University for Peace (UPEACE) Rector
Julia Marton-Lefèvre’s new job as Director
General of the World Conservation Union
(IUCN) will transplant her from the university’s
campus in Ciudad Colón, west of San
José, to Geneva, Switzerland.
Ideologically, however, she will be moving
just next door, Marton-Lefèvre told The
After nearly two years of ensuring that students
learn how to build and maintain peace,
she will change her course to focus on educating
people to protect the environment.
Marton-Lefèvre will start her new job
with the Conservation Union Jan. 2, she said.
While elated, she also is sad to leave a job,
friends and country she has grown to love.
The daughter of Hungarian political
refugees, Marton-Lefèvre started traveling
the globe as a young child, when she left
Hungary for the United States. There she
learned English, went to school, and carried
out part of her university education in environmental
planning and ecological sciences,
which she completed in France.
Marton-Lefèvre said working as a university
teacher in Thailand in the early 1970s
as a Peace Corps volunteer launched her into
the international arena.
“It was a really positive experience, it
changed my life…very much like the people
who are here, whose lives are changed at
UPEACE,” she said. After her Thailand experience,
she spoke not only Hungarian,
English and French, she had learned Thai as
well. In Costa Rica, she has been able to add
Spanish to the list.
In the late 1970s,Marton-Lefèvre started
work in a program for environmental education
at the United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in
She went on to work for the International
Council for Science (ICSU), an international,
nongovernmental umbrella organization
for scientific institutions around the
world that she eventually headed, becoming
its first female director.
Later, this mother of two became executive
director of Lead International, an international
nonprofit organization that provides
training programs to form leaders.
Marton-Lefèvre took over as rector of
UPEACE in May 2005.
In a two-part interview with The Tico
Times, one Sept. 7 at her UPEACE office
before she accepted the job with IUCN and
another Nov. 15 at the Conservation Union’s
Mesoamérica headquarters in Moravia, east
of San José, Marton-Lefèvre shared her life
story and her hopes for the environment and
other global issues.
TT: Do you know what your new position
JML: A huge amount of work. IUCN is a
very big, big network, so the position is going
to entail making sure that that network has
an even bigger impact on the world. The situation
with the environment is very critical,
so I will be making sure that the network
works very well. I must say in Mesoamerica
it’s super impressive, this is one of the star
programs. The other thing I’d like to do is
make sure that the message of IUCN goes
beyond the big IUCN community. Because
talking to people who agree with you is a bit
easier than talking to people outside that
community, so I’m going to try to reach out
Are there specific environmental concerns
you would like to prioritize?
I think IUCN is very famous and well known for its protection of biodiversity.
Maybe here in Costa Rica you don’t realize the extent to which this is critical because Costa Rica has very good policies. But the rest of the world doesn’t, so that’s extremely important. Showing the link between climate change and the disappearance of species is important too. The climate issue is really on everyone’s mind now. And basically environmental literacy, I think getting that message out, getting people to behave differently, to understand why it’s no longer only about your children…You have to be really careful because you can’t go back, once you destroy an ecosystem, a forest, you can’t really go back or at least it takes a very long time.
My biggest hope is that we work in such a way that people start to act and behave differently.
Of course, that’s exactly what I’m hoping at UPEACE as well.
How do you feel your experience living here might enrich your position?
I think I’ve learned a huge amount from Costa Rica. I must say, up until now I was very much an urban person. I lived in Paris, London, Budapest, New York, big cities. And all of a sudden, now I live in the countryside. I wake up with the birds and there’s no noise at night.Many people said to me, “Oh you’re going to be so bored.”Well I wasn’t bored at all. Living so close to nature – you saw the view from my office – I’ll never have that again, I’m afraid. And that has taught me so much, too… to understand nature, to love it. To love the rain, you know, the natural cycles. I think this is a great lesson, it’s almost as if I was meant to be prepared to take the job where I will be the big spokesperson for nature. I would have liked to have lived here longer. But I’ll always remember these lessons.
What is the greatest lesson you learned here?
That a country can hold its head high in the world, having eliminated its army. That the level of development here didn’t just happen out of the blue; it’s because of political decisions to provide a high level of education to everybody, access to health care, access to food, electricity everywhere… It’s an amazing place. Of course I always knew about it, but living here, it’s actually more than just words, it actually happened. The results of not spending so much money on defense but rather spending it on people, the results are great. I realize this is not paradise – there is no such thing – but this is closer to it than any other country I know. I’ll always be a good ambassador for Costa Rica.
How did you manage your family life and a career?
I had a mother who was very advanced for her generation. She passed away two years ago at the age of 93. She was an old lady but she had a Ph.D.; she was a very advanced lady and she always worked. She was a journalist then a teacher. So I had a really great role model of a very good mother who could combine the two and thanks to her we had a very interesting life, my father and me. We didn’t have a mother at home every day but I had a good role model, that’s the point. How did I manage it? In France, family life is very important, just like here in Costa Rica. It might have been more difficult somewhere in the United States, for example, but in France I had a big network of my mother-in-law, father-in-law, grandmother-in-law, a big network of family to help. Also I am super organized and very energetic. Those two characteristics are very important if you want to combine family and career, because at the end of the day it’s most likely to be the mother who organizes the dentist visits, who makes sure there’s enough food in the house, etc.Women are sort of known for multitasking, and being a mother and a career person is multitasking. But I managed very well, and certainly my two sons really benefited from having a very, very interesting social life at home. Rather than going out to dinner with my visiting colleagues, the Nobel Prize winners, I would invite them home. And my sons were there, and so they grew up in an atmosphere knowing very interesting people. And it’s very possible they also chose their careers based on the discussions in my garden in Paris. My oldest son, who is 30, is a policy advisor in conflict resolution for the United Nations in Afghanistan. My youngest son, who is 27, is more in the science and environment world, he works on renewable energies and climate issues for the International Energy Agency, which is a part of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in Paris. He’s about to go and get a Ph.D. in the United States on that subject.
How does UPEACE teach its students to think about peace?
My vision for that is: before you shoot, think about the consequences. Shooting should be the last, very last priority. In fact, it should never happen.We do a lot of work in systems thinking. Think about the big picture; what’s going to happen after conflict. Let’s think before we get there.And talk. Listen and talk, negotiate, give up some things if necessary. But the way human history has evolved is that first we get angry and then we are violent. There are ways to calm that violence and mostly it’s about understanding the other.Which is a lot of work actually. That’s what the students are learning how to do here (at UPEACE). But also in their daily lives here, it means understanding the small town of Ciudad Colón, a small town in the hills of the Central Valley, understanding the people who live there, listening to them and talking to them.
What is your greatest accomplishment as UPEACE rector?
I think I continued to consolidate the university. It is a serious academic place. It has a good reputation now everywhere. I built on the work of my predecessor but didn’t deviate at all. I really consolidated the place and it’s extremely well known and well respected…It’s also a very happy place, a place with a lot of options that weren’t there before. I need to do that at IUCN too – the good mood. Environmentalists quite often present things in a very bleak way – which is OK, it’s true, it’s pretty bleak – but we’re not going to inspire people to be enthusiastic if we talk only about how terrible it is. So let’s talk about the greatness. I think I did that at UPEACE.