A healthy civilisation can only be one that harmonises with and integrates into the totality of life, enhancing not demolishing it.
A mentor, associate, adviser and close friend of The Gaia Foundation, Jose Lutzenberger (fondly known as Lutz) worked tirelessly and passionately for social and environmental justice, saying they were “two sides of the same coin.” An agronomist, scientist and outspoken activist, Lutz embodied a holistic understanding of the interconnection and unity of all life on this planet. His profound dedication and example in demonstrating how ecological and social justice is possible, led to him being considered a father of the environmental movement in Brazil.
Ecological visionary Jose Lutzenberger. Photo:
“Only a systematic, unitary, and synfonic worldview can assist us in comprehending the true nature of our wonderful living planet.”
Born in Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil, Lutz always had a close relationship with nature, describing himself as a naturalist from a young age. A student of agronomy, hebegan his career by working for agrochemical companies including BASF. After fifteen years he became disillusioned with the industry and left BASF. Coming to the realisation that he had been, in his words, ‘peddling poisons to farmers’, Lutz started a vigorous campaign against the very products he once sold.
Lutz was guided by fundamental first principles, observing life from an Earth-centred, rather than an anthropocentric (human-centred) perspective. His understanding of our living Earth as Gaia, a self-regulating organism, formed the basis of his holistic ethics.
Seeing the unity of all living beings Lutz described Gaia as “a living system, a living entity with its own identity”. With great admiration and humility, he observed the indescribable beauty and complexity of life on this planet. Awed by the “magnificent symphony of organic evolution”, Lutz observed, with his customary scientific rigour, how millions of species, including ourselves, interact in a complex and unified way to support the continuity of life on Gaia.
A visionary and radical thinker, Lutz became a powerful voice against the exploitation imbedded in the current system economic system. An ardent critic of the dominant growth economy, Lutz denounced the neo-liberal globalisation for its role in creating inequality and destroying ecosystems. He called for social institutions to rethink of the notions of ‘development’ and ‘progress’, which he called “a guise that hides an increasingly efficient process of social disruption and the demolishment of all life support systems.”
Lutz in the quarry that he regenerated to become the ‘Gaia Corner’ (Rincão Gaia) learning centre. Photo: APEDEMA
Having worked for BASF, Lutz was an eloquent critic of the power structures that seek to dominate the global food system today. In his writings and activism, he described how agribusiness is predicated on the exploitation of small-scale farmers, explaining how industrial food regime creates a system of dependency based on privatised seed and reliance on toxic chemicals derived from chemicals used in WW2.
“We have a redistribution of tasks within the economy and the creation of new power structures that did not exist in the past, and most of that power is going to transnational corporations, not to the people.”
Lutz advanced practical alternatives to this corporate capture of our food systems. Key to his approach was an emphasis on “small, intelligent; locally conceived, adjusted, adapted and, most importantly, locally decided solutions”. In his native Brazil, he helped farmers regain their independence from chemical corporations and banks by recovering the natural fertility of their soils through regenerative methods. Within Brazil and beyond, Lutz mentored many of the leading lights in the current movement for regenerative agroecology and food sovereignty.
The bedrock of Lutz’s approach called for an approach to agriculture that prioritises working with nature’s cycles and systems rather than fighting them using chemicals and seed that cannot be saved from season-to-season.
Emphasising the importance of “closing the loop” by recycling all organic materials, Lutz redefined the idea of ‘waste’. A core area of his work centred on finding a use for waste products generated by industry. He designed a system of composting what an industrial pulp mill deemed as refuse into fertilizer for agriculture. It proved to be the solution for dealing with hundreds of thousands of tons of waste produced every year.
Lutz speaks out at an activist event. Photo: Elson Sempé Pedroso/CMPA
Among other principal figures of the time, Lutz was a forefather of the environmental movement in Brazil.
An unconventional and outspoken activist, Lutz was an advocate for the Amazon and indigenous and forest peoples. While many had top-down ideas about how to save the Amazon, Lutz championed indigenous people as the custodians of the forest, recognising the deep value of their cosmologies and cultural practices. He worked alongside communities, emphasising the significance of their local knowledge for protecting their places of origin.
Lutz played an instrumental role in the early years of The Gaia Foundation’s work in the Amazon, building connections between Gaia and key forest defenders, including Chico Mendes and Ailton Krenak. These initial encounters began ongoing lineage of relationships that are still maintained and nurtured today as our work in the Amazon continues.
