Indigenous rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú was probably preaching to the choir this week when she told graduates at a Caribbeanslope sustainable-development and agriculture university to keep the natural world in mind as they proceed with their careers.
“You have the possibility to move forward with the career you chose, not just to go and see if there is a worm that lives longer than another, but to try and understand the dimension of Mother Nature,” Menchú told the 61st graduating class of the Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE).
Menchú, a Guatemalan Maya, was the keynote speaker at the university’s graduation ceremonies, held Monday on CATIE’s lush campus in the small, Caribbean-slope town of Turrialba. In total, 70 students graduated in this most recent class with master’s and doctorate degrees in agriculture-related fields.
Wrapped in the vibrant colorful fabrics that distinguish the Maya people,Menchú was received by a standing ovation from the packed CATIE hall. In her speech, she beseeched the graduates “not to be satisfied with a title on the wall, that is not the maximum.
The maximum is the school of life and the school of nature, that is the maximum.” “I wish you all a long career in the school of life,” Menchú told the students, many of whom were wiping tears from their eyes by the end of the speech. “Take advantage of your entire life to learn, to teach, but also to be humble students of that which is inexhaustible – the environment, despite its destruction.”
Pedro Ferreira, the director of CATIE, told The Tico Times it was an honor to have Menchú at the school, and introduced her as “a person who identifies very much with CATIE’s mission.”
Menchú, who began her morning touring the university’s botanical garden – where she paused to reverently embrace a large strangler fig as press cameras flashed – called CATIE a “sacred place,” and thanked Ferreira for the opportunity to visit.
“We see here in CATIE so many species of plants that are being preserved for future generations,” Menchú said during a press conference before the graduation. “To have a place where the identity of nature is preserved and protected is a great, titanic labor, because not every one understands it, but it is a labor for the future.”
Speaking with a small group of journalists, Menchú touched on one of the most divisive topics in Costa Rica, and much of the developing world: free trade and globalization.
“We think that to globalize a computer is the ultimate goal of globalization. Well, it turns out globalization has always been and existed in all times of humanity because the exchange of lives always existed,” Menchú said, calling her Maya ancestors “the most globalized culture.”
“I believe globalization is a natural force,” Menchú continued. “The serious problem is when we understand globalization only in the economic sense. If it is only global for the banks and for money, I don’t believe in that. That is going to bring a lot of problems and is not going to satisfy the people… Even worse if it is the globalization that (U.S. President George W.) Bush wants.”
The visiting activist called for globalization to be equitable, with support and representation for small business owners, and for free movement for all people across the globe.
“If there is not an awareness of how our world works, we are going to continue producing a lot of immigration, and immigration ends up making immigrants become illegal and then we have to build walls behind our homes so the they don’t get into our homes,”Menchú said.
Before addressing the CATIE grads, she met with a group of visiting indigenous women from the remote and mountainous southeastern region of Talamanca, home to some the highest concentrations of indigenous people in Costa Rica.
“She identified a lot with us, because we are indigenous women and we fight for the same objective, which is indigenous rights,” said Editte Villanueva, representative of the Talamanca Women’s Indigenous Association (ACOMUITA). The association is a small, organic chocolate business run by indigenous women from the Bribri and Cabecar communities, and has received loans, training and other assistance from CATIE for five years, Villanueva explained.
The indigenous icon arrived in Costa Rica Sunday from her home in Guatemala accompanied by her husband Ángel Caníl and her 11-year-old son Mash Nawalj’a. The family returned to Guatemala Monday afternoon.