‘We can transition to a better country’: a trans Colombian on diversity in ecology and society | Global development

When Brigitte Baptiste walks on to the tenth ground of Bogotá’s Ean College at 9.45am in a plunging costume, knee-high cheetah-print boots and a silvery wig, the workplace comes to life. She examines some flowers despatched by the Colombian radio station Caracol to thank her for collaborating in a discussion board, her co-worker compliments her on her lipstick, and she settles in for a day of back-to-back conferences, adopted by a non-public digital dialog with the UN secretary basic, António Guterres. Later that night, she flies to Cartagena for a convention on pure gasoline.

The 58-year-old ecologist is one among Colombia’s foremost environmental specialists, and one among its most visible transgender people, difficult scientific and social conventions alike. An ecology professor on the Jesuit-run Javeriana College for 20 years, she has written 15 books, numerous newspaper columns, and received worldwide prizes for her work. Most just lately, she was appointed chancellor of Ean College, a enterprise college, as a part of its push for greater sustainability.

Baptiste was one of many scientists who based the Humboldt Institute, the main biodiversity analysis centre in Colombia, and she was the director for eight years. A lot of her analysis concerned rural development, and biodiversity’s position in land administration. It took her to communities from the Amazon to the coast.

She noticed the “social character of conservation” and the hyperlinks between conflict, displacement and environmental degradation. A forceful proponent of a peace cope with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), she noticed a deal as a possibility for a “nice ecological experiment” in the swaths of former Farc territory had been unexplored for years.

A garden on the terrace of a building
Inexperienced insurance policies in follow at Ean College, the place Brigitte Baptiste is chancellor. The backyard serves a close by bee hive. {Photograph}: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

Baptiste is a biodiversity professional in a biodiverse nation going through destructionfrom deforestation, land grabs, drug trafficking, unlawful farming and the displacement of indigenous folks. Water air pollution from unlawful gold mining and insufficient sewage programs have additionally taken a toll. And this 12 months Colombia was named the world’s deadliest nation for environmental defenders for the second 12 months in a row.

Threats to activists concern her greater than another difficulty, which is what she deliberate to spotlight to Guterres that night time in the three minutes allotted to her.

“There isn’t a democracy that can be constructed on violence, on the extermination of unarmed folks,” she says. “There could also be many issues in Colombia that don’t work properly environmentally, economically – however all that goes into the background till we’re in a position to respect human rights and assure the lives of all Colombians.”

Conferences with world leaders should not unusual in Baptiste’s profession, however the natural-gas conference the next day – the place she push vitality firms to offset carbon – is a change of tempo from the insular world of academia. She determined to take on this position, and the fossil gas trade conferences that include it, to apply the outcomes of a lifetime of biodiversity analysis, and to obtain change from inside the system.

Baptiste is a believer in “inexperienced capitalism” – that the free market can promote sustainable development.

Brigitte Baptiste at work in her office.
‘You could have to work with the bankers, you have got to work with the buyers,’ says Brigitte Baptiste. {Photograph}: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

“There have to be companies that aren’t solely good in your pocket, they’ve to be good for folks, they’ve to be good for nature, they’ve to be good for future generations,” she stated. “So that’s the concept of ​​sustainable entrepreneurship. That’s the contribution that I convey to this college, a search to construct that idea in principle and in follow.”

Her views have sparked a backlash from environmental activists, however Baptiste sees her job as encouraging Colombians to worth their biodiversity as an financial bounty that can be harvested sustainably. “​​With businessmen, with bankers, they’re at all times the evil ones on the desk,” she says, however stresses: “You could have to work with the bankers, the buyers, clearly you have got to work with the decision-makers, with the politicians, with the civil organisations, and with out worry of open debate, whether or not it’s handy or not.”

Baptiste has achieved stature in a conservative Catholic nation, the place violence and discrimination towards transgender individuals are widespread. Between 2019 and 2020 alone, at the very least 448 LGBT people suffered acts of violence together with homicide and police brutality.

A pair of big butterfly wings on an office wall
Baptiste wore butterfly wings to a latest gala occasion. Now they’ve pleasure of place on a wall in her workplace. {Photograph}: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

Baptiste says that now she solely faces discrimination on social media, not at work. However doesn’t believes that displays a larger degree of trans acceptance in Colombia. “I don’t suppose so,” she says.

“I imagine that what I’ve achieved, whether or not or not it’s a little or a lot, was as a result of I constructed it earlier than turning into Brigitte publicly.”


Baptiste transitioned in 1998 aged 35, and had already accomplished a grasp’s diploma and a doctorate, co-founded and directed a non-profit and served on boards.

Folks respect her as a result of she had earned “assured areas” earlier than she transitioned, she says, though there are those who really feel they “have to put up with Dr Brigitte” with a trace of “sure, la doctora” – she says, imitating her naysayers. “So the gender difficulty is at all times used to query the legitimacy of my work.”

“Having a trans girl rector was a wager the college made,” she says. “A beneficiant wager, but additionally calculated to ship a message to society: that that is a completely different college that can welcome a trans girl as rector.

“However as a result of I already got here with an essential visibility,” she provides, “who is aware of if the identical factor would have occurred with different trans ladies?”

Daniela Maldonado Salamanca, director of the Trans Neighborhood Community in Bogotá, cautions that Baptiste can typically be held up as profitable in a method that ignores the obstacles that forestall most trans ladies with fewer privileges reaching comparable success. “We’re very removed from being there – socially, economically [and] in entry to instructional capital,” says Salamanca. “Gentle years from these processes.”

Brigitte Baptiste at her desk in Bogatá last month.
Brigitte Baptiste at her desk in Bogatá final month. She says trans ladies are nonetheless not given linguistic respect in the Spanish-speaking nation. {Photograph}: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

Baptiste remains to be misgendered day by day, in taxis and eating places and says trans ladies have nonetheless not achieved “a minimal of linguistic respect” in Colombia.

She is hopeful she is going to immediate extra acceptance.

“If she has been in a position to do all of the issues that she has managed to do, a nation like this has all of the hopes in the world,” says her colleague, government director of Ean College Billy Crissien.

“We can transition to being a better nation, we can transition to being better folks, we can transition to being what we wish to be as a nation,” he says. “Brigitte has proven us a method that great issues can be accomplished. I feel she fills us with hope for a nation like us.”

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