Jose Lutzenberger: The Rachel Carson of Brazil

Ecologist and anti-nuclear activist Jose Lutzenberger is Brazil's answer to Rachel Carson, as well as Paul Ehrlich, Amory Lovins, and David Brower.

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Jose Lutzenberger in 1981.


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As this magazine has noted in the past, the South American country of Brazil isthrough its renowned alcohol fuels program—currently a global leader in making the transition from fossil to renewable energy. Unfortunately, though, that nation may also be providing all of us with a lesson in how to misuse even an ecologically promising idea. To give our readers an inside look into Brazil's many environmental troubles (which include, but are far from limited to, its alcohol fuels program), we're sharing this excellent interview with Jose Lutzenberger, known to some as the Rachel Carson of Brazil.  

Brazil occupies half the continent of South America, and is therefore responsible for the caretaking of a large portion of our planetary ecosystem. Unfortunately, the current Brazilian regime seems to have seven basic modes of dealing with the environment: [1] Dig it up, [2] cut it down, [3] fill it in, [4] dam it, [5] burn it, [6] plant it with monocultures (then spray them with chemical biocides), or [7] overwhelm it with massive concentrations of people.

This repertory is partly an inheritance from the Portuguese ... who originally came to the New World for the purpose of rapid, temporary exploitation rather than permanent settlement. It is also partly derived from the modern ideologies of growthmania and the consumer society, which Brazil seems to have learned from the United States. Today, however, some citizens of the South American country are outraged at the unprecedented environmental destruction occurring in their land and are making an effort to stop it. Their leader and guru is Jose A. Lutzenberger, an agricultural engineer of German descent who lives in the nation's southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul.

"Lutz," as he is called by his many friends, is essentially playing the same role in Brazil today as was played by Rachel Carson of the U.S. in the early 1960's. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that he's functioning as a combination Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Amory Lovins, and David Brower, because Lutzenberger has been dedicating his efforts to fighting not just one threat to the ecology, but four: pesticides, overpopulation, energy waste, and nuclear power. In addition, he founded Brazil's most effective environmental protection association, AGAPAN.

Jose's career as an ecologist began—oddly enough—while he was working for a multinational firm as a technical advisor on chemical fertilizers and biocides. Gradually, over a period of 14 years (which included many repeated visits to the same sites), he observed that the net result of modern agriculture was to reduce the long-run capacity of the earth to support life ... and noted, with horror, the "mafiosi" methods used by many multinational agrichemical firms. For someone who subscribes to Albert Schweitzer's "Reverence for Life" as a basic ethical principle, these were painful realizations indeed.

So instead of rationalizing or making excuses for his part in this devastation, Lutz—ten years ago, at the age of 44—quit his lucrative job, returned to his native city of Pôrto Alegre, and began making a living as a landscape architect. Later he founded a small consulting firm called "Convivial Technology" (using the phrase coined by author and social critic Ivan IIlich). Lutzenberger earns only a modest living from these activities, though, because he devotes most of his time to unpaid environmental defense work. His inside knowledge of the pesticide industry and his personal experience with organic agriculture have made him the nemesis of the agri-industrial/chemical complex in Brazil, a country which is the world's third largest user of biocides.

I first met Lutz in January of 1976, while giving a course in economics and ecology in Rio Grande do Sul. Our friendship was renewed in November of 1980, when I visited with him for several days in Porto Alegre. On both occasions I urged him to write something in English for American environmental magazines, but he insisted that he couldn't spare the time. Therefore, I offered to reconstruct our conversations and correspondence in the form of a written interview, and he agreed to read and edit my manuscript. This is the result.

DALY: When I was here five years ago, you had a limited reputation as a somewhat quixotic figure with an exaggerated affection for trees. But now you're famous all over Brazil, and receive ten times as many invitations to speak as you can possibly accept. What happened?

LUTZENBERGER: Since you were here, we've succeeded in raising our people's ecological consciousness a great deal. In fact, we've made much more headway than I ever expected, particularly among agronomists.

In Europe, the U.S., Australia, Japan, Canada, and—indeed—most parts of the world, there are healthy and burgeoning organic agriculture movements, but the average commercial agronomists in such areas are either unaware of the push for wholistic growing or are actively hostile to it. We now have the opposite situation here. There is almost no organic agriculture currently being practiced in Brazil, but most of our agronomists are eager for change and frustrated by not knowing how to bring it about.

DALY: I remember the beautiful demonstration garden you made in the park at Torres. You created a rich soil on top of pure sand and had everything so well balanced that insects were automatically controlled. Didn't that serve as an example of organic agriculture?

