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.

| July/August 1981

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    Jose Lutzenberger in 1981.
  • 070 jose lutzenberger - sugar mill
    The São João Sugar Mill expects to produce 38,837,400 gallons of alcohol fuel this year.  

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  • 070 jose lutzenberger - sugar mill

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.


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