Humankind and Nature


Voices from the Ground: Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán

Credit: Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán

In this Voices From the Ground, we explore the decades-long work of Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán, our grantee.

Founder and director Randy Borman and Project Manager Felipe Borman guide us through a long history of fighting for the survival of the Cofán, whose ancestral lands were invaded by the oil industry in the 1960s. Their Cofán-led Park Guard Program has been a central piece of this mission. With AWF's grant, they have restored the program to continue their defense of the Cofán-Bermejo Ecological Reserve. According to The Field Museum, this reserve inside their territory is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Therefore, this is also a critical conversation about the environmental services the Cofán provide for all of us, often without recognition or appropriate funding.

Watch the video interview below, or scroll down to read the full version.

CARLA SANTOS (Azimuth World Foundation)

We would like you to start by introducing yourself and Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán, and saying what your role is in Fundación. And can you also talk about the history of the foundation? Who started it, and why?


I'm Randy Borman. I was born and reared with the Cofán people, here in Ecuador. My parents were missionaries that originally came to the area in the early 50s, of the 20th century. And by the time I was out of high school and in college years, the oil companies had moved into the region and began building infrastructure for both oil, and for all the roads and transport of materials there. And my people, the people that I grew up with, the Cofáns, the village of Dureno, were caught right dead center in the middle of all this activity. And all of a sudden, our rivers were polluted, our forests were being cut down. We had really very, very little concept of land ownership of territories, or anything like that, because we never needed it. And all of a sudden, we saw all of our forests just being destroyed, being turned into cow pastures, and coffee farms. And we didn't know what to do.

We began trying to get some sort of legal protection from the Ecuadorian government, and eventually, with the help of missionaries and anthropologists, and other outsiders who were interested, we were able to get a letter from the President in that era, stating that the Cofáns had the right to an area, kind of a nebulous area, between two small rivers on the Aguarico. We went up to the Land Office to try to formalize it, and we found out we weren't even Ecuadorian citizens.

Slowly, we were able to put together the legal structure that made sense to the outside world. We were able to gain small areas of territory, with actual titles. We had wound up at 1974 as non entities. And then, by '84, we had recovered a little bit. And we were beginning to understand how to deal with the outside world. But it wasn't until the 90s that we were able to actually confront the oil companies in any solid way, and begin to impose on the oil companies some sort of regulation, some sort of legality, some sort of push to try to be able to maintain our way of life and our forests, in a way that could be understood by the outside world.

In 1998 I was privileged to be awarded the Parker Gentry Award, via the Field Museum for Conservation Biology. And that served as a springboard to being able to access more support from the outside. And one of the people who contacted me during that time, in his previous life he had been a corporate lawyer. And he says, "I'm a lawyer. I'll figure this out. We could do a 501(c)(3)." And I said, "OK, what's a 501(c)(3)?" I didn't even know what's going on. "But if you're willing to help us with it, let's do it." And that was the beginning of the Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán. And once we had that platform, we were able to access funding, with the help of the Field Museum and other friends. I always kid people, and say we went on the modern 20th century war path.

But we were able to recover legal rights to about 430,000 hectares of land, which is about 1 million acres, during the period between 2000 and 2010. And we were also successful in putting together training Cofán Park Guards, from all of our different, scattered around Cofán communities. And we developed a logistical system and everything else that allowed us to bring that 430,000 hectares through the first 10 years of our tenure, of our being legally in charge of it, with zero deforestation. During the same time period, the Ministry of Environment in the country lost about 15% of the areas under their control. So, it was definitely a model for how to go about really, truly protecting Amazonian rainforests.

And at the same time, for us, it served as a very, very important cultural link, as we were able to have jobs that were directly related to our forest. The forest that we already knew, that our language already talked about. We were able to then use our traditional knowledge, build upon that with things like GPS, and cameras, and all the rest of this stuff, and then turn it into a useful way of protecting environmental services that are obviously not just for the Cofáns, but for everybody in the world. We could say to the rest of the world, "Here, look. We're able to protect this in a way that nobody else can. No government, no NGO, nobody else is going to be able to do what our Indigenous community is going to be able to do. In the process, yes, you are helping us directly, because it's our territory, it's the place that we live off of. And you're also helping us in things like helping create and maintain our nationalism, helping create and maintain cultural attributes."

We would always mix people from different communities in the patrols. The patrols were five men patrols, or five men and women, because a lot of women were involved as well. But we would mix different villages, so that villages no longer had the sense of being isolated from the rest of the Cofán community. And we also mixed ages. So we would have an older person in the group, that could tell the stories at night time, when everybody was sleeping out in the jungle, and younger people, who were then able to assimilate this knowledge. This transcultural transmission is very, very important. But that was all internal.

