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

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When Brigitte Baptiste walks on to the 10th floor of Bogotá’s Ean University at 9.45am in a plunging dress, knee-high cheetah-print boots and a silvery wig, the office comes to life. She examines some flowers sent by the Colombian radio station Caracol to thank her for taking part in a forum, her co-worker compliments her on her lipstick, and she settles in for a day of back-to-back meetings, followed by a private virtual conversation with the UN secretary general, António Guterres. Later that evening, she flies to Cartagena for a conference on natural gas.

The 58-year-old ecologist is one of Colombia’s foremost environmental experts, and one of its most visible transgender people, challenging scientific and social conventions alike. An ecology professor at the Jesuit-run Javeriana University for 20 years, she has written 15 books, countless newspaper columns, and won international prizes for her work. Most recently, she was appointed chancellor of Ean University, a business school, as part of its push for greater sustainability.

Baptiste was one of the scientists who founded the Humboldt Institute, the leading biodiversity research centre in Colombia, and she was the director for eight years. Much of her research involved rural development, and biodiversity’s role in land management. It 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 forceful proponent of a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), she saw a deal as an opportunity for a “great ecological experiment” in the swaths of former Farc territory had been unexplored for years.

A garden on the terrace of a building
Green policies in practice at Ean University, where Brigitte Baptiste is chancellor. The garden serves a nearby bee hive. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

Baptiste is a biodiversity expert in a biodiverse country facing destructionfrom deforestation, land grabs, drug trafficking, illegal farming and the displacement of indigenous people. Water pollution from illegal gold mining and inadequate sewage systems have also taken a toll. And this year Colombia was named the world’s deadliest country for environmental defenders for the second year in a row.

Threats to activists concern her more than any other issue, which is what she planned to highlight to Guterres that night in the three minutes allotted to her.

“There is no democracy that can be built on violence, on the extermination of unarmed people,” she says. “There may be many things in Colombia that do not work well environmentally, economically – but all that 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 following day – where she push energy companies to offset carbon – is a change of pace from the insular world of academia. She decided to take on this role, and the fossil fuel industry meetings that come with it, to apply the results of a lifetime of biodiversity research, and to achieve change from within the system.

Baptiste is a believer 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. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

“There have to be businesses that are not only good for your pocket, they have to be good for people, they have to be good for nature, they have to be good for future generations,” she said. “So that is the idea of ​​sustainable entrepreneurship. That is the contribution that I bring to this school, a search to build that concept in theory and in practice.”

Her views have sparked a backlash from environmental activists, but Baptiste sees her job as encouraging Colombians to value their biodiversity as an economic bounty that can be harvested sustainably. “​​With businessmen, with bankers, they are always the evil ones at the table,” she says, but stresses: “You have to work with the bankers, the investors, obviously you have to work with the decision-makers, with the politicians, with the civil organisations, and without fear of open debate, whether it’s convenient or not.”

Baptiste has achieved stature in a conservative Catholic country, where violence and discrimination against transgender people are widespread. Between 2019 and 2020 alone, at least 448 LGBT people suffered acts of violence including murder and police brutality.

A pair of big butterfly wings on an office wall
Baptiste wore butterfly wings to a recent gala event. Now they have pride of place on a wall in her office. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

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

“I believe that what I have achieved, whether it be a little or a lot, was because I built it before becoming Brigitte publicly.”

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

People respect her because she had earned “guaranteed spaces” before she transitioned, she says, although there are those that feel they “have to put up with Dr Brigitte” with a hint of “yes, la doctora” – she says, imitating her naysayers. “So the gender issue is always used to question the legitimacy of my work.”

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

“But because I already came with an important visibility,” she adds, “who knows if the same thing would have happened with other trans women?”

Daniela Maldonado Salamanca, director of the Trans Community Network in Bogotá, cautions that Baptiste can often be held up as successful in a way that ignores the barriers that prevent most trans women with fewer privileges achieving similar success. “We are very far from being there – socially, economically [and] in access to educational capital,” says Salamanca. “Light years from those processes.”

