“We can make the transition to a better country”: a Colombian trans on diversity in ecology and society | Global development

When Brigitte Baptiste walks to the 10th floor of Ean University in Bogota at 9.45am, wearing a plunging dress, high cheetah-print boots and a silver wig, the office comes to life. She examines flowers sent by Colombian radio Caracol to thank her for participating in a forum, her colleague compliments her on her lipstick, and she settles in for a day of dating in quick succession, followed by a private interview virtual conversation with the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres. Later that evening, she flies to Cartagena for a conference on natural gas.

The 58-year-old environmentalist is one of Colombia’s foremost environmental experts and one of the most visible transgender people, defying both scientific and social conventions. A professor of ecology at the Jesuit Javeriana University for 20 years, she has written 15 books, countless newspaper columns and won international awards for her work. Most recently, she was appointed Chancellor of Ean University, a business school, as part of her efforts for greater sustainability.

Baptiste was one of the scientists who founded the Humboldt Institute, Colombia’s leading biodiversity research center, and she served as its director for eight years. Much of his research has focused on rural development and the role of biodiversity in land management. This took her to communities from the Amazon to the coast.

She saw the “social character of conservation” and the links between war, displacement and environmental degradation. A fervent supporter of a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), she saw in this agreement an opportunity for a “great ecological experiment” in the expanses of the former territory of the Farc, unexplored for years.

Green policies in practice at Ean University, where Brigitte Baptiste is chancellor. The garden serves a beehive nearby. Photography: Nadège Mazars / The Guardian

Baptiste is a biodiversity expert in a biodiversity-rich country facing destruction from deforestation, land grabbing, drug trafficking, illegal agriculture and the displacement of indigenous peoples. Water pollution from illegal gold mining and inadequate sewage systems have also taken their toll. And this year, Colombia was named the world’s deadliest country for conservationists for the second year in a row.

Threats to activists concern her more than any other matter, which is what she planned to point out to Guterres that evening in the three minutes allotted to her.

“There is no democracy that can be built on violence, on the extermination of unarmed people,” she said. “There can be a lot of things in Colombia that are not working well environmentally, economically – but it all goes into the background until we are able to respect human rights and guarantee the lives of all. Colombians. “

Meetings with world leaders are not uncommon in Baptiste’s career, but the natural gas conference the next day – where she pushes energy companies to offset carbon – is a change of pace from the island world of academia. . She decided to take on this role, and the fossil fuel industry meetings that accompany it, to apply the results of a lifetime of biodiversity research and make changes within the system. .

Baptiste believes in “green capitalism” – that the free market can promote sustainable development.

Brigitte Baptiste at work in her office.
“You have to work with the bankers, you have to work with the investors,” says Brigitte Baptiste. Photography: Nadège Mazars / The Guardian

“There must be businesses that are not just good for your pocket, they must be good for people, they must be good for nature, they must be good for future generations,” she said. “So that’s the idea of ​​sustainable entrepreneurship. This is my contribution to this school, research to build this concept in theory and in practice.

His views have sparked a backlash from environmental activists, but Baptiste sees his job as encouraging Colombians to value their biodiversity as an economic premium that can be harvested sustainably. “With businessmen, with bankers, it’s always the bad guys at the table,” she says, but emphasizes: “You have to work with the bankers, the investors, obviously you have to work with the decision-makers, with the political, with civil organizations, and without fear of open debate, whether convenient or not.

Baptiste rose to stature in a conservative Catholic country, where violence and discrimination against transgender people are rife. Between 2019 and 2020 alone, at least 448 LGBT people suffered acts of violence, including killings and police brutality.

A pair of large butterfly wings on an office wall
Baptiste wore butterfly wings at a recent gala. Now they have pride of place on a wall in his office. Photography: Nadège Mazars / The Guardian

Baptiste says she now only faces discrimination on social media, not at work. But don’t think this reflects a higher level of trans acceptance in Colombia. “I don’t think so,” she said.

“I think what I achieved, whether it was a little or a lot, was because I built it before I became Brigitte publicly.”

Baptiste made the transition in 1998 at the age of 35 and had already obtained a master’s and doctoral degree, co-founded and led a non-profit organization and served on boards of directors.

People respect her because she had won “guaranteed places” before her transition, she says, although some think they “have to put up with Dr Brigitte” with a hint of “yes, the doctorate “- she said, imitating her opponents. “So the gender issue is always used to question the legitimacy of my work. “

“Having a female trans rector was a gamble the university had made,” she says. “A generous bet, but also calculated to send a message to society: that it is a different university that can accommodate a trans woman as rector.

“But because I have already arrived with high visibility,” she adds, “who knows if the same would have happened with other trans women?”

Daniela Maldonado Salamanca, director of the Trans Community Network in Bogotá, warns that Baptiste can often be seen as successful in a way that ignores the barriers that prevent most trans women with less privilege from achieving similar success. “We are very far from being there – socially, economically [and] in access to educational capital, ”explains Salamanca. “Light years away from these processes. “

Brigitte Baptiste at her office in Bogatá last month.
Brigitte Baptiste at her office in Bogatá last month. She says trans women still lack linguistic respect in the Spanish-speaking country. Photography: Nadège Mazars / The Guardian

Baptiste is still lost on a daily basis, in taxis and restaurants, and asserts that trans women have still not achieved “a minimum of linguistic respect” in Colombia.

She hopes it will generate more acceptance.

“If she was able to do all the things she did, a country like this has all the hopes in the world,” says her colleague, university executive director Ean Billy Crissien.

“We can make the transition to be a better country, we can make the transition to be better people, we can make the transition to become what we want to be as a country,” he says. “Brigitte showed us how to do wonderful things. I think it fills us with hope for a country like us.

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