LUTZENBERGER: The park in Tories is in the process of decay ... our state government didn't renew my contract a year ago. Of course, the government people don't like me. I attack them viciously for their attacks on the environment, since I feel that hard words are needed when speaking to that mafia. So I accept the fact that they'll retaliate. They spend almost nothing on the park now. It hurts me to see it.

DALY: Yet while the government was sabotaging your park, your colleagues elected you "agronomist of the year." How did that come about?

LUTZENBERGER: It happened !n spite of a bitter backstage fight by ANDEF [an agrichemical lobby that includes some 20 multinational companies]. After the first vote, ANDEF tried to annul the prize ... but a new election was held, and—on that second ballot—even most of the agronomists employed in the chemical industry voted for me! I won 414 to 6.

DALY: That's very encouraging, but has the outlook for Brazil's environment improved as your fame has increased"

LUTZENBERGER: No. Winning that election was only a small victory. It doesn't mean that anything has changed regarding the wholesale destruction of nature in Brazil. In fact, there has never in the history of Life been a biological holocaust such as the one being conducted here. Thousands of species disappear every year without anybody's noticing. If the zebra, the elephant, the giraffe, or any other well known creature were to vanish forever, the passing would be covered by radio, television, and the world press. But every time a unique ecosystem is wiped out (and we've had thousands ruined in Brazil's Amazon basin) uncounted endemic species go with it, most of which are less conspicuous forms of life such as the small vertebrates or invertebrates, insects, spiders, and rare plants.

And as you know, the Universe is poorer for every species that goes. Each lifeline in the Symphony of Evolution is a unique, irreversible historical process that can be cut off but can never be resumed thereafter. Whether increasing ecological consciousness will, in time, provoke a reversal of this country's practices remains to be seen. I can only hope so for our children's sake, for Life's sake!

DALY: Just what is going on in the Amazon basin?

LUTZENBERGER: One of the most complex and wonderful of biomes is being burned, knocked down by great chains dragged between huge tractors, defoliated with Agent Orange, etc. Entire communities of plants and animals are being irrevocably lost, and in their place are being planted vast monocultures (actually hypermonocultures of a size never before imagined ... with hundreds of thousands of hectares planted in one crop) or equally big chunks of unnatural pastureland.

And these man-made farms and ranches are—of course—inherently unstable. Most last less than five years and, while they endure, require massive doses of biocides and fertilizers ... poisons that pollute rivers and lakes and kill wildlife.

Entire Indian cultures are being wiped out, as well. What right, other than that of brute force, allows our own society to invade the Indians' world with heavy machinery, chain saws, and chemical defoliants sprayed by airplanes? Who, in such a case, are the real barbarians?

As the Amazon caboclo [Indian] says, "Where cattle move in, hunger comes along and we move out." Yet the meat production on our "modern" ranches is ridiculously low ... around 30 pounds per acre per year. Compare that to what's being done in northern Europe, where—despite a much more difficult climate—yields of 600 pounds of meat and 800 gallons of milk per acre per year are achieved.

But the owners, who are mostly powerful Brazilian politicians or the executives of multinational corporations, don't care. Their profit derives from the incredible size of the operations, from government subsidies, and from corruption.

Yet we have sufficient land in Brazil to allow us to easily postpone "developing" the Amazon until we know enough about the marvelous patterns of life there to do so intelligently and sustainably. Our government must find ways to restrain both its own greed and that of foreign companies. We have much to learn from the remaining Indian tribes.

DALY: With the failure of the touted "Brazilian Economic Miracle" and the nation's overall declining economy, such restraint is pretty unlikely.

LUTZENBERGER: Yes, the economic situation has never been worse in Brazil. A few members of the military, which—back in 1964—had a great opportunity to create order, chose instead to become henchmen for multinational businesses. As a result of the actions of such individuals and the firms that support them, inflation is now over 140% annually and we owe more than $60 billion to outside interests. Since our country earns only $13 billion a year from its exports, more than half of our national trade income goes simply to pay interest on debt. The remainder isn't even sufficient to finance our petroleum imports.

So the debt will likely grow and inflation will get worse. Nevertheless, the governing mafia plans to build 60 nuclear power plants by 1995! Never before has one seen such madness! Fortunately, it will probably not succeed. I put some hope, ironically, in the world depression that has already been triggered.

DALY: Within this bleak picture, many people are placing all their hopes on Brazil's alcohol fuel program, PROALCOOL.

LUTZENBERGER: The alcohol program is—unfortunately—another calamity. It will be solely in the hands of the international petroleum, automobile, and chemical companies and will spread over the rest of Brazil the kind of feudal landholding system that already disgraces our Northeast.