The external thing was that, all of a sudden, these watersheds were clean, the miners were not able to put mercury into the water, the oil companies were on alert that they had to comply with Ecuadorian legal regulations, if they were going to go into Cofán territory, and they couldn't get away with sloppy work, they couldn't get away with clandestine hunting. None of this, because we were going to be right there. At that time, we were able to do it for about $0.40 per hectare, per year. One of the great bargains of the world, when you consider that because that 430,000 hectares was intact, the impact of that last hurricane was several million dollars less in damages. And the Government world has not really come to grips, nor the business world has really come to grips with payments for environmental services.


My name is Filipe Borman. Currently, I'm working as project manager, here at Fundación. I got my education thanks to the Fundación. My dad being up here, in Quito, allowed me to go to schools and finish my education here, and go to college in the United States. But I grew up basically fighting for, and watching my dad fight for the rights of the Cofán people, and for our lands. But at the same time, I was able to spend enough time with the Cofáns, that I feel totally a part of the culture.

After finishing college I came back, and started working with the Cofáns, trying to figure out different ways on how to integrate our culture into the Western world system, trying to figure out how we can be part of it, while maintaining our culture. I've been working here, and working on my Masters, so that I can be a better bridge between the two worlds, and help out with any projects that can benefit our people.


I should mention that his mom, my wife, is a Cofán Siona. She was raised by her grandparents, who were a very, very strongly traditional, very powerfully correct example of the older Cofán generation. That's another thing that's been deeply part of the whole Fundación - not just my wife, but also the rest of the family, with their very, very strong understanding of Cofán identity and Cofán traditions and mores.


Can you please tell us a little more about the relationship of the Cofán with their territory, with land?


As Cofáns, we live off of our land. The forest provides what we need, for the most part. But we can't depend completely on the forest, anymore. We've had to figure out how the Western world works, how the economic world works. And that's changed a little bit our relationship to our lands. But the biggest issue is the urban world trying to integrate us completely into their system. Having our land, we've been able to resist it and continue our way of life.

One of our projects is bringing up kids to the city, and putting them in quality education centers, so that they can get quality education, and figure out a new way of integrating our culture with the urban and economic world system. Because the local education is meant to get the Cofáns up to a level where we can become part of the machine. And I think we need to go beyond that, to be able to actually maintain our culture, our way of life.


This is something that I actually began in the early 90s, when my kids also needed the education. We've had a real high level of people returning early. They get to 8th grade, and it's kind of hard to do. Meanwhile, their friends and peers are getting married. And so they leave. But we have had a number of kids that have actually gone through the whole process. And right now, for instance, both Felipe and Raúl Quieta are finishing their Masters. Hugo Lucitante is working on a doctorate. We've got people who have done this successfully. We are slowly developing this cadre of bicultural, educated leaders.

And obviously, our hope is to be able to really take control of Cofán destiny, our own destiny, as we move on the future. But there's a lot of flack, and the biggest part of the flack really comes from the stereotypes that are managed at the urban level, and that are then transmitted to the various Indigenous groups. You have a person with a lot of color, and maybe a strong accent, and maybe a high school level education, and that's the person that you choose to be the front for what are essentially urban ideals and urban stereotypes. Rather than really looking at things, and trying to figure out what is the contribution that an Indigenous group can make to the world that's really, truly meaningful. And it's not planting more cacao. There's lots of cacao producers out there.


How did the Cofán Park Guard Program began, and where does it stand nowadays? How is Azimuth's grant supporting this program, and what are some of the goals you have for it?


Starting in the in the 70s, when we were just trying to figure out how to deal with the outside world, one of the things we found out really quickly was that, in Ecuador, the idea of a boundary trail was important. It didn't matter whether you actually had a legal title to back it, or anything else, but you made a trail, and put stakes on it with red paint, and it was considered a legally binding way of grabbing land. So we went out and started making boundary trails.

It meant cutting physical trails through the forest, for weeks at a time. It meant having to patrol those areas frequently, to make sure that they weren't having incursions on them. And it meant trying to figure out all sorts of things, like logistics. We've always been a canoe people. And in a canoe, you could throw whatever you want into the canoe and take it with you. And when we started doing the forest, we had to figure out a completely different logistics. We weren't able to do it in a formalized manner until 2003, when we got a mandate from the government, that created Cofán Community Park Guards as legal entities that could have basically the same rights and responsibilities as the National Park Guards. And once we had that mandate, we were able to organize a system of patrols, where we would be able to focus in on areas that were under a lot of pressure.

