Inside the Gate
  Views from Campus
Peter Dorman, AUB’s 15th president
Presidents of AUB
The Green Issue
Saving the Cedars: The Tannourine Project
It’s War on the Environment
IGESP: Finding Solutions for the Earth’s Problems
Is AUB Green?
Alumni Profile
Maingate Connections
Alumni Happenings
Class Notes
AUB Reflections
In Memoriam
From the Editors
Letters to the Editors
Presidents of AUB
New Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service
Coming to Your Own Back Yard: Seeds of Hope
Three Words...
Nostalgia and Hope: Greater Washington Chapter Exhibition
Randa Khalil: Platinum Green LEED in British Columbia
Remembering Iliya Harik (BA '56, MA '58)
Hostler Green Initiatives
Between Bahrain and AUB

Spring 2008 Vol. VI, No. 3

Alumni Profile

The Making of an Environmentalist

When she was in high school, Bolivian Georgina Catacora-Vargas (MSc ’03) was already searching for a career that involved taking “care of nature while helping and interacting with people.” She started her studies at the state university in Bolivia, but the chaotic political situation in the mid-’90s moved her to Costa Rica’s Earth University to pursue her goals. University President José Zaglul had arranged an exchange program with his alma mater, AUB, and at the 2000 Salzburg seminar organized by Earth, she met AUB Professor Rami Zurayk and President John Waterbury. Professor Zurayk’s “stories about the Beqa’a Valley encouraged [her] decision to go to Lebanon,” and just three years later she received her MSc in environmental sciences with a major in ecosystem management from AUB.

While in Lebanon Catacora- Vargas became dedicated to biodiversity, organic agriculture, and sustainable development. She explained: “The combination of studies and work helped me to discover and enjoy Lebanon. Getting into rural agricultural communities from north to south and into institutions related to agricultural development and biodiversity conservation in parallel with my studies was for me a great chance given by AUB to my professional and human enrichment. Thanks to that experience, Lebanon is for me a kind of second home country.”

Catacora-Vargas remembers her teachers at AUB (and elsewhere in the world): Professor Rami Zurayk for his “passion for life and rural livelihoods”; Salma Talhouk, her adviser, for her care for nature and her “women’s strength in professional issues;” Karim Makdisi for his “openness to young people and their ideas.” In turn, Professor Rami Zurayk remembers Georgina Catacora-Vargas: “her impressive work standards” and her greatest strength—her “ability to interact and establish trust with people of diverse cultures and backgrounds . . . in spite of the language barrier.” (Catacora-Vargas described learning key words together with farmers by using improvised “blackboards” and “ c h a l k ” — e a r t h plots and wooden sticks.)

Although she saw her work in Lebanon after receiving her MS as a means of “giving back something this country gave to me,” she also had a strong feeling about “contributing answers and strategies to the socioeconomic and environmental problems” of her own country, Bolivia, and the entire Latin American region. Back home, she started a second master’s degree in agro-ecology and sustainable development, which she attained from Universidad Mayor de San Simon in 2005.

Since leaving Lebanon Catacora- Vargas has worked as a consultant for many environmental, farming, and marketing projects. Her efforts on behalf of farmers and the environment keep her fully committed on a daily basis. She fights against the “massive damage” of deforestation, conventional agriculture, toxic chemicals, and genetically modified seed. She supports natural resources, local flora use and conservation, local markets, and natural processing and packaging. When she works closely with local organic markets she promotes social construction, creativity, flexibility, and the need for public awareness.

Catacora-Vargas’s devotion to both nature and human beings continues to animate her commitment to everything she does. Working tightly with farmers and rural communities, campesino á campesino, she talks passionately about the need to move against the damaging practice of

common trade with its emphasis on exportation rather than use of local products. She seeks vigorously to mitigate negative effects: the weakening of traditional agricultural patterns and practices leading to the long term break-down of rural communities, pollution from chemical additives, and degradation of limited natural resources such as soil and water.

All her endeavors come back to the needs of the people. For her, the most rewarding part of her work is when “farmers, consumers, and children interact in the fields.” At those moments, she says, “the farmer is no longer an unknown face, and organic products acquire an identity.” She sees consumers and farmers joining together to build a social network promoted by organic agriculture. They would work with mutual trust, affirming both “the social and ecological function of organic farmers.”

Giving many people, she says, especially children, the chance to access healthy food provides “a way to tighten my relationship with farmers. . . Now I can say that the organic farmers I work with are my philosophy partners, my friends and support, and children are my motivation to continue working in this field.”

Catacora-Vargas has always been actively engaged even when studying. While still a student in Lebanon she worked as a technical assistant with a Japanese research organization, an intern with ESCWA, a project assistant at a regional environmental consultancy company for projects related to the Ministry of Environment, and a consultant with World Vision. Back in Latin America she continued her work as adviser to Earth Link and Advanced Resources Development in Lebanon, and is currently project manager of the AGRECOL Andes Foundation’s ECO Fair Project in Bolivia and jointly responsible for Tierra Viva, a civilian organization—which she also cofounded—focusing on food sovereignty and research on the socio-economic impact of genetically modified organisms, agro-fuels, and agribusiness models. She is proud of being one of the few women having responsible positions in a largely male-dominated field. But most of all, she says, she “is satisfied with helping people improve their lives and having the chance to learn and interact with them.”