From any perspective and by any measure Dr. Brigitte Baptiste-Ballera has led a remarkable life and achieved singular success in her culturally conservative home country, Colombia, and beyond. In 2019, she was appointed president of EAN University, the first transgender woman to become president of a university in South America. This school of business administration, located in Bogotá, offers programs to 11,000 students in business administration, economics, finance, engineering and languages at the undergraduate and graduate level. The university’s objective is to produce the next generation of economists, entrepreneurs and engineers with the knowledge and skills for the development of sustainable economies.
Before assuming this role Baptiste-Ballera was for 15 years director of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Research on Biological Resources, transforming it from a marginal to a nationally and internationally recognized organization that serves as a key consultant for governments on land use, mining, conservation and the protection of endangered species and biodiversity. During her tenure, the von Humboldt Institute published several beautifully illustrated books that show the beauty, uniqueness and diversity of Colombia’s flora and fauna, articulating her views the connections between nature’s diversity and cultural diversity.
“We humans have evolved and succeeded as a species within the ecological networks (in which) we live,” she says. “We are still animals, organic beings, fully colonized in our guts by micro-organisms that keep going in and out, connecting us with the land. We continuously modify those ecological networks, since the living communities that sustain us also change to adapt to our activities. Cultural diversity is the expression of the multiple ways we keep creating (in order) to experience and assess the ever changing dialogue with other living beings.”
Baptiste-Ballera is also a public intellectual, advocating for environmental conservation and speaking out as a transgendered voice for the rights of sexual and other minorities. She writes columns in Colombian newspapers and in other media on topics such as ecology, queer ecology, land rights, land use, peasants, women and indigenous peoples. Her arguments are based on her expertise in these areas and her rigorous reliance on science, and presented in a manner to encourage dialogue and reflection. She has developed a reputation as a debunker of bad science, and for making science cool and fun for her audiences. She has served on several panels and boards focused on environmental issues and sustainability, and is a Past Chair of the Science and Policy Advisory Committee of the Inter-American Institute for Global Change.
Baptiste-Ballera was a keynote speaker at Congress 2018, a conference on the humanities and social sciences hosted by the University of Regina. She describes receiving an honourary degree from the U or R as a great and amazing surprise, since that conference was her only visit to the campus. “It also means,” she continues, “an opportunity to create stronger bonds with Colombia and its many communities, both native or emerging, in a country in urgent need of healing the many wounds created by the idea of nature as a separate entity from society.”