Think Humboldt, and if you’ve delved into the history books which document the arrival of 19th century European exploration to Latin America, you’ll most likely have stumbled across the name of Prussian geographer and naturalist Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander. Born 1769 in his native hearth of Berlin, Alexander von Humboldt embarked on a journey to the Venezuelan jungle, down the estuaries of the Amazon and between 1799 and 1804 accumulated specimens and data for a large body of work which would become one of the pillars of modern physical science; and the base for our understanding of geography and climatology.
As an opponent to ecclesiastical dogmatism and an enthusiastic liberal, Alexander von Humboldt logged over 30,000 kilometers to better understand the relationship between man, nature and habitat, and upon his death in 1859, he was as much revered in every Pomeranian home, as King Frederick William IV.
The cultural nationalism Humboldt stood for, led to the creation of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and a universalist way of thinking among scholars in both the Old World and the New.
In 1993, and in one of the very countries where Humboldt had journeyed through, the Colombian Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt was founded. As an independent, private, but publicly- affiliated institute (to the Ministry of Environment and National Parks), dedicated to investigation and research, the Humboldt Foundation’s mission has been since its creation – a year after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – to administer the information used in the preservation and restoration of the country’s biodiversity. The Humboldt Institute works closely with three of the country’s public universities: the National University, University of Valle and University of Antioquia.
From sending investigators out in the field, to publishing essays and specialized books on a wide range of topics, from endangered wetlands, to soil maintenance, the Humboldt Institute also houses tens of thousands of insects, plants and mammals in its Villa de Leyva satellite office, located inside a 16th century cloister, and where the dry climate had favored the preservation of specimens.
The county’s most important conservation agency is run by Brigitte Baptiste, a Javeriana University-educated biologist whose first thesis focused on ecology and artisanal fishing methods in the estuaries of the Caquetá department, flowing through Colombia’s Amazonian lowlands. “I spent a year fishing with indigenous tribes. They taught me everything I needed to know about ecology. In University they teach you ecology through books.” She then went on to earn a Masters in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida (Gainesville), and later a Ph.D in Environmental Sciences from Barcelona’s Universidad Autónoma.
While Alexander von Humboldt chartered the exterior world, Brigitte Baptiste also challenged an interior one, rooted in gender classification and the mysteries surrounding our unseen nature. Born in 1963 into a Bogotá family as Luis Guillermo Baptiste, sometime around age six, Luis Guillermo began thinking and behaving as a girl; but he was too young to understand what was taking place with his genes. He knew he was a boy, but liked being a girl. Feeling repressed by “accepted” gender roles, Luis Guillermo kept his feminine side out of sight, but hardly out of mind. In the late 1960s, Colombia remained a conservative place. And Bogotá even more so.
It wasn’t until Luis Guillermo had reached his mid-thirties and was part of the original founders’ team of what would become the Humboldt Institute, that the biologist took on major issues: one with a professional outcome, the other with a personal objective. He would not only administer issues surrounding biodiversity, but begin the move to becoming Brigitte – the woman he wanted to be – and a direct reference in name to the heroine of the French film ‘And God created Woman’ (1956) starring bombshell, Brigitte Bardot.
While carrying out work at the Humboldt Institute, Brigitte Baptiste earned the respect of friends, colleagues and international experts on environmental administration. As an investigations coordinator (and having completed two years of required tenure with the Javeriana University), Brigitte with the Dean of Environmental Sciences Dr. Francisco González drew up the socio- economic model for the foundation. “I have always been involved in the management of the environment,” states Brigitte from behind red, oval-shaped spectacles.
And moving beyond her European sounding name, Brigitte has stepped up to the plate, in a leadership role. She explains the projections of the Humboldt Institute: “We produce the knowledge that drives environmental thinking. I have always enjoyed the relationship that exists between biodiversity and people.”
An expert on sustainability and the management of biodiversity in communities where rapid development and the imposition of economic clusters, such as mining, has impacted habitats from pine forests to swamps, Brigitte, believes Colombia can right an ecological “debt.” Community-led planning is one of the ways the Humboldt Institute extends its reach into the countryside. Providing on-the-ground guidance to farmers and agro-industrialists for the reconstruction of threatened ecology is another. “Colombia is a very resilient place when it comes to environmental management,” states Brigitte, the day after Earth Day.
The biologist has also found a resilience in the Colombian identity, when it comes to confronting issues that go beyond climate and wildlife. “What country can withstand so much blood-letting, from drug violence, to political sectarianism, territorial chaos, and still constantly improve its economic indicators, reduce poverty levels and work towards democracy?” Brigitte then recalls a phrase from professor David Bushnell: “Colombia is a nation in spite of itself.”
Ecological resilience has buffered Colombia against climate change. “The first sign of the importance of our rich biodiversity occurred after the devastating rains and floods of La Niña in 2012. People all along the coast were left without seeds, yucca and plantain. But after three months, the fish spawn was tremendous. The swamps reconnected, rivers cleansed themselves and there was food for everyone.” Conservation, like identity, is engaging talk with the author of 15 books on biodiversity, who views the connectivity between people and nature as an essential catalyst for the well-being of nations.
To help towns and villages get their infrastructure back on track after a natural calamity and incentivate the replanting of damaged forests and protected areas, President Juan Manuel Santos has allocated $62,000 million pesos (U.S $30 million) towards a fund entitled Fondo Adaptación. The Humboldt Institute is currently working closely with the Ministry of Finance on how best invest these valuable resources at a grass-roots level.
Currently on sabbatical from the Jesuit administered Javeriana University, Brigitte talks candidly about a few episodes of discrimination she faced in Barcelona, while becoming the trans-gender person she is. Fortunately, by the time she had arrived in the Spanish port to persue her Ph.D she was accompanied by her wife, Adriana Vásquez; whom she met in Bogotá, as Luis Guillermo. They dated, developed a close relationship and Adriana embraced Brigitte’s transformation. After 13 years of marriage, the couple are proud parents of two daughters: Candelaria and Juana Pasión.
From fishing Amazonian rivers to studying the complex foliage that shrouds our gender and perceptions, Brigitte Baptiste runs an entity that every day impacts the lives of Colombians – from what they harvest, to how best preserve the flora and fauna of streams, so water can flow. Hence, she understands all too well, the difference between urban realities and the rural mindset.
“When I turn up in remote towns, people assume my gender ambiguity in stride and with humor,” remarks the biologist. “I am often referred to a ‘Dón Brigitte.” Then there’s always a story associated with the national idendity card – cedúla de ciudadanía – which has Brigitte ranked ‘M’ as in Male. For Brigitte, it’s all in mind and the need for politicians to play it safe. “I think of ‘M’ as in Mujer (woman).” Then, of course, she’s not keen on any sort of classification. Which is why, she chose biodiversity management, rather than the more traditional branches of biology.
For Baptiste maintaining a sense of humor, especially during times of duress, is also one of the great attributes of Colombians. “Despite living in a very stratified and class-conscious society, people have no qualms with appearance.” She is quick to state, that she has never faced discrimination in her native land for the way she chooses to look and dress. “In case there’s a doubt, most people just crack a joke. If you don’t take yourself seriously, this is the place for you,” states the naturalist who walks in the heels of Humboldt.