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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Cofans of the Amazon

Air Date: Week of

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From Ecuador, the story of an Amazonian tribe that fought the usual battle with oil companies and the government to keep its land. But as Sandy Hausman reports, this story has a twist. With the help of an American man raised as one of them, the Cofan Indians actually won their battle.


CURWOOD: The arrival of western cultures often spell disaster for native people in South America’s rainforests, but in at least one case contact between an American family and a remote Amazon tribe may have assured survival for that group and their rainforest home.

Sandy Hausman has our story.

HAUSMAN: The ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, was arranged for a typical news conference earlier this year with folding chairs facing a podium and microphone.


HAUSMAN: But the music playing overhead suggested this event would be different. And as some of the participants filed in, their fashions confirmed it. While government officials wore coats and ties, dresses and high heels, a group of native people arrived wearing crowns of green parrot feathers, jewelry made from jungle seeds or animal teeth, and colorful cotton tunics. Many had pierced ears and noses. A few were barefoot.



HAUSMAN: The trim, middle-aged man addressing the crowd was speaking the language of the native Cofan people. He wore traditional tribal clothes and had whisker-like marks painted on his cheeks. But he seemed an unlikely spokesman for the tribe; his skin was fair, his hair white, and his eyes blue.


HAUSMAN: This man, Randy Borman, was the elected leader of a Cofan village and he was announcing the establishment of a new national park in the Amazon where, for the first time, ever the government would hire native people to serve as park rangers, armed with the power to evict trespassers. After more than three decades the Cofan had once again become masters of their own land, thanks in large part to Borman.


HAUSMAN: This is Cofan country, one of the richest lowland rainforests in the world, 215 square miles of jungle along the Aguarico River in northeastern Ecuador. Here the foothills of the Andes and the Amazon basin meet, creating a complex community of plants and animals. It is also home to about a thousand people who hunt and gather in the forest while growing crops near their wooden huts covered with thick palm thatch.

In 1954 a pontoon plane touched down in the Aguarico carrying the American missionary Bub Borman. Speaking Spanish, a language known by a few members of the tribe, Borman explained that he and his wife Bobbie wanted to study the Cofan language and to translate the Bible so residents could read it. The villagers took Borman to see their chief.

BUB BORMAN: He invited us into the house and we sat down on a couple of benches and he sat in his hammock and he reached up behind his ear and pulled out his long cigar, reached in his pocket and he pulls out a Zippo lighter [laughs] and he lit his cigar with a Zippo lighter. And he says, oh by the way, he says, can you give me some gasoline to fill my lighter? [laughs]

HAUSMAN: It turned out that Shell Oil had preceded Borman by several years, introducing the Cofan to lighters, machetes, aspirin, penicillin and other products of the modern world. Shell concluded there was petroleum in Cofan country but getting it out would be too expensive, so its employees left, taking their medicines and tools away.

The chief thought the Bormans could bring those things back, so he welcomed the couple and they stayed for more than 25 years, raising four children in the village. Their oldest son, Randy, grew up as part of the tribe, speaking its language, learning to make a canoe and to hunt with a blowgun. Every few years he and his family went back to the states to raise money for their mission. But for Randy, the rainforest was always home.

R BORMAN: The kids learned to swim and then learned to handle the boats almost as soon as you can walk. We would play at hunting even when we weren’t actually hunting, with our blowguns or whatever. You know, it wasn’t like, oh we’re going to go camping in the wilderness, it was just something that, you know, you lived in and was taken for granted. It’s not something-- there was no big deal about it.

HAUSMAN: In 1973 Randy Borman left the jungle to attend college in Michigan. At that time the nearest town was eight hours away by canoe. But Western civilization was moving closer to his Cofan village. The oil companies were coming back. Now they had helicopters and other technologies that made it possible to drill in the jungle, to build pipelines and roads. Those roads brought land-hungry farmers from other parts of Ecuador. They cut down trees and laid claim to sections of the forest.

Cofan hunter Toribio Ayinda recalls his first encounter with one of those settlers.


VOICEOVER: We were on a trip upriver with the family and we ran out of food, so we were heading for my uncle’s house with our dogs, and on the way a dog started barking and chasing a deer. That’s when we saw the colonist. We tried to tell him this is our land but he got mad. He had a machete and threatened to kill us.

HAUSMAN: The Cofan family made a rapid retreat into the rainforest, bewildered and afraid. Oil exploration would also cause problems. Motorized canoes roared up and down the river while crews detonated explosives throughout the forest. The shock waves told express where oil could be found, but they also scared away animals. Drilling polluted the rivers, killing the turtles and fish, an important source of food for the Cofan.

Randy’s mother, Bobbie, says the culture was also contaminated as young people came in contact with oil workers from the city. Alcohol flowed freely, women were raped and theft became a serious problem. Until this time, stealing was almost unknown in this closed, egalitarian community.