Recalling the importance of Lutz’s generation, Liz Hosken, Director of The Gaia Foundation recounts:
“Looking back, the 1980’s was an important moment in the evolution of ecological and social justice movement. There were many gatherings of philosopher-activists from around the world, who came together to challenge the ‘development model’ and the global expansion of the industrial growth economy, which was generating growing ecological and social breakdown and injustices. They laid the foundation for those who followed and should be acknowledged for this. Lutz was amongst the outstanding voices.”
On his frequent visits to Gaia’s base in north London, rooms would fill with people eager to hear about Lutz’s efforts to protect the Amazon. Lutz would captivate and inspire his audience with a virtuoso storytelling style and the power of his message.
Gaia’s co-founder, Ed Posey (R), Jose Lutzenberger (L) and Guardian journalist Walter Schwartz (C) at the Tribal Gathering against the proposed Krarao hydroelectric dam, February 1989.
Lutz’s vision manifested itself through several organisations- Associação Gaúcha de Proteção ao Ambiente Natural (AGAPAN), Vida Desenvolvimento Ecológico (Vida) and Fundação Gaia.
In 1971 he was a founding member of AGAPAN, Brazil’s first environmental NGO, which became a key protagonist in the fight against agrochemicals and the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest.
In 1979, drawing on his scientific background and understanding of ecological processes, Lutz started his own company- Vida. It embodied his notion that the cycles opened by unsustainable production must be closed. By engaging directly with businesses and providing consultancy services, Vida made huge gains in reducing the ecological impact of industry by recycling industrial waste to be used as natural fertilizer.
In 1987 The Gaia Foundation supported Lutz in establishing his organisation Fundacão Gaia, a teaching centre for regenerative agriculture and promoting sustainable development based on holistic ethics. Its base, Rincão Gaia in Rio Grande do Sul, is in a disused quarry, which Lutz regenerated to reflect the abundance, complexity and beauty of nature.
The 30-hectare cultural centre remains a living example of the applicability of the ideas it espouses. Rincão Gaia has become an site of inspiration for those seeking to create an ecologically and socially sustainable society. It embodies Lutz’s approach by entering into a dialogue with the landscape and working with its regenerative capacity. The centre is now maintained by Lutz’s daughter, Lara, a biologist and environmentalist who continues in the footsteps of her father, keeping his legacy alive.
Award winner, influencer
Lutz in a formal role. Photo: Arquivo Agencia Brasil/JC
In 1988 Lutz won the Right Livelihood award in recognition of his efforts to protect the environment in Brazil and worldwide. The award acknowledged the full breadth of his pioneering work, from promoting organic agriculture and recycling industrial waste, to advocating for the protection of the Amazon and the rights of indigenous peoples.
Modern industrial society has embarked on a course that, if allowed to continue much longer will, in the end, destroy all higher forms of life on earth. One of the main aspects of how we wrongly deal with the world is reductionism, that is, facing only one issue at a time and thinking in straight lines. – Lutz’s RLA Award acceptance speech
In 1990 Lutz served as the Environment Minister for the federal government of Brazilian President Fernando Collor. Lutz used his position to reverse policies that were allowing large corporations to destroy the Amazon. He played an instrumental role in Brazil’s decision to abandon the atomic bomb and in the recognition and demarcation of indigenous territories. He also pushed for rigorous enforcement of laws to punish industrial polluters.
Ultimately, Lutz’s radical worldview proved to be incompatible with the conservative leanings and vested interests of the Brazilian State. Disillusioned by the levels of corruption and troubled by the constant opposition he faced from Brazil’s most powerful interest groups, Lutz’s role as environment minister came to an end in 1992.
Lutz with his daughter, Lara, who continues her father’s work. Photo: Lara Lutzenberger
For three decades Lutz was at the centre of almost every major battle to protect the environment in Brazil and he enjoyed international influence in the fields of social justice, ecology and agriculture.
The scale of Lutz’s impact is impossible to do justice to in a short biography. He touched the hearts of many, transforming livelihoods and ecosystems through his holistic understanding of social and environmental issues. His thinking is as relevant ever today as, we face the multiple crises he warned of.
Lutz’s legacy is a vital part of our lineage here at Gaia, as we continue his struggle to align our societies with life’s regenerative capacity.