The Cofan indigenous territories - a wilderness of magic and beauty - face increasing pressures from oil exploration and forest destruction. Under the remarkable leadership of Randall Borman, the Cofan of Zábalo are creating innovative programs, building toward a solid base for conservation in this region with more biological riches than anywhere else on Earth: the Amazonian lowlands of eastern Ecuador.
Son of linguists from the United States, Randy is at home in both U.S. and Cofan culture, where he has deep childhood roots. Using his rare skills to navigate between these worlds, Randy inspires and facilitates creative solutions for the long-term survival of Cofan culture and of large expanses of intact forest. For Borman's leadership, unfailing courage, and exceptional efforts, The Field Museum's Founders' Council presented him with the Parker/Gentry Award in 1998.
Randy's intimate knowledge of the plants, animals, and ecological interactions in his backyard is complemented by his mastery of the associated scientific literature. Randy grew up in Dureno, a Cofan village on the banks of the Río Aguarico, about 145 miles east of Quito. When his missionary parents arrived at the village in 1955, with Randy only a few months old, they found an indigenous culture essentially isolated from the Western world. Thirty years later, Cofan culture in Dureno was severely threatened.
In the early 1960s, Texaco Petroleum Company (TexPet), a subsidiary of Texaco, discovered oil in the region and, in a race to extract it, systematically tore apart the rain forest. With much of the forest annihilated around Dureno by 1984, and with the rivers dying, Borman and several Cofan families set downstream on the Río Aguarico.
The site they picked for their new village, Zábalo, lies in the 630,000 hectare Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, close to the border with Colombia. Although Zábalo is in protected lands, the government turned a blind eye to oil exploratory activities in the region. Borman spent years in complex, often tense negotiations that have proved instrumental in protecting the forest and Cofan livelihood.
When not consumed by negotiations with Big Oil interests, the Cofan direct their energies to other pessing environmental issues. One immediate concern is the critical status of the populations of large river turtles. Two species in particular (the Giant South American River Turtle and the Yellow-spotted Amazon River Turtle) have been a major food resource for the peoples of Amazonia throughout the history of human presence in the region. But in the 1970's, overexploitation to supply markets in new colonist towns caused the turtle populations in the Río Aguarico to plummet. Today, both species are endangered.
By 1991, as the Cofan watched the continued decline of the populations, "the village began to search for positive ways to turn the trend around," says Borman. The Cofan launched an innovative experiment, capturing and raising turtle hatchlings as they emerge from the nest, then reintroducing them to the wild once they are large enough to escape most natural predators. Beginning with a release of 300 hatchlings in 1992, the project has grown many fold, resulting in the release of 3,400 baby turtles in 1998. Indications suggest that the wild populations are making a comeback.
Randy also established a successful ecotourism operation, and the Cofan are now exploring possibilities for raising and marketing native fish as food to supply a growing demand from tourist and colonist markets. The practice of raising tilapia - an African species - in fish farms is becoming increasingly common in Ecuador and other tropical countries. Escapees pose threats to the survival of native fishes and pristine watersheds. Once the Cofan techniques for raising native fishes are developed and tested, they can be exported to neighboring communities in the Río Napo basin and beyond. The Cofan's firsthand knowledge of the habits and foods of game fishes brings a high probability of success to the project.
Building on strong common ground in the conservation of biological and cultural diversity and in responsible use of natural resources, the Cofan and The Field Museum are developing a partnership that combines the Museum's collections and scientific expertise with the deep-rooted knowledge and experience of the Cofan.
One immediate focus of collaboration is a joint monitoring program to measure the benefits and help fine-tune the practices of the Cofan turtle project for expediting the recovery of wild populations.
In addition, the Field Museum's store is selling Cofan crafts, such as fiber bags and hammocks, as well as beaded cuffs, necklaces and collars.
Other joint projects include botanical and ethnobotanical field guides for use by the Cofan, conservation biologists, and ecotourists, and assessment of the impact of ecotourism and of hunting on different-sized forest patches surrounding Cofan villages.
Scientists in The Field Museum's Office of Environmental and Conservation Programs are working with Cofan community members to inventory and document the surrounding plant diversity as well as the Cofan names and uses for particular plants. The development of color field guides will aid in teaching the local community and visitors about the botanical wealth of this area.