'Robinson Crusoe' tames sun, wind, and wave off Brazil
Island of the Cluster of Trees, Brazil — Robinson Crusoe is alive and well and living off the sun, the wind, and the sea on an enchanted island in the South Atlantic. The island, a mere bump poking out of the waters near Guaruja, Brazil, is shown on the map simply as Ilha dos Alvoredos, or Island of the Cluster of Trees.
Crusoe, in this case, is Fernando Edward Lee, an inventor, entrepreneur, and ecologist who, in his 70s, is possessed of a seemingly inexhaustible spirit of science and adventure.
It was precisely that spirit that seized Mr. Lee 32 years ago when he spotted the island while flying along the Brazilian seacoast. Surrounded by boiling surf and sheer-wall cliffs, the fetching spot had, it seems, been inhabited only by sea birds and giant spiders.
Mr. Lee immediately set out to explore the island, then bought it. After decades of sweat and imagination, he has turned it into a living laboratory. He calls it ''an enchanted island.''
Now his tiny island, which covers a little less than nine acres, is powered by the wind and the sun and stocked with a virtual cornucopia of exotic plant and animal life.
Educated in his native Brazil and in the United States, Lee (the name comes directly from the family of Robert E. Lee) is a mechanical engineer by training. ''But Fernando is a little of everything,'' chuckles Ruediger Von Reininghaus, a division director at Brazilian Volkswagen Manufactures, and a friend and colleague of Lee for more than 20 years.
''He is an inventor, a businessman, a philosopher,'' says Von Reininghaus. Lee is also something of a showman.
Guests are fetched by motorboat from the sands of Pernambuco Beach. On arrival, Lee jerks a hand skyward and a one-gun salute issues from an old cannon built of locomotive scrap, an old Ford car, a wagon axle, and a cannibalized boiler during the Brazilian revolution of 1932.
Then one is hoisted over jagged rock by a 60-foot crane nestled under the wing of a giant white sculpted phoenix. A visitor is plied with coconut milk from the island's palms and taken on a dizzying tour of this remarkable, self-sufficient habitat.
Lee drinks rainwater collected from plastic roofing tile and stone gullies, then passed through an intricate decanting system into a 165,000-liter holding tank. He showers in water heated to a piping 150 degrees by the sun's rays, converted into heat by a bank of solar panels.
A modest-sized windmill mounted with a 21/2-kilowatt, three-blade propeller wind alternator captures enough current to charge 18 truck batteries, which in turn provide all the island's electricity.
An underground septic system detoxifies waste, and a special type of deep-rooted iris stems erosion on the rain-pelted soil.
Lee's island is shaded by 40-foot palms from Malaysia and covered with a Korean grass that does not burn in the tropical sun. Its pools are stocked with tilapia, an African fish, which balances the water's pH content and has a taste for red flowers. A zoo's worth of exotic birds roam the island. One pheasant follows Lee around like ''a lost dog.''
A robust, vigorous man, Lee lists his accomplishments almost casually. His Brazilian company, Fios e Cabos Platiscos, was one of the first to develop insulation for telephone wires. He developed a solar-powered buoy that flashes all night, needs no maintenance, and has been used by the Brazilian Navy as well as other navies.
He is one of six people to win a world botany prize for work in developing erosion-combating plants. In 1981, he won an award from the H.M. Rolex Corporation for his outstanding use of alternative energy.
Lee numbers among his visitors and collaborators Crawford Greenwalt, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Martin Clavin. He lectures in several countries on his three decades of research into wind, biology, energy, and ecology.
It's not a bad resume for a man who, in 1950, saw this lonely island as ''a place to fish without hearing the telephone ring.''