Jose Lutzenberger: The Rachel Carson of Brazil

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Jose Lutzenberger in 1981.

As this magazine has noted in the past, the South
American country of Brazil is
through 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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.”