If today millions of our land's nordestinos [Northeasterners] are forced to migrate to the stinking favelas [slums] of Rio and Sao Paulo, it is because they have been pushed out of their native region by sugar cane monoculture. PROALCOOL threatens to extend this process of displacing people from the land.

DALY: Couldn't alcohol fuel be made by small producers, employing people in the interior, and ultimately substituting a renewable resource for rapidly diminishing petroleum?

LUTZENBERGER: Of course it could! One can imagine a system of small-scale independent distilleries producing fuel for local use and converting the vinhoto, or slop, into a good organic fertilizer. It would then become possible to avoid large-scale monoculture and learn to live within an ecological budget. If our basic goals were the ecologically inspired dreams of the steady-state or homeostatic economy, we could make good use of biomass energy. The success of such a program, however, depends upon scale and rate of development, and—beyond that—upon the structure of power in society.

Unfortunately, in Brazil as in all other countries that I can think of, the official program calls for an ever-expanding economy that rides roughshod over ecological limits and tends to centralize power and promote only those technologies that are themselves centralizing. PROALCOOL, for example, even though it does permit the small distilleries to produce, requires them to sell to a centralized distributing agency.

DALY: What other effects will the PROALCOOL program have?

LUTZENBERGER: The sugar cane monoculture implicit in PROALCOOL is one of the many threats to the Amazon and to the Pantanal, the great swamp in Mato Grosso that is one of the last natural paradises on earth.

Since alcohol production displaces food crops (Brazil already has to import its national staple, black beans), filling one's stomach will be more expensive than it otherwise would have been while auto fuel may be less expensive than it otherwise would have been. And, of course, the poor spend a large percentage of their income on food and nothing at all on auto fuel. The middle and upper classes, however, spend a smaller percentage on food and a significant amount on auto fuel. So PROALCOOL will effectively harm those who are most in need of help. And because—as I've already said—the government's fuel program will also promote feudal landholding patterns, largescale distilleries, and centralized distribution, it's hard to see how the present plan can avoid worsening an already unjust distribution of income and wealth.

DALY: The large-scale nature of PROALCOOL seems to illustrate a general relationship between power and technology.

LUTZENBERGER: We have a vicious circle. The more complex and integrated the technology, the greater its demand for capital and its need for bureaucratic management. And the technocracy, in turn, demands and promotes only sophisticated and large-scale technologies that further concentrate economic power. That is why nuclear power or huge hydropower projects—such as the 12,000-megawatt Itaipu plant—are favored by the government.

On a lower technological level, consider the average caboclo family of the Amazon. Living on the riverbank, they exist in the midst of plenty. They catch all the fish they can use. The forest provides an incredible variety of fruits, herbs, roots, and medicines. There is plenty of game. They have all the free fuel they need. They complement their diet with small gardens of manioc, sweet potatoes, beans, corn, and some vegetables. They keep a pig, a few chickens, and sometimes a cow or two. And the harm they cause the forest is well within its capacity for natural recovery.

Now, some agricultural extension programs are beginning to instruct such people in the methods of "modern" chicken farming factories. "Scientifically balanced" rations are formulated in Manaus—600 miles away—by big firms that use corn, wheat, or soybeans imported from the U.S. and powdered milk from the European Common Market. The broilers and laying hens are hybrid, of course, which means the caboclos cannot use the eggs to reproduce their flocks themselves. Yet they are giving up their traditional, locally adapted chickens that are immune to many diseases ... and, as a result, must use imported medicine, hormones, antibodies, etc.

And the buyer of the farmers' products is the firm that furnishes all the raw materials, so the small-scale chicken-raisers have absolutely no influence on price either way. All the risks are theirs, all the advantages are with the big companies.

Such programs—do not provide means of improving food production. Instead, they create dependence. And this is really what "development" is all about. Independent individuals who have the ability to decide their own destinies are rapidly becoming extinct!

Indeed, the caboclos are—most of the time—simply displaced by immense agribusiness schemes that totally extinguish their paradise, send them to the slums in big cities far away, or employ them as inexpensive help under labor camp conditions. In not-so-rare cases, the big guy actually uses machine guns on "squatters" or "ferocious" Indians!

The crowning irony, however, is that the energy flow of modern chicken farming makes it a net absorber of food available to humans, whereas the traditional system was a net provider of food energy.

DALY: Anyone in Brazil who criticizes the government as strongly as you do is likely to be called a Communist. What do say in reply to that charge?