BOBBIE BORMAN: I still remember the time that we forgot some money when we left the village. It was laying out on a table outside. Came back a month later and it was laying there. I mean, nobody would have even thought of stealing it.

HAUSMAN: And the tribe contends that increased pollution caused a dramatic rise in the number of cancer cases and birth defects. Randy Borman heard about these changes and decided to return to the village to help. He proposed that the Cofan move deeper into the jungle. And so in 1984 they established a new village called Zabalo. By consensus, Randy became its first chief. The people saw him as one of them, but because he understood western culture, could speak English and some Spanish, residents agreed Randy should go to Quito to lobby for the tribe. He was reluctant to leave the jungle but felt there was no choice.

R BORMAN: The Cofans were basically helpless and losing their lands quickly. I was much better off than my average friend there, as far as my knowledge of Spanish and the Latin culture and the whole Ecuadorian bureaucracy and all of this sort of stuff, but I was a little bit better, I had a better long-term vision and wasn’t quite as scared of it.

HAUSMAN: In the nation’s capital Borman built relationships with international environmental groups, journalists and government officials. Toribio Ayinda says he was an excellent advocate.


VOICEOVER: If Randy hadn’t helped, we’d be in a mess. Who would be in Quito having meetings? We don’t know anything about the ministry up there. Randy is there. We can come and see him, stay with him and have meetings. We need a leader. We are afraid of the Spanish people but if we have a leader, we will take a stand.

HAUSMAN: Those confrontations began in the jungle when the Cofans discovered drilling crews working without permits. The sight of hostile natives armed with blowguns, rifles and spears, led by an articulate American prompted the oil crews to leave and reporters to arrive. News coverage, sympathetic to the Cofan, filled Quito’s newspapers.

Finally Randy and other Cofan leaders went to the capital demanding access to government officials. They dressed in traditional clothes and face paint.

R BORMAN: Probably the only real weapon that the Cofans have is their color. We have very, very colorful dress, it makes good photos. And so I came up to Quito with three other leaders and our basic idea was to make a scene.

HAUSMAN: The scenes produced meetings and eventually agreements, culminating in the deal announced at the Hilton earlier this year. Drilling, logging and other exploitation of the Cofan’s land is now prohibited.

Borman is satisfied for the moment but worries about the future. To assure that protection of the land continues, he’s using a website to help the tribe advertise an ecotourism business.


HAUSMAN: Tourists arrive at the village by canoe, stay in huts with electric lights and warm showers powered by solar panels.


HAUSMAN: They take tours down narrow jungle paths, learning about the forest plants and animals.


HAUSMAN: If the tourist trade brings enough money, Borman says it could assure the community’s long-term survival.

R BORMAN: We’ve tried to develop the model of ecotourism as an alternate, saying that, you know, here we’ve got oil, this is what oil will produce during the next ten years, and then it’s gone. Meanwhile we’ve got ecotourism and it’s producing this much, and if you start looking at it over 50 years, we’re a lot better off than we would have been when the oil left this area.


HAUSMAN: The Bormans saw education as another key to the Cofan’s future and started this small school in a large open-air house. Young children read and recite Spanish at wooden desks painted pastel colors. Local people teach classes to the younger children, but the remote village has had trouble attracting good teachers for older kids. They must study in Quito, where they live with Randy and his Cofan wife, Amelia.

Two Zabalo community members learning how to operate a GPS device. They’ll use the GPS sstem to map their community lands and develop resource management plans.
(Photo: Dan Brinkmeier/The Field Museum)

The couple now spends much of the year in Ecuador’s capital with their three children and several more from the tribe. Amelia says Cofan parents are now beginning to understand the connection between schooling and survival.


A BORMAN: Many of the older people see no need for school, they just work the land and think the education they got in the jungle is all they need. But with all the changes in the area, with all the land problems and colonization, some of the parents now realize how important a really good education is so their children can grow up and live with the changes taking place in the world.

HAUSMAN: In sending children to the capital, the tribe runs a risk. Those kids might decide that they like city life. But Randy’s 14-year-old son Phillip and his friend, Hugo Lucitante, say they will go back to the village they love.

PHILLIP: Yes, it’s my home, Zabalo, just because I’m from there. I like it. It’s not like a city, it’s quiet, trees and not polluted like the city.

LUCITANTE: There is more stuff to do there. You don’t get bored that often. You always have something to do, and I like hunting, I like going fishing, going out camping.

HAUSMAN: And when the time comes to retire, Randy Borman says he too will return to that part of the rainforest he helped to save.

R BORMAN: I never had any desire really to live anywhere else. This Quito business is a hardship posed for me in every possible way.

Zabalo community members in front of the community research center.
(Photo: Dan Brinkmeier/The Field Museum)

HAUSMAN: Borman knows that over time the Cofan will change, that education, new technologies and experiences will have an inevitable impact on the tribe. But if they are to survive as a distinct people, Borman says their land must always be there to sustain and define their lives.

For Living on Earth, I’m Sandy Hausman in Quito.



Cofan website


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