more than 3 million hectares of forest. It also developed several global innovations, such as getting the public involved in setting standards and conducting assessments and establishing the Social Certification Fund to support the certification of community and family operations.

In 2003, Azevedo was appointed Brazil’s national forest program director, under the Ministry of Environment. In this role, he introduced goals and incentives to promote sustainable forestry that resulted in nearly doubling the annual area of planted forests and the area of natural forest managed in the country.

Azevedo implemented and chaired the National Forest Commission – which involved representatives from NGOs, loggers, forestry industry, indigenous people, social movements, workers’ unions, scientists and government – that proposed a bill to reform regulations and practices in public forests. Such forests comprise 75 percent of the Amazon. After the law was approved, the president nominated Azevedo as the first chief and director general of the Brazilian Forest Service. During this time, he instituted an innovative forest concession model whereby any parties wishing to bid for a long-term contract to harvest forest products must first detail the social benefits and environmental care that the operation will implement.

In 2003 and 2004, Azevedo collaborated with public agencies, NGOs and sustainable businesses to defeat the illegal traffic of mahogany, one of the most endangered and expensive timbers in the market. A task force apprehended more than 10,000 cubic meters of logs; the timber was sold through certified companies and the profits were donated to an endowment fund to benefit the local communities that had previously been pressured by illegal loggers. Within a few months’ time, the illegal market of mahogany from Brazil had virtually collapsed.

Fighting deforestation

These experiences inspired the creation of the National Plan to Combat Deforestation in the Amazon that aligned actions by the federal and state governments with the public to fight the all-time record of 2.7 million hectares of deforestation in 2004. Azevedo was one of the key people involved in designing and implementing the plan that resulted in multiple positive actions, such as the imprisonment of more than 700 people, including more than 100 public servants, involved in corruption and illegal actions related to deforestation and forest degradation. Officials apprehended 1.4 million cubic meters of illegal logs and created 25 million hectares of newly protected areas. Compared to the average rate of deforestation in the 1990s, the deforestation rate had decreased by 50 percent as of 2007 and by 80 percent by 2012.

By this time, Azevedo had become exceptionally aware of deforestation’s role in climate change. Global warming is driven not just by carbon emissions, but also by the reduction of Earth’s natural ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Historically, deforestation has been the single most important source of greenhouse gas emissions from Brazil. In 2005 it represented two-thirds of all emissions, and Brazil was the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

Limiting deforestation is a key step in addressing climate change concerns, Azevedo said. But for Brazil, the forests also need protection for basic reasons.

“It’s in Brazil’s best interest to protect the forest because it’s our main source of rain,” he said. “Seventy percent of our rain comes from evaporation from the forest. If we don’t have forests, we don’t have rain. Eighty percent of our energy comes from hydroelectric power; if we don’t have rain, we don’t have energy. We don’t have agriculture or fresh water. It’s a no-brainer. We have to take care of the forests.”

The reduction of deforestation since 2005 represents more than 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions avoided, by far the greatest contribution of any country in the world to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Environmental Program.

These achievements inspired Azevedo to propose the Amazon Fund, a fund dedicated entirely to promoting forest conservation in the Amazon and monitoring forests around the world. The Amazon Fund, established in 2008 and currently the largest forest conservation fund in the world, has a commitment of $1 billion, distributed over seven years, from the Norwegian government to continuously reduce deforestation.

From 2009 to 2012, Azevedo worked as a consultant to the Minister of Environment in Brazil on forest and climate policy and, in collaboration with other leaders, designed Brazil’s National Policy on Climate Change, which included a goal of reducing Brazil’s emissions by 36.1 percent by 2020.

Lately Azevedo has begun developing a system to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors of Brazil’s economy as an open data source in partnership with more than 30 civil organizations.

“I’m very lucky,” he said. “I’ve just happened to be in the right place in the right time to make a difference, and I’m very happy that I could be useful to all my teammates in facing all those challenges.”

The Bright Award was made possible by a generous estate gift to Stanford Law School from Ray Bright, Stanford Law School class of 1959, and his wife, Marcelle.  Bright passed away in 2011.

Youthful mountaineer

As a child, Bright spent countless hours outdoors with his father, who was a park ranger at Mount Rainier National Park. At age 4, he became the youngest person to scale the 10,000-foot peak of Mount Baker in Washington. His passion for the outdoors carried on throughout his life, as he and Marcelle made frequent visits to Yosemite, Death Valley and other natural wonders around the world.

“Our brother wanted to make sure that the things he enjoyed in life, others could enjoy in the future, and he wanted to do something to sustain or enhance experience in the human environment,” said George Bright, Ray’s brother and an adviser on the award.

In laying out his plans for the Bright Award, Bright sought to recognize unsung people who were actively leading efforts to protect or reinvigorate an area and lead it toward a more environmentally sound future. He hoped that the prize and the recognition would allow the recipient to have an even larger influence after receiving the award.

A nomination committee comprised of Stanford Law School faculty members, law students and others on campus, with assistance from consultants focused on designated regions of the world, will recommend potential candidates each year. The Dean of Stanford Law School will select the final award recipient. In line with Bright’s wishes that the award become a global honor, each winner will be selected from a rotating list of 10 regions of the world, starting with South America.

“He admired people who were out in the world doing their own thing to preserve environment and civilization, and he thought they weren’t getting the recognition for the great work that they were doing,” said Mike Bright, who also advises on the award recipient. “This is his way to start something, and in particular he wanted to recognize efforts that would lead to establishing world laws that could help preserve the environment around the world.”

The Bright brothers praised the selection of Azevedo, noting that his work to protect the rainforests in Brazil is exactly the sort of effort that Bright envisioned when he funded the award.

“It’s a really fantastic opportunity to be able to make an award like this through Stanford University,” said Thompson. “For several decades now, Stanford has been committed to research and education that leads to practical solutions for environmental problems. The Bright Award allows us to recognize and promote the work of people like Tasso, who are doing exactly what we’re teaching our students they should do when they get out of Stanford.”

Azevedo will visit Stanford on Dec. 10 for the formal award ceremony in Paul Brest Hall on the Stanford Law School campus and will deliver a lecture on his work. The 2014 award winner will come from North or Central America and will be announced in the fall of 2014. For more information about the Bright Award, see brightaward.stanford.edu.

The event will take place from 4:00 PM-6:30 PM on Tuesday, December 10th, at Paul Brest Hall at the Munger Residences, 555 Salvatierra Walk, Stanford, CA 94305. It is open to the public and will include an award ceremony, lecture and reception. Parking and directions can be found at http://campus-map.stanford.edu. RSVPs should be sent to Diane Osborne at brightaward@law.stanford.edu.

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