LUTZENBERGER: How could a man or a woman with any ecological understanding advocate Communism? In a capitalist system you have a lot of little or large bandits, and you can play them off one against another and find some living space in the gaps. Under Communism you have one big centralized, all powerful, unified mafia. There's nowhere to hide.

Communist countries lack the stabilizing negative teedback of a parliament, the separation of powers, an independent conservation movement, and a free flow of information. Worse yet, they're even more dedicated to megatechnology and growth than are capitalist lands. In short, they do all the things that the Brazilian technocrats and their leaders want to do ... so maybe I should be calling the government Communistic!

We need something better than either Communism or modern capitalism: We need an ecologically sane, homeostatic, steadystate economy. No system that depends on continuous growth can be ecologically viable. The fact that Communism is worse than capitalism should be cold comfort to those of us in capitalist countries. I believe that all centralization of power is bad.

DALY: Lutz, we have yet to consider the most fundamental and controversial environmental issue in Brazil: population. Twelve years ago I wrote an article on overpopulation in South America, and I'm amazed to see how little the debate has progressed since then.

LUTZENBERGER: We desperately need a serious effort to reduce our nation's population growth. The necessity can be proved by elementary arithmetic! If, in Brazil, we still have a bitter debate about the need for birth control, it's due not only to lack of knowledge of the facts, but also to ideological commitments and the crassest kind of class interest in maintaining an unlimited supply of inexpensive labor to promote ever-increasing concentrations of power.

The fact is that the upper and middle classes already practice birth control, but not the lower class. This incomplete "democratization" of birth control reinforces the inequality in the distribution of per capita income. Or, as the old saying goes, "The rich get richer and the poor get children."

Historically, population explosion has almost always been the result of the destruction of traditional cultures by conquerors. For 2,000 or 3,000 years, Brazil's Indians lived in relative harmony with Nature, and even though the forest must have seemed unlimited to them, they were very conscious of the demographic problem and applied deliberate controls—including infanticide—when a tribe became too large. Today, though, the villages of the "civilized" Indians display tremendous population growth and horrible devastation of the environment.

Given its actual style of living and level of consumption, Brazil is already badly overpopulated because the current situation is unsustainable. In that respect, however, the U.S. is even more overpopulated than Brazil ... and is especially so if you count the depredation and waste caused by your suicidal armaments race with the Soviet Union.

DALY: That's a good point. And the U.S. has yet to make any official effort to limit either its population or its per capita consumption. Nor have the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. agreed to eliminate a single bomb or missile from their arsenals. Until we do something ourselves, our preaching on population will not be taken seriously.


DALY: Many people in your nation claim that environmental concern is an elitist hobby ... and that it distracts attention from Brazil's more pressing problems of poverty and injustice, which—according to the argument—require rapid growth for their solutions. How do you answer such individuals?

LUTZENBERGER: I point out that, contrary to their claims, it is the growth mythology itself that has allowed us to put off dealing with questions of distributive justice. As long as faith in the myth of the eternal growth of the cake persists, we can say that those with the smallest proportional slices should wait patiently for the cake to grow bigger before we redivide it more fairly. Otherwise, premature redistribution would hurt the poor by slowing down the cake's growth rate.

But when we finally realize that the cake is not growing—that, in fact, it is even shrinking—then no longer will we be able to avoid facing up to demands for at least a minimum of justice in the distribution of income. For this reason, the myth of perpetual growth is most strongly championed by those who no longer believe it themselves, but who find it in their interests that everyone else should accept it.

Ecological concern and social justice are as inseparable as are the two faces of a coin.

DALY: One last question, Lutz. What principles do you feel we must build upon if we are ever to reverse the destruction of the world's ecosystems and arrive at a sustainable homeostatic society?

LUTZENBERGER: First, we must arrest the process of desecration of Nature, and stop excluding from our code of ethics all concerns for anything not related or useful to humanity. We all have to adopt Albert Schweitzer's fundamental ethical principle of Reverence for Life in each of its forms.

Second, we must accept a symphonic vision of Organic Evolution in which humanity is only one instrument in the orchestra. The idea of a symphony emphasizes cooperation, harmony, and mutual adjustment. In an orchestra, every instrument is complementary and indispensable to all the others. It's in this complementarity that greatness resides!

And third, we must take another look at the technologies that serve us. Today's hard technology, designed to benefit the powerful, must give way to soft technology conceived in the interests of not only humanity, but all Nature.

Our race may be destined to become conductor of the ecological symphony, but only if we learn to lead—and not destroy—our many musicians.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Herman E. Daly was himself the subject of an interview in MOTHER EARTH NEWS titled "Herman E. Daly: Steady State Economics."