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.
The institute made a big splash recently by announcing the discovery of 109 new species in areas previously considered too dangerous for research.
In only six months! The biologists we work with have long known where they needed to go to find the “unknown.” As soon as the ceasefire made many parts of the country accessible, they took off. We want to support this, and to get behind a renaissance in biological collections and museums in Colombia. And 109 species was a nice result. Of course 80 percent were insects, but that includes many wasps, spiders—each with its unique venom and biochemical potential.
What does the uncertainty surrounding the peace deal mean for you?
It’s very disconcerting, obviously. But we’re used to working in turbulent conditions. With a peace agreement, a modified agreement, or no agreement, we will continue. We have the moral duty to do so. We were expecting millions of Euros to support social development in protected areas—we’re told that funding is being reconsidered, though our work will continue. We’ll be able to continue working on our urgent wetland restoration projects on the Caribbean coast, because these are funded by Colombia. We’ve recently been tasked by the high court to carry out a two-year, wide ranging study of mining impacts throughout the country.
You’ve been training a network of young investigators and field biologists, a lot of them barely out of college, working in areas that have long been conflict-prone. It’s like you’re building an army.
We want young graduates in forestry, biology, anthropology who either come from some of these regions or live in them still, who make a living doing field work for local environmental authorities, universities, oil companies. We offer them support and training. What we really want is to build a long-term monitoring system for environmental change. Look, we could aim to do this with technology, putting sensors in remote parts of the country, but we think it works better, and is less expensive, to have people on the ground, trained to different levels, who are good and reliable observers, following trends in biodiversity. It gives them some environmental ownership, and it gives us a more complete story.
That seems to resonate with young people—the idea of having the freedom to choose, the freedom to be.
I know you try and push them to embrace a subjective, even sensual experience of ecology, of the field. To inculcate a sort of passion that goes beyond the collection of data.
One of the things you have in North America—it’s really marvelous—are these personal narratives of all kinds of science. I was 19 years old on vacation with my parents, in San Andres, when I found a Spanish-language edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the airport. I spent the next three days devouring it in a hammock. I still have that copy. More recently I read Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex—it’s like a detective novel! We don’t have that in Colombia. Instead we have narratives about kidnappings. Where are the narratives of our rivers? I’m hoping that one of our young people will write one.
Do you think your personal story figures into your appeal?
It’s a little mysterious, isn’t it? When I give a talk at a university, there can be 200 people waiting for me afterward. Some would like to know how I got as far as I did being so strange; others are looking for certain keys to life. Being a transgendered person requires a lot of honesty. Often—perhaps less so now than before—it’s precipitated by a sort of crisis. There’s nothing left to do but show yourself as you believe you must. And that seems to resonate with young people—the idea of having the freedom to choose, the freedom to be, especially in a country where religion is so important, with conservative forms of it so dominant.
I doubt most of them are interested in changing their genders.
No, not at all. But people write me who want to change their careers, or something else about themselves. To think you can exist in a different manner—you can not fit in and still be ok, even in a country in conflict, a country with limitations—this resonates with young people.
But you do maintain that there are connections to be explored between a vacillating gender identity, such as yours, and ecology.
Recently I’ve been finding a lot of them. I’ve been playing with ideas for a book I’d call “queer ecology,” which is an attempt to try to view classic ecology through a lens that’s a little bit distrustful, a bit blurred, a bent ecology—in which uncertainty is greater. Quantum physics plays with uncertainties, and there are fantasies, models, scenarios that are speculative, but are interesting and offer new hypotheses to develop new paradigms. In ecology you have lots of uncertainty, lots of space to imagine, as we’re talking about complex living systems. The laws aren’t so straight.
What are some of those uncertain spaces?
Classic scientific categories are constructed to reinforce the qualities of objects, to allow them to be identified ever more certainly. Modernity necessitates this; it’s indispensible for the development of a technically advanced civilization. In biology it poses problems. We have to be conscious of the tendency to excessively prize and presume stability. Even the species concept in biology does not withstand close scrutiny. When you fix your sight on an organism, you think you have it—until it starts to disappear in a network of trophic relations and genetic variability. So nothing is really stable. A “queer ecology”—or even a responsible science, we might say—would work to balance a recognition of what’s been done epistemologically and ontologically to get us to where we are, and also return to the origin of certain questions, to embrace doubt. Is that forest really the same forest we thought it was 10 years ago? And that’s the kind of thing that causes angst. So that’s my personal view, that the limitations of our capacities to objectify something affects ourselves as well.
Is this where gender comes in?
That’s where gender comes in. And I do not pretend that everybody feels it in the same way or is affected the same way. But in my case it happened, and it’s something that’s fed my thinking a long time.
You make clear that you don’t consider yourself an LGBTI activist.
Right, because it’s easy to commit the same errors in constructing new static objects. I have people telling me “You have identity problems,” and I say well yes, I do, but I am not suffering from them. My search for an identity is something perpetual, not something decided: “I am this person, now I can die.”
Were you shocked when “gender ideology” became central to the peace debates?
Nobody saw that coming. The LGBTI community is very vulnerable—we are easy to destroy. But we have to be very careful in communicating that we are not trying to destroy anyone else’s values.
Are you inclined to talk less about gender and identity when you return?
I have very pedagogic tendencies. I might be feeling a little less playful about it, but I will always engage, always in a spirit of dialogue.
Jennie Erin Smith is a freelance science writer and critic. She is the author of Stolen World, a 2011 nonfiction book about reptile smugglers.
Lead photo courtesy of Caussette Magazine/Antonia Zennaro