The huge advantage that we had over the National Park Guards, was that our people already knew the forest. So you didn't have to try to figure out how they were going to find their way back, after they got out of the middle of no-place. The idea of camping out for three weeks at a time is not scary. Whole series of things that, because of our close relationship with the forest that we already have, they were no-brainers for our Park Guards. The other thing is that we're right on the Columbia border, in a zone that was often conflicted, and still is. We have had a lot of problems with subversive groups, narcotics, the traffic stuff going through our territories. And it's much easier for Cofáns to continue to move, and continue to provide protection for an area, than it is for government-backed mestizo sources. Cofáns actually enjoy being out there. It's not a scary, difficult thing. It takes the ability to protect and conserve to a different level. Now, you give those people basic conservation tools, and you give them the formats for doing biological surveys, things like that, and they're on top of it. They know exactly what they're doing. The outsider, coming in from the outside, has to begin from scratch, with not knowing any of the sounds, not knowing any of the tracks, and it takes a whole lot longer.

Unfortunately, we lost most of the funding for the project during 2012, 2013. We were able to live several years off of just the reputation of the Park Guards. Everybody knew that if you tried to get into the Cofán territories, there would be a patrol coming along pretty quick. But the Cofán-Bermejo Reserve is probably our most conflictive. We've got miners, we've got illegal armed forces, we've got a little bit of everything in that area. And we've also got pressure from the colonization, we've got commercial hunters coming in. Our control began to erode. And the Ministry of Environment tried to take over the whole administration of the Reserve, which in and of itself is illegal. But we, the community itself, definitely was feeling very, very strongly that they needed to reopen a version of the Park Guard Program.

So when Azimuth was able to provide us with funds to begin to put Park Guards back out in the field, the community was very excited, the community as a whole. That's where we're at now. They completed their first boundary clearing, just in December. And before that, in November, we were able to have a kind of a refresher course, that helped get everybody organized. We were also able to get help from another NGO that's working in the area, for food and transport. And we have planned two more patrols for this year.


To give you a better concept: the Cofán lands are divided into 6 blocks. It used to be one single land, but now, because of all the towns, cities, colonization, oil company, we're down to six blocks. So, Cofán-Bermejo is one block. It's got about 57,000 hectares. The Fundación Cofan was able to create the Reserve, with the help of The Field Museum and the Ministry of Environment.

Cofán-Bermejo is a little different from the rest of the Cofán territories, since it's inside a Reserve, and only Cofáns are in that Reserve. When it was created, the Cofán were named co-administrators of this land. We've got other Cofán territories that are also in other Reserves, but most of the other Reserves have five or six different nationalities that are inside that Reserve. In Cofán-Bermejo, since we've got this format, we've been trying to figure out a way to keep the land together.

It's a highly vulnerable piece of land, because it's right on the border. There's a lot of gold mining going on, and there's several oil company platforms nearby, which means there's roads. There's obviously access into these areas, and the lumbering companies want to take advantage of it. And our Cofán communities up there aren't that big. They're actually the smallest communities of all our Cofán nations. So it's been an area where we've needed to help quite a bit. Before, when we had the Park Guard Program running, we had the whole nation supporting these communities, which helped keep people out of there. But since the Park Guard Program broke down, it's been a lot harder for them to hold that line.

So with the Azimuth fund, we decided this was the place that we should first focus on, and try to regain a little bit of control. Our hope is to also figure out a more sustainable way in the future, so that they can continue to control their forest, and at the same time provide work and living income for the people that are living there. Because the people there, although they are small communities, they still got different needs that most Indigenous people have. Put their kids to school. A lot of the food, they can't access anymore through the forest. We've got to figure out how to give them an income, as well. That's what we've been kind of working on with them.

And it's been about 10 years since the Park Guard program stopped, so the first thing that we had to do was clear the boundary trails, because they were overgrown, and people were making new boundary trails going inside the Reserve, going inside our territory. What we've realized recently is that, back when we made the boundary trails, we used the technology that was available at that time. Today, the GPS are way more precise, and we've been slowly training our bunch to use these new new technological equipment, to rectify their limits with their different neighbouring communities.

And at the same time, while we're working on that, we create a presence in those areas. Most of these communities, they may not go all the way to the extent of their territory. When they go out hunting, they try to go to the nearby places. A lot of the younger folks did not know what the limits of their territory are, where their territory extended to. So, we've been trying to create a sense of ownership to a lot of the younger folks that didn't know their land until now.


