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A Future for Amazonia

A Future for Amazonia
Randy Borman and Cofán Environmental Politics

A remarkable story of empowerment, tracing the efforts of Randy Borman, the “gringo chief” who stemmed the tide of dispossession and rain forest destruction beginning in the 1990s and helped the Cofán of Amazonian Ecuador flourish as the result of unique collaboration .

November 2012
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272 pages | 6 x 9 | 16 b&w photos, 1 map |

Blending ethnography with a fascinating personal story, A Future for Amazonia is an account of a political movement that arose in the early 1990s in response to decades of attacks on the lands and peoples of eastern Ecuador, one of the world’s most culturally and biologically diverse places. After generations of ruin at the hands of colonizing farmers, transnational oil companies, and Colombian armed factions, the indigenous Cofán people and their rain forest territory faced imminent jeopardy. In a surprising turn of events, the Cofán chose Randy Borman, a man of Euro-American descent, to lead their efforts to overcome the crisis that confronted them.

Drawing on three years of ethnographic research, A Future for Amazonia begins by tracing the contours of Cofán society and Borman’s place within it. Borman, a blue-eyed, white-skinned child of North American missionary-linguists, was raised in a Cofán community and gradually came to share the identity of his adoptive nation. He became a global media phenomenon and forged creative partnerships between Cofán communities, conservationist organizations, Western scientists, and the Ecuadorian state. The result was a collective mobilization that transformed the Cofán nation in unprecedented ways, providing them with political power, scientific expertise, and a new role as ambitious caretakers of more than one million acres of forest. Challenging simplistic notions of identity, indigeneity, and inevitable ecological destruction, A Future for Amazonia charts an inspiring course for environmental politics in the twenty-first century.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Cofán Possibilities
  • Part I: An Individual and a People
    • Agency: The Emergence of an Intercultural Leader
    • Identity: Collectivity and Difference
    • Value: The Dilemma of Being Cofán
  • Part II: An Experiment in Indigenous and Environmental Politics
    • The NGO: Institutionalizing Activism
    • The Forest: Collaborating with Science and Conservation
    • The School in the City: Producing the Cofán of the Future
  • Conclusion: A Possible Forest
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Michael Cepek is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a fellow in the Division of Environment, Culture, and Conservation at the Field Museum of Natural History. He began working with the Cofán people of Amazonian Ecuador in 1994 and continues to collaborate with them on academic and activist projects.


I became interested in the Cofán people of Amazonian Ecuador because of the radical shift in their historical position. Their bodies and lands have suffered centuries of physical violence, environmental destruction, and political marginalization. For decades, observers predicted their "extinction." Against the odds, however, the Cofán became one of the most politically successful indigenous nations of greater Amazonia. Although I believe that their story is important for many reasons, I wrote this book to offer scholars, activists, students, and the larger public a motivating sense of optimism as they confront the tenuous situation of the world's cultural and biological diversity.

When I began my dissertation fieldwork in 2001, I felt alienated from much of academic anthropology. My colleagues were often critical, not only of each other but of many projects to make the world a more just and livable place. Whereas I appreciated their cautious stance toward attempts at intentional structural change, their perspectives appeared overly pessimistic. In many conversations, my hopefulness made me feel naïve. Slowly, I began to think that anthropologists were missing something. It was difficult to grasp the surprising turns of Cofán history from dominant stances. It was even more difficult to imagine writing about Cofán experiences in an optimistic tone.

I found partial reprieve in a submerged current of anthropological thought. Within a few years of the new millennium, three important volumes appeared at the borders of the discipline: David Harvey's Spaces of Hope, Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, and Anna Tsing's Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Each book identifies "hope" as an essential element in the imagination, investigation, and realization of alternative futures. Although a trained geographer, Harvey is now a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York, and liberatory social change is one of his long-held interests. Jonathan Lear, a philosopher and psychoanalyst at the University of Chicago, wrote Radical Hope about the human capacity for cultural renewal in the face of extreme devastation. And Anna Tsing, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, continues her efforts to transform the discipline with Friction, which ends with a call for anthropology to embrace "utopian critique."

In Spaces of Hope, Harvey adopts the role of "insurgent architect" to argue that we should respond to troubled times not by falling back on Antonio Gramsci's dictum—"pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will"—but by fostering an optimism of the intellect itself. He urges us to rely on more than blind hope as we struggle against the destructive dynamics of contemporary capitalism. Scholars, he asserts, must break free from the "political passivity, intellectual torpor and skepticism towards the future" that undergirds the reigning pessimistic stance on the creation of new paths for social and political change. Like Ernst Bloch, Harvey concludes that without some form of utopian imagination, we will be unable to produce alternative political realities.

In Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear explores a possibility that confronts all human beings: the ability to lose one's way of life, and thus all that provides a meaning and a telos to existence. His interlocutor is Plenty Coups, the last great chief of North America's Crow people. In a famous quote, Plenty Coups claimed that after the buffalo disappeared and Crow people moved onto reservations, "nothing happened." According to Lear's interpretation, Plenty Coups meant that the set of valued roles that gave Crow life significance no longer had validity. Rather than succumb to loss, however, Plenty Coups became a "new Crow poet" with the courage to live through a collapse of concepts. On the other side of devastation, Plenty Coups used a successful visionary experience to construct a vibrant social and political space in which Crow people could flourish in a new yet meaningful way. For Lear, Plenty Coups is an example from which all people can draw inspiration as they strive to overcome the specter of cultural loss.

In Friction (2004), Anna Tsing takes great pains to move beyond dominant trends in social and cultural theory. In her study of capital, knowledge, and activism on the island of Borneo, she emphasizes epistemic murk and political frustration. Nevertheless, she argues that her subjects have much to teach us about the creation of a more sustainable world. Although she does not deny the forms of governmental power that move within transnational environmental and human rights networks, Tsing suggests that scholars are prone to analytic exaggeration. She writes, "How has it happened that in order to stay true to hopes for a more livable earth, one must turn away from scholarly theory?" (2004:266). Rather than act as supporters, academics become skeptics of struggles to create local solutions and far-reaching coalitions. Tsing argues that when faced with overwhelming challenges, hope and a utopian sensibility are important elements of an approach that joins "generous" analysis to the practice of movements that can produce real transformations.

In different but compatible ways, Harvey, Lear, and Tsing urge us to make intellectual, ethical, and political commitments to the position that things could be otherwise. Even in situations where loss seems total and certain, there is the possibility that social, cultural, and political life will depart from standard narratives of predestined failure and inevitable destruction. In a similar vein, Roberto Unger suggests that adherence to the idea of a historical "script" is the key failing of social theory, which has never fully embraced the principle that people create the conditions of their lives in ways that are never totally determined, even in dire circumstances. From the perspective of ethnography, David Graeber argues that even though anthropology maintains the broadest perspective on the openness of the human condition, its practitioners are too fearful of charges of romanticism and Orientalism to convince the public, as well as themselves, that another kind of world is possible.

Other scholars from across the humanities and social sciences share a similar commitment to the notion of political possibility. With his characteristic dismissive wit, the philosopher of science and "symmetrical anthropologist" Bruno Latour argues that contemporary theorists make real enemies—including capitalist globalization, technological rationalization, and political domination—into total enemies. The false totalization gives impinging forces "fantastic properties," and it portrays people as powerless pawns of deterministic dynamics. In his aptly titled book In Defense of Lost Causes, the cultural critic Slavoj Žižek writes that the time of utopias is far from over. In a provocative move, he defends the Left's total politics of the past. Nevertheless, he does not argue for them in literal form. Rather, he justifies historical radical projects to demonstrate how uninspiring the existing liberal-democratic alternatives are.

Perhaps the scholar whose work most closely approximates the spirit of this book is the anthropologist Terence Turner. Turner has written for decades on the politics of South America's Kayapó people as well as the structure of contemporary capitalism. In a series of articles, he describes globalization as a successful project of elite actors. Nevertheless, he outlines a common ground for all who have lost power with political-economic shifts. Turner offers the possibility that subjugated groups, whether the once industrialized working class or such disenfranchised sectors as indigenous peoples, will recognize that they are engaged in a joint struggle to gain control of their collection means of self-production. Although the global political climate does not yet correspond to Turner's vision, he does allow us to imagine a coalitional platform that offers a path beyond fragmented conflicts, generalized acquiescence, and large-scale impotence.

Although they disagree on important issues, these thinkers are committed to an open and optimistic stance on the emergence of alternative futures. Whether pondering environmental destruction, cultural devastation, or political-economic oppression, they suggest that losing hope and the utopian spirit means losing the battle itself. Accordingly, they stress the need to construct accounts and theories that inspire and provoke rather than surrender and capitulate, either intellectually or politically. Following their example, this book tells an unlikely story of unexpected connections, surprising accomplishments, and far-reaching implications. Its key terms point to the mechanisms through which change is made: agency, creativity, imagination, and experimentation. If the book moves readers to consider the possibility that liberatory political and environmental realities may yet emerge, then it will have fulfilled its mission.