Brigitte Baptiste at her desk in Bogatá last month.
Brigitte Baptiste at her desk in Bogatá last month. She says trans women are still not given linguistic respect in the Spanish-speaking country. Photograph: Nadège Mazars/The Guardian

Baptiste is still misgendered daily, in taxis and restaurants and says trans women have still not achieved “a minimum of linguistic respect” in Colombia.

She is hopeful she will prompt more acceptance.

“If she has been able to do all the things that she has managed to do, a country like this has all the hopes in the world,” says her colleague, executive director of Ean University Billy Crissien.

“We can transition to being a better country, we can transition to being better people, we can transition to being what we want to be as a country,” he says. “Brigitte has shown us a way that wonderful things can be done. I think she fills us with hope for a country like us.”

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Kill the Bill and period protests: human rights this fortnight – in pictures | Global development

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‘No embargo’ on meetings with Putin, EU says

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EU leaders are free to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin despite his threats to start a new war with Ukraine, the EU foreign service has said. “There is no embargo on contacts and visits between member states and Russia. Each member state decides … on their own judgment,” the EU foreign service told EUobserver. The comment follows reports Croatia invited Putin to visit and that Hungary’s leader will meet him.

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Vulnerable Malians could ‘pay the price’ of heavy sanctions, warn aid groups | Global development

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More than a dozen aid organisations have called for humanitarian exemptions to heavy sanctions imposed on Mali after the military leadership postponed planned February elections.

The EU has announced support for the sanctions imposed earlier this month by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which include closing borders and a trade embargo.

But this week, 13 international groups working in Mali warned of devastating consequences for the population, a third of whom rely on aid.

Humanitarian access is hindered by the Malian interim authorities’ decision to reciprocate border closures with Ecowas member states, except Guinea.

Thousands of people demonstrated against the sanctions last week in the capital Bamako, carrying placards saying “down with Ecowas” and “down with France”.

The country is in the grip of the worst food insecurity in 10 years.

A joint letter signed by the NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Care and the Norwegian Refugee Council, said: “To continue their work effectively, humanitarian actors must have unfettered access for the transportation of life-saving goods including food and medicine, as well as guarantees that they can transfer funds into the country without violating the sanctions.”

Mali’s current insecurity dates back to early 2012 when northern separatists rebelled against the government. Islamist militants that initially allied with the separatists, including Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, ultimately hijacked the rebellion.

France, the former colonial ruler, made a military intervention in 2013 on the government’s side against the militants. The UN has also deployed an estimated 18,000 peacekeeping staff, in what was called its most dangerous mission.

The Malian military, led by Col Assimi Goïta, has conducted two coups in two years and reneged on promises to hold new elections. The junta’s most recent power grab, in May 2021, was the fifth coup since Mali’s independence in 1960 and it has been unwilling to commit to transition to civilian rule, despite international pressures.

Postponement of elections has been blamed on Islamist insecurity, an impasse that has deepened with the arrival of private military contractors belonging to the Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group. European states have condemned Wagner’s presence, concerned it will enable the military to hold on to power.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said this month that EU sanctions on Mali were in part in response to the involvement of Russian contractors. France is withdrawing troops, but 14 other EU members, led by Sweden, had established a taskforce to replace them in a three-year mandate. As tensions intensified over the Wagner Group, Sweden said last week that it had decided to withdraw its troops.

France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has been vociferous in its support of sanctions but Russia and China have blocked the UN security council’s move to follow suit.

Ecowas has frozen financial aid and Malian assets at the Central Bank of West African States.

Elena Vicario, director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Mali, said: “Malians are already bearing the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe, punctuated by horrifying attacks against civilians. Sanctions must not hold us back from delivering essential assistance in a country where drought, rising insecurity, and the economic impacts of Covid-19 are already pushing millions of Malians over the edge.”

Franck Vannetelle, the IRC’s country director in Mali, echoed Vicario, saying: “Despite more than a third of the country’s population being dependent on humanitarian aid, organisations working in Mali already face severe access constraints. It’s imperative that the international community keeps responding to people’s urgent needs, and that any new sanctions have concrete humanitarian exemptions. These must be monitored and implemented, or the most vulnerable people in Mali will pay the price.”

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