I would add that we're talking a million acres, for a group of people who are only about 1200 people in Ecuador, altogether. And the individual communities of Chandia Na'e and Avié are both very small communities. We're not talking about an active, Western-style usage of lands. And this was part of the big conflict that I went through, personally, and the Cofán nation went through, all of the people of my generation went through, where we were coming to grips with the fact that the territory that we needed to be able to manage, to be able to maintain our lifestyle, was a lot bigger than the area that we were actually going to make into a field. We needed a lot more, we needed forest.

And part of the problem that we've had with the outside world is, if the outside world has assumed that because we have a million acres of land, that we are going to have an internal tax structure, we're going to have an internal economic system, we're going to have all of these things that are going to be able to provide the money to take care of that whole million acres, the actuality is that that million acres is under our control, and we can take care of it, but we have to understand it as taking care of it for the global community. It's not ours, in the sense that we're going to cut it down and plant corn on it to make a profit. That land is a trust that, yes, we're the primary actors, we're the primary users, and the primary beneficiaries, and we're also the primary Park Guardians of it, but we're only part of the story. The reason why we need that million acres isn't for the immediate food needs of the Cofán nation, it's for the environmental services this is providing for the entire world.

And until we can get that across and begin to get people coming alongside of us in a real way, whether it's a business paying for carbon sequestration, or governments paying for water sources, or any of these other things that are the byproducts of this land, until we can get there, the economic situation is really, really tense for these people. I mean, what alternatives do you have? And then, an outsider comes in and says, "I'll give you this much for letting me tear apart the hillside, to get the gold out of it." Or another guy comes and says, "We'll cut down all the good lumber that you've got in there and you sell it to us." And when you don't have anything, and the message that you're getting from the outside world is, "Well, we'll help you take care of your piece of land, but you've got to do it for free." You know, it's very difficult.

And through the Park Guard Program, people don't make salaries, they just make a living allowance. But it is something that they can say, "Now I have something to take care of my family, while I'm also taking care of this land that belongs, not just to me, but to the entire world." And I think that's a message that, somehow, we've got to push to the next level. We've got to really get past the stereotype of, "We're just helping some Indians to preserve their culture out in the middle of no place."

And the whole polemics over the burning of the Amazon in Brazil. As much as I dislike the politician involved, and as much as I dislike a lot of the way that that's been handled, the bottom line is that the rest of the world has not been willing to pay for the environmental services the Amazon is providing. Until we can get that mentality going globally, I think we're going to be dealing with a very difficult road for sustainability.


And why is it so important to have projects designed and led by Indigenous People?


This is one of the topics in Filipe's Masters program, and so we've talked about this a lot, about the tremendous barriers that exist for "bosquesino" culture to be able to say, "This is what we need", in a real way.

I infuriated a Canadian aid team that came to the community. They were doing their normal big meeting, which, first of all, is not a way that the communities have ever operated decision-making. The village meeting is a very foreign idea. And then they ask, "What do you people need?" And I said, "Let's cut two days off of this workshop. Tell us what you have to give." And they were furious. They wanted to hear us say the things that we supposedly needed, according to the stereotypes that they had. So the community deals with the "municipio", and winds up with a covered basketball court. That's not what we needed. That's not what we wanted. But if that's what they're going to give us, we'll go ahead and take it. Just because we're not going to oppose it.

But what we really needed from them was electricity, a solar panel-run system that could actually freeze meat. But you tell an outsider that what the Cofáns really want are freezers, and everybody says, "Freezers? You guys want ice cream in the middle of the jungle? We're not going to give you that." But it's an economic situation for us. In the case of the freezer, it's because we're able to access large quantities of meat sometimes during the year, but because of the problem of everything going bad, we're not able to take those large quantities of meat, and parse them out over the period of year. And the minute you're able to do that, the minute you have the freezer capacity, then your impact on the environment lowers tremendously, because you don't have to be hunting or fishing near as often, to be able to provide the food that you need for your family. But that's just a small example.

The projects that are actually coming from the bottom up are few and far between, largely because they can't get the interest from the outside world. Because they're presented in ways that the outside world is not willing to understand. That's why something like this Park Guard Program is very dear to the hearts of the Cofán people. And the minute we offered it to other communities, it was amazing. We had Secoyas, we had Kichwas, we had Waorani, we had Chachi, we had campesinos from an Indigenous background, from the mountains, that came and took the courses and were so excited. But they needed the funding, that's where it stopped. Because the outside world wasn't willing to back the initiatives that the Indigenous groups were doing.

