Jason Clay spends his 15-hour days shuttling between the yin and yang of the late 20th century: the Indians of the Amazon basin and the chiefs of giant corporations. Briefcase bulging with the produce of the rain forest, he prowls executive suites, convinced that the way to save the wilderness is to find markets for its bounty. “If we show consumers that they can support living environments with their dollars,” he says, “then we’re creating a new kind of awareness. And we don’t have time to wait. We’re losing a species a day in the rain forest.” This embodiment of effective eco-activism is a visionary pragmatist who has no patience with conservation lawyers (“They put you to sleep”) or idealists who want to fence in nature (“People have wire cutters”). Growing up poor on a small Missouri farm showed him “you just had to learn how to make things work.” He earned a Ph.D. in anthropology at Cornell, taught at Harvard and worked as an analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At 39, he is both research director of Cultural Survival Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., human rights organization devoted to threatened ethnic minorities (notably in Latin America and Ethiopia), and a nut merchant.
He discovered his latest calling during a 1988 Grateful Dead benefit party at which he met Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, an ardent environmentalist himself. Clay soon visited Ben & Jerry’s Vermont plant with 50 pounds of nuts, fresh from Brazil, and stirred up a batch of Rainforest Crunch in Cohen’s kitchen. The flavor (as ice cream and as candy) has been a hit ever since. “The amazing thing about Jason,” says Cohen, “is he’s working in the nonprofit sector, but he’s extremely entrepreneurial.” Clay returns virtually all the profit from produce sales to the forest people.
As he takes his vision into the corridors of corporate power—30 companies are interested, and the Body Shop chain will soon introduce cosmetics made with ingredients from the Amazon—Clay is still traveling a fast orbit. “I don’t have time to be intimidated,” he says. “I’ve got one shot, so I’m not going to lose it.”