Older woman with grey hair looking at camera and smiling
Older woman with grey hair staring at the camera

Adriana Hoffmann, Botanist and Environmentalist, Dies at Age 82

Hoffmann traveled through Chile cataloging its rare flora. Later, she fought to defend the country’s forests from commercial deforestation.

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Natalia Mesa

Natalia Mesa is an intern at The Scientist. She has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Washington and a bachelor’s in biological sciences from Cornell University.

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Apr 18, 2022

ABOVE: Adriana Hoffmann Courtesy of Leonora Calderón Hoffmann

Adriana Hoffmann, a botanist, author, educator, and environmental activist who both studied and fought to conserve Chile’s native plant life, died in her home in Santiago, Chile on March 20. She was 82 years old. 

After struggling with health problems for several years, she died of an acute clot in her lung, her daughter Leonora Calderón Hoffmann tells The New York Times

According to the Times, two Chilean cabinet ministers attended Hoffmann’s funeral, underscoring her importance to Chile’s environmental legacy. Speaking at Hoffmann’s funeral, Chile’s Minister of the Environment, climatologist Maisa Rojas, recognized the obstacles that Hoffmann had faced—and those that Chile and the world continue to confront. 

“Now more than ever, we have been called to take care of a threatened and very degraded nature,” Rojas says, according to the Times. “As a woman and a minister of the environment, I put Adriana’s shoes on, and they are too big.” 

Hoffmann was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1940 to doctor Franz Hoffmann and psychiatrist and physiologist Lola Hoffmann (born Helena Jacoby). She studied agronomy at the University of Chile but ultimately dropped out. She continued her studies in botany in Germany, where she moved briefly to spend time with her mother.

Starting in the 1970s, Hoffmann began embarking on voyages through Chile’s forests and deserts, during which she classified more than 100 new plant species, the Times reports. Throughout the following four decades, she wrote dozens of books and field guides documenting flora in Chile, including rare, native medicinal plants, flowers, and cactuses that grow in the Atacama Desert. Among her most famous books are La Tragedia del Bosque Chilenoa photography book about the destruction of Chilean forests, and De Cómo Margarita Flores Puede Cuidar su Salud y Ayudar a Cuidar el Planeta, a popular Chilean children’s book, reports the Patagon Journal. In the 1980s, Hoffmann also worked for the Claudio Gay Foundation, designing and implementing environmental education programs.

In the early 1990s, as Chile was recovering from Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military dictatorship, which tortured, imprisoned, and killed thousands of dissidents and gave corporations near-unbridled power over Chile’s natural resources, Hoffmann joined other activists in speaking out against corporate projects they saw as destructive to the environment, such as hydropower and timber plantations, reports the Times.

Older woman looking at a vase of red and pink flowers
Adriana Hoffmann
Courtesy of Leonora Calderón Hoffmann

In 1992, Hoffmann founded the Defenders of the Chilean Forests, a nonprofit. The Defenders organized largely successful national and international campaigns to stop destructive forestry projects, such as keeping exotic tree species grown on plantations from invading nearby forests and blocking wood product wholesaler Boise Cascade’s project to extract lumber for wood chips from forests in the Los Lagos region, according to the Patagon Journal

Also in the early 1990s, Hoffmann met and became friends with Douglas Tompkins, a conservationist and the owner of the North Face and Esprit clothing brands, who, along with his wife Kristine Tompkins, bought one million acres of Chile’s forests in order to protect them. Hoffmann supported the Tompkins’s efforts.

In 1997, Hoffmann was recognized as one of the top 25 environmental leaders of the decade by the United Nations. In 1999, she won Chile’s National Environment Prize. 

Richard Lagos, the third president of Chile after the country’s transition to democracy, called on Hoffmann to serve as the director of National Commission of the Environment (Conama) in 2000, reports La Tercera. During her tenure, Hoffmann spearheaded projects that she told La Tercera she felt were important, including establishing Senderos de Chile, a nationwide hiking trail. From the outset, however, she faced harsh opposition from the president’s center-left political party, which prioritized economic investment over environmental concerns. She was considered a “fundamentalist” by big business and was unpopular with environmental activists and the public, who wanted Hoffmann to push for stronger environmental regulations. Without the support of key members of the governmental establishment, including the president himself, she resigned 17 months after her appointment. “I thought it was my responsibility but they threw everything at me from the beginning, the companies above all,” Hoffmann recalled in an interview with La Tercera. “I had a bad time from day one.” Hoffmann’s daughter, Leonora Hoffmann, tells the Times that her mother never really recovered from the experience. She faced health issues, including strokes, for the rest of her life.  

In 2015, the Chilean ministry of the environment created the Adriana Hoffmann environmental training academy, which, among other things, provides educational programming about environmental issues to students, workers, and companies. The Times reports that more than 12,000 students have completed courses there. 

According to colleagues of hers who spoke to La Tercera, Hoffmann had a great passion for environmental education. She had a positive outlook on how children can learn to interact with and care deeply about the environment, telling La Tercera that she felt optimistic about educating children like her grandson about environmental issues. In an interview published in Ladera Sur earlier this year, Hoffmann was asked what she had learned from nature after dedicating her life to it. “Love,” she responded. “Nature has given me love.”

Hoffmann is survived by two daughters, Leonora and Paz; two sons, Álvaro and Francisco; and five grandchildren.