César Meyer Musso

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1994
This description of César Meyer Musso's work was prepared when César Meyer Musso was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994 .


Having developed a successful model for species protection and habitat conservation that strikes a winning balance between citizen, government and private business participation, César Musso is now setting out to spread his approach throughout Brazil.

The New Idea

César Musso is now building a broadly based environmental movement in his home state of Espírito Santo with a view to expanding it nationally. His current plans have emerged from a decade of successes in protecting fragile island ecosystems that serve as breeding grounds for tern, including one rare species, and in creating urban demonstration gardens of the once prolific indigenous Atlantic rainforest plants. Since 1982, the organization founded by César to protect endangered habitats and species has developed and demonstrated an effective methodology for changing attitudes and behavior destructive to "conservation areas." The model that has evolved recognizes that the legal and administrative designation of protected reserves (or parks) is not adequate protection in and of itself. It relies principally on volunteer citizen effort to employ several mutually reinforcing techniques, including (1) education among people utilizing the threatened habitat and demonstration of beneficial alternatives to destructive present-day patterns; (2) maintaining a continuous presence in threatened areas to serve as a constant reminder to potential environment abusers; and (3) demonstrating income-earning possibilities in nature tourism.Finance for core expenses of his organization has come from leading companies that also make a commitment to environmental education among their employees. As a central principle, they organize fundraising with citizen involvement and design its projects to be sustainable through voluntary citizen involvement rather than donor finance.César is now seeking to apply his approach throughout Espírito Santo and beyond. With seed finance from the state government, his organization is providing technical assistance (information, contacts and training) and modest financial support to existing initiatives that show the capacity and inclination to follow the model that he has developed. By linking existing initiatives together as "nuclei," César intends to build an institutional infrastructure for a popularly based environmental movement.

The Problem

Especially in the past few decades, the coastal region of Espírito Santo state has undergone rapid environmental degradation. Deforestation for urban expansion, industrial and domestic waste disposal, landfills, real estate development and unregulated commercial uses, especially along the state's border, jeopardize the mangroves, lagoons, waterways, beaches and marine areas. This development has particularly threatened sea birds and their nesting habitats, as well as the few remains of Brazil's ecologically distinctive Atlantic Forest.For 25 years, Brazil's growing environmental movement has been seeking to protect the environment. While there have been some notable advances and victories, the overall record as measured against the goals of the movement is disappointing. In the past few years, a new generation of environmentalists has tendered a critique that notes, in part, that too often, environmental agencies and organizations ignored the local community, or treated it paternalistically. Communities were not given responsibility for solving local problems. Business sector cooperation was rarely sought, and when they were engaged, businesses were treated exclusively as environmental threats. Government environmental efforts were also criticized for failing to emphasize environmental education as a basic tool to modify individual and community attitudes toward the environment. Gradually, César and other younger environmental activists have developed new models for environmental protection that are rooted in public education and an inclusive approach toward business.

The Strategy

The model for species protection that the organization that César founded has developed for habitat conservation and environmental education is rooted in the creative mobilization of volunteer citizen effort. It has also achieved considerable success in recruiting Brazilian corporate participation and financial sponsorship as well as significant government support. César adopts a nonconfrontational approach with environmental abusers, preferring to provide them with positive alternatives. Where that fails to change behavior, the organization establishes an effective citizen "witness" that makes it very difficult for abusers to proceed.César begins with open community meetings to discuss fragile habitats or endangered flora and fauna. This leads to a community action plan carried out by citizen volunteers to counter identified threats. These actions could range from citizen patrols of conservation areas to education measures to promoting alternative nonthreatening income-generating uses for the habitat (such as eco-tourism) to creating nurseries, demonstration gardens and re-seeding efforts. Simultaneously, the organization goes to local corporations and government agencies to seek funding, support, and more volunteers for the action plan. The organization has also tapped creatively into a national pool of university student volunteers, who spend vacation periods working on the project and have emerged as an important vehicle to disseminate the model as well. The organization has repeatedly confirmed its commitment to working with and through the community. When it had its initial success in protecting the tern breeding grounds, for example, there were offers of donor finance to develop a nature tourism project without any direct connection to the community. The organization resisted this temptation, arguing that the project had merit but was better suited to another type of organization.With a solid record of local success, the next challenge that César is facing is to spread his methodology. As a first expansion step, the organization formed a partnership with the state environmental agency to provide technical assistance (information, contacts and training) and modest financial support to existing community conservation efforts that show the capacity and inclination to follow the organization's model. This project will enable César to test the ways and means of catalyzing and supporting local initiatives on a much wider basis. As each local initiative would be characterized by high levels of community participation, key to the organization's approach, the groups deploying the model could serve collectively as an institutional infrastructure for a powerful citizen-based conservation and eco-tourism movement.

The Person

César's lifelong love for nature was incubated in his youth on the beautiful and environmentally fragile islands of his home state. Even by the time he had left university, he had witnessed firsthand how thoughtless human behavior had degraded his beloved islands. He began work as a high school teacher but also became an active volunteer in environmental organizations. He eventually became a free-lance nature photographer to allow more time for voluntary environmental action. His years as a volunteer taught him that then-prevailing conservation strategies were ineffective. Disgusted at the region's rapid environmental degradation and convinced he could do better, he founded the organization to address the need to change the relationship between ordinary people and the natural environment.César's success with his organization has led to increasing recognition of his pioneering work. He was recently named to the State Environmental Council, representing Espírito Santo's citizen organizations.