Meet the transgendered ecologist helping her country move past years of conflict.
The former Luis Guillermo Baptiste began her transformation into Brigitte in the mid 1990s, when she was part of a cadre of scientists helping to establish the Bogota-based Humboldt Institute, a hybrid public-private biodiversity research foundation. With her rainbow-dyed hair, tattoos, and willingness to entertain just about any question put to her, the landscape ecologist, now 53, is one of Colombia’s most visible transgender citizens. Her wide acceptance as a public intellectual—she is a national columnist, a frequently cited environmental authority and now head of the Humboldt Institute—seemed in keeping with an increasingly tolerant Colombia.
When Baptiste arrived in New York this past summer, it was with the resolve of someone gearing up for the greatest challenge of her career. She took up a six-month residency at Columbia University to set priorities for what was being dubbed the pos-conflicto: the end of hostilities between her country’s military and the leftist guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Colombia is considered home to about a tenth of world’s biodiversity. But for five decades, the conflict stymied investigation in remote parts of the country, leaving species undescribed, ecosystems ill-defined, and vast ecological damage unchecked.
Baptiste had lobbied aggressively for a peace deal as an opportunity for science to gain a foothold in once-lawless regions. Like any peace treaty, this one was controversial from the start. But the last thing Baptiste expected was that its detractors would seize on an issue so close to her personally in their efforts to derail it.
Opponents of the deal cited provisions that, they alleged, promoted “gender ideology.” The accords made reference to the needs of female, gay, or transgendered victims of the conflict, and encouraged their participation in the peace process. In October, a significant number of Colombians, including a majority of evangelical Christians, found this threatening enough to reject the peace in a national referendum. The following month a revised deal was pushed through congress, with references to gender and the LGBTI community excised or watered down. Though peace appears to have been salvaged for now, distrust and obstructionism linger.
Baptiste embodies both the potential and the limitations of the human element in science. Her take on ecology, and her ability to make the public pay attention to it, is influenced in part by her unique personal story. Yet that same story touches on themes still incendiary in her country.
Nautilus sat down with a busily regrouping Baptiste, who was not still quite sure whether the Colombia to which she’d soon return was the same one she’d left.
You once described the post-conflict period as a “great ecological experiment” for Colombia. What does that mean?
It means that after 50 years of some regions being ungoverned and un-governable, we’re going to be able to make strategic decisions on land and water use based on our findings, and we will be able to evaluate the outcomes. We need to get baseline ecological inventories done quickly in regions that haven’t been accessed, and set them up for long-term monitoring. Always after a conflict there’s migration of people, there’s deforestation, and there’s a rush to buy land, especially for agriculture. That’s not necessarily bad, but we need to make sophisticated decisions based on the best evidence. If we wait 10 years it will be too late.
The natural areas you’re focusing on are inhabited. How does that change your work?
My own background is in part in rural development, and I’ve worked with communities in Amazon, the paramo highlands, the coastal wetlands. I’ve had to listen to a lot of voices; I’ve always been sensitive to the social character of conservation. Half our forests are inhabited by indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Wetlands make up a third of the country and are virtually all inhabited. The displacing of these populations, and appropriation of wetlands for agriculture and ranching, was one of the main drivers of the conflict. One of the uncomfortable questions we always have to ask ourselves is, is conservation elitist? Who benefits? Conservation in exchange for what? Conservation in Colombia has traditionally meant displacing people, and there are very different perspectives on this—you have the sort of aristocratic idea of “empty nature,” which informed the creation of our national parks in the 1970s. We’re dealing with the 85 percent of the country that does not have this high level of protection. Where the theoretical conviction of the need to protect nature bumps up against humanistic convictions. This dispute is still alive, and will be one of the central themes of the post-conflict period…