And the other year, when there were so many fires, I was saying, "If they had bothered to put a little bit of money into the into Park Guards Programs for all of the different Indigenous groups in the area, none of it would have ever happened." They could have controlled it easily. But that's also scary for the outside world, and it's part of the thing that we've been discussing for the Masters program. It's scary to the outside world because it means that Indigenous people are all of a sudden taking charge. There is this deep-rooted fear of indigenous groups actually taking on an active role, and actually being able to make their own decisions, bottom line.


How can other other organizations and individuals can support your work? Can you tell us more about other projects developed by the Fundación, like the education project you already mentioned?


I'm very aware that the effectiveness that I've had in a very small way, in a very small area of the world, has been because I had multiple educations. So I really feel that one of the best investments that we have made through the years has been in educating the younger people. And getting more and more of the young people through to the point where they can deal competently in the outside world, at the same time that they still remain soundly Cofáns. We've never had the support that we really have needed for that program. It's always been a program that we've been trying to do on the side. But as I was just mentioning, I think it's a little bit scary for a lot of organizations, and a lot of outside entities. I'm trying to get people past that fear, to realize that this is what we really need.

As Cofán communities, we've also done various conservation programs. Our most well developed has been the turtle program. The Amazon River Turtle was almost extinct in Ecuadorian waters, from overhunting and over-usage, and from pollution, and from just a whole series of things. And we were able to figure out a way for recovery. In the community of Zabalo, we were able to turn the figures around, and regain the population. And the project itself costs around $20,000 a year. I thought it was going to be a no-brainer, because an Indigenous community is doing all of this, and is doing it on their own, doing it successfully, provably successfully. I thought certainly there was going to be money for this project. And it's a constant struggle. And this is saving an endangered species, that just happens to be very economically important throughout Amazonia.


Likewise, the other project that we've been working on, is this whole tourism idea. Everybody thinks that tourism is the answer for all of the major screws, but they obviously want it done their way. And we've been working on a way to do it from the bottom up, creating a new structure. And it's hard to find support, when you're doing it in a different model, that's not a typical business model.


And the whole Park Guard Program, to do it effectively, it does need a constant budget, a yearly budget, to really be able to pull it off like we need to. And I keep hoping that world politics will begin to provide money for environmental services to take off and take on substance. But if we're going to talk about conserving, not only Indigenous culture and an Indigenous nation, but also conserving the rainforest, if we're talking about conserving the environmental services, the carbon sequestration, the water, the climate control, all of these things that are so important from these forests, the biodiversity, we need to expand the Park Guard Program, definitely. And that's not just a priority for us, as a People, nor for us as a Fundación. It's a priority for the world.

And we have buy-in from other communities, that's the other thing. If I had the budget, I could probably get 10 million hectares of rainforest under well-managed, strong, conservation-principled managed control, within two years. The Park Guard Program that we developed is tailor-made for Indigenous groups, because it was made by us, it was invented by us. That's the difference between it and the programs that have come in from the outside. With a clear idea of what the needs are, at the community level. What the possibilities are, for the community people to take it over.

We're also working on a cultural transmission program that, hopefully, will take off. First of all, we want to go out and interview people of all ages in the Cofán community, and see what they think needs to be saved. The outside world comes in and says, "It's your dance traditions, and your shamanism, those are the things that need to be saved." Well, ask the Cofáns what they think needs to be saved, for the younger people to be able to consider themselves Cofáns. And then try to figure out a format for cataloging it at all, getting all that information in an accessible form, and then figure out a format for teaching it, given that the old teaching methods are no longer available. We don't have the luxury of having a 6 year old kid hanging out with mom and dad, or grandma and grandpa, through all of their activities, every day, which is how it used to be transmitted. Now, the six year old kid is in school for 6 hours, 8 hours out of the day, trying to learn how to deal with the Western world. So all of that transmission process needs to be put into a format that can shortcut, with all the dangers and all the implications. So that the kid grows up with two world knowledge. And for the first year, we got as far as actually designing a curriculum, to be able to plug into a Western school setting. An hour a day, for specific subjects. This year we've got a little bit more funding, and we're hoping that we'll be able to take it to a higher level. This is something of tremendous interest to cultures all across the globe.


Thank you so much for this conversation. We urge our readers to learn more details about the current Park Guard Program in your grantee page, and especially to directly support and spread the word about the Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán's crucial work.


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