Adriana Hoffmann, botanist who fought for Chile’s forests, dies aged 82

Adriana Hoffmann, a botanist who roamed Chile to decipher its flora and who worked tirelessly as a scientist, activist, author and policymaker to protect her country’s vast forests from corporate exploitation, died on March 20 at her home in the capital, Santiago. She was 82.

She has struggled with health problems in recent years, said her daughter Leonora Calderón Hoffmann, and died of an acute clot in her lungs.

The presence of two Chilean cabinet ministers at her funeral highlighted the importance of her legacy to the country, where scientist-turned-politicians are helping to create a new constitution shaped by the climate crisis.

Her friends and colleagues said Ms. Hoffman had a well-trained eye for identifying rare plants as she traversed Chile’s deserts and forests, either on foot or in her Jeep. She classified more than 100 species.

This was the essential skill behind the dozens of books she wrote beginning in the 1970s that documented the richness of the country’s flora and highlighted its myriad native species, medicinal plants and cacti, and the flowers that bloom in the Atacama Desert. Her books often featured illustrations by Andrés Jullian and Francisco Ramos.

Ms. Hoffman’s activism unfolded in the early 1990s as Chile began to recover from a military dictatorship that had killed and tortured thousands while giving corporations ample power to capitalize on natural resources.

Back then, activists began campaigning against a number of projects they saw as harmful to the environment, such as hydroelectric power plants and timber plantations. In 1992, two years after the fall of the dictatorship, Ms. Hoffmann led a non-profit organization, Defensores del Bosque Chileno, dedicated to protecting Chile’s native forests.

One of her best-known books that she has edited is La Tragedia del bosque chileno (1998), which documents how Chile’s extractive industries are destroying the country’s forests.

Ms. Hoffmann championed forests at a time when it was viewed by many as an affront to economic development, particularly in a country whose economy relied heavily on the export of commodities.

It was not until 1993 that Chile created the National Environment Commission, or Conama, an agency that would later profoundly transform their lives and legacy.

In her last interview before her death, published in January, she was asked what she learned from nature after dedicating her life to it. “Love,” she replied. “Nature gave me love.”

Adriana Elisabeth Hoffmann Jacoby was born on January 29, 1940 in Santiago to the renowned Chilean physician and scientist Franz Hoffmann and the pioneering psychiatrist and spiritual leader Lola Hoffmann (née Helena Jacoby). Ms. Hoffmann then studied Agronomy at the University of Chile before dropping out. She later switched to studying botany while spending some time with her mother in Germany.

She credits her parents for encouraging her love of nature. “I have pictures of myself, very little, always with flowers and plants,” she said in an interview.

In the early 1990s, she met Douglas Tompkins, a conservationist and founder of clothing brands North Face and Esprit, and his wife Kristine Tompkins, who together bought about 400,000 hectares of forest in Chile to protect them.

Ms. Hoffmann advised and supported the Tompkins’ conservation efforts, Ms. Tompkins said in a phone interview, and once joined other conservationists in getting the couple’s help to secure a vast chunk of valuable but threatened land on the Chile-Church border to get Argentina. In 2014, the area became the mountainous Yendegaia National Park.

“Really everything we know about the flora of Chile came from Adriana,” said Ms. Tompkins, who runs the nonprofit group Tompkins Conservation. “She was generous with her knowledge of ecosystems at a time when nobody thought about it.”

In 1997, Ms. Hoffmann was recognized by the United Nations as one of the top 25 environmental leaders of that decade. Two years later, she was awarded Chile’s National Environmental Award for her contribution to documenting and protecting the country’s natural ecosystems.

In 2000, Ricardo Lagos, the third Chilean president after the transition to democracy, invited Ms. Hoffmann to head Conama, the country’s top environmental agency, which later became the Ministry of the Environment.

Friends warned her against taking the job, saying the agency was too weak to challenge the big business interests then benefiting from the country’s lack of environmental protection.

But Ms. Hoffmann saw President Lago’s invitation as an opportunity to fight for legislation to protect native forests and accepted the post. She became the first female scientist to hold it at a time when environmentalists and women were seldom seen in Chile’s halls of power.

However, the forces against them proved to be too great. She managed to get projects off the ground that she felt were important, like Senderos de Chile, a nationwide hiking trail, but 17 months later she quit Conama because she was being pushed against her agenda. It would take eight years for a forest protection law to be passed.

She later described her tenure as the worst decision she ever made after finding herself caught between overwhelming corporate power and the deep disappointment of fellow environmentalists.

She never fully recovered from the experience, her daughter Leonora said. From then on, Mrs. Hoffmann struggled with health problems, including strokes.

She is also survived by another daughter, Paz Hoffmann; two sons, Álvaro and Francisco; and five grandchildren.

But by the time of her death, she had become an inspiration to many environmentalists and scientists. In 2015, the Ministry of the Environment established the Adriana Hoffmann Environmental Training Academy to train teachers, civil servants and the general public. More than 12,000 students have completed courses there.

Speaking at Ms Hoffmann’s funeral, newly appointed Environment Minister Maisa Rojas, an accomplished climatologist, acknowledged the environmental barriers her predecessor faced that continue to challenge Chile and the rest of the world.

“Now more than ever we are called to take care of a threatened and badly damaged nature,” she said. “As a woman and Minister for the Environment, I put on Adriana’s shoes and they are too big.” Adriana Hoffmann, botanist who fought for Chile’s forests, dies aged 82

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