Teófilo Cuesta Borja (’99, Colombia)
Teófilo Cuesta is on a mission, first to transform his region and then, his country. As director of the Autonomous Regional Corporation for Sustainable Development of Chocó (CODECHOCO) —an elected public post he will hold through 2019—he leads a nearly 350-person team to oversee environmental and natural resource management policy, planning, and enforcement for the department of Chocó, Colombia. Under his leadership, CODECHOCO developed the region’s first conservation policy and in 2015 established three regional conservation areas, permanently protecting some 250,000 acres of coastal areas and watersheds.
This 18,000 square mile department bordering Panama is rich in biodiversity, but faces extreme poverty. More than 80 percent of Choco’s nearly 500,000 residents, most of whom are of African descent, do not have access to basic necessities like potable water or elementary education. Changing the paradigm of how CODECHOCO operated, Teófilo also began addressing the region’s high poverty rates as a holistic approach to preventing environmental degradation. In 2015 he created a new branch within CODECHOCO called Fundacion Ecoempresa de Colombia (Colombian Eco-Enterprise Foundation) to develop and support community eco-tourism enterprises.
For Teófilo, these creative strategies to address poverty and environmental issues in his region are a springboard for a more ambitious goal: to become the first Colombian president of African descent in 2026. In preparation for that role, he also recently completed a doctorate in Regional Development from Atlantic International University in Hawaii.
Teófilo is experienced at overcoming big challenges. The son of farmers and one of eight siblings, he faced economic difficulties growing up. In 1995, he received bittersweet news: he was admitted to EARTH but there was only a partial scholarship available. He went to EARTH anyway, but unable to find a donor to complete his scholarship he had to return to Colombia. Thanks to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, he was able to return the following year with a full scholarship.
“While my classmates went to bed at 8 p.m. I stayed up until midnight studying because I had to get results,” he explains. His tenacity led him to be elected as Student Council President for two years, in addition to serving as the first Vice President of the Costa Rican Federation of Agronomy Students.
Inspired by his own experience, in 2015 he founded Project 73 – a personal social enterprise aimed at strengthening family structures, improving access to education, and promoting sustainable development. This February, they will award scholarships covering tuition and a stipend for 10 students to attend the University of Choco. In exchange, these students will work in a Project 73 enterprise. Teófilo plans to grow Project 73 to include low-interest microcredit to finance community social enterprises, as well as initiatives to improve the housing in the region.
Teófilo sees Project 73, and his ongoing donations to the Colombian National Fund—which provides scholarships to students from underserved communities—as part of his responsibility as an EARTH graduate.
“If I hadn’t received the scholarship I wouldn’t have been able to study at EARTH. This seed that EARTH and my donors planted in me, is germinating. And now I’m trying to replicate the experience I had at EARTH through Project 73.”
His hope is that Project 73 will not only give young people access to a quality education, but that through their work with the Project, they will strengthen their values and develop entrepreneurial mindsets.
“Definitely the most important part of EARTH—beyond the great academic formation—is the emphasis on human values. They taught us to be great human beings. After EARTH I am a much more responsible person; I am punctual, I am committed to my projects. The emphasis on honesty, and on social awareness, it teaches you to be a better human being.”