Cofán Possibilities

This book is a realist ethnography written in a utopian spirit. Its main characters belong to the Cofán ethnolinguistic group, an indigenous people of Amazonian Ecuador who face a microcosm of the forces that are devastating the world's cultural and biological diversity. After generations of dispossession at the hands of mestizo colonists, transnational oil companies, and Colombian armed factions, the Cofán nation, according to many observers' predictions, was in danger of disappearing and its rainforest territory of being destroyed. In the early 1990s, however, the Cofán began a process of mobilization that put them at the forefront of an expanding coalition between indigenous peoples and Western environmentalists. They are now the legally empowered, scientifically trained, and increasingly ambitious caretakers of more than one million acres of forestland.

On the basis of three years of ethnographic research in the lowland community of Zábalo and Ecuador's Andean capital Quito, this book explores Cofán people's innovative struggle for indigenous rights and environmental conservation. Although a number of developments explain the surprising reversal of Cofán prospects, a key factor in their success is Randy Borman, a Cofán man of Euro-American descent who has emerged as one of the world's most effective indigenous leaders. Blue-eyed and white-skinned, Borman was raised in a Cofán community by a pair of North American missionary-linguists. Armed with a Western education and fluency in English, Spanish, and A'ingae (the Cofán language), Borman has become a global media phenomenon. Magazine articles and television documentaries describe him as a "gringo chief" who combines North American whiteness, Amazonian indigenity, and committed political activism. Employing his intriguing persona and his intercultural capacities, Borman facilitates the Cofán nation's political struggles by constructing a creative set of partnerships with conservationist organizations, Western scientists, and the Ecuadorian state.

The introduction's subtitle refers to one of my central aims: to develop an "ethnography of possibility." With the phrase, I hope to convey multiple elements of my object and approach. The actors and efforts that compose Cofán politics point to new possibilities of cultural survival, environmental justice, and transnational collaboration in the twenty-first century. Cofán achievements are real. Nevertheless, they are undeniably provisional. Alliances, projects, and institutions change from year to year and moment to moment. They can be great successes one day, and they can disappear the next. The Cofán accomplishments I describe are a snapshot of possibility at a particular cultural, political, and historical juncture. The Cofán situation was different before my main fieldwork years of 2001 and 2002, and it changed after I left. Although I have attempted to keep track of the shifts with annual trips to Ecuador, a "final" account of Cofán politics is, by definition, impossible.

In addition to the conditional nature of Cofán achievements, a second sense of possibility motivates the book: the "experimental" nature of Cofán politics. When I first became interested in working with the Cofán, Randy Borman suggested that they would be happy to have me aboard "the Cofán experiment." The phrase refers to the shifting set of institutional forms into which Cofán people have thrown themselves: community conservation structures, ecotourism operations, partnerships with Western academics, formalized schooling projects, and the management of urban nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), among others. Cofán people's efforts profit from Borman's political creativity. They also reflect the flexibility of Cofán social structure, which allows individuals to embrace novel institutions without becoming anxious about their initial necessity or their ultimate consequences. Cofán people are more than willing to experiment with new ways of relating to each other, their environment, and encompassing political-economic forces. If results are beneficial and conditions are sufficient, the efforts continue. If not, they become material for revised goals and expectations.

Most importantly, I intend the book to communicate a third sense of possibility: the conviction that narratives of unstoppable cultural and biological loss are unfounded. I was drawn to Cofán politics because of Cofán people's triumph over tremendous challenges and terrible odds. Having worked, taught, and written on indigenous-environmentalist collaboration for years, I perceived a need to provide a story that is open-ended and optimistic rather than defined by conflict, failure, and an inability to see intercultural cooperation as anything more than a colonial project or governmental power. I believe that students, practitioners, academics, and activists—indigenous or otherwise—need hope if they are to devise creative solutions to the problems that face us. Although filled with complexity, the book provides reasons to believe in the possibility of indigenous empowerment and progressive conservation in the unlikeliest of times and places.

In short, possibility is the object, theme, and tone of the book. I tell multiple stories: social changes that emerge, endure, and transform; intentional experiments with the structure and context of a way of life; and an optimistic narrative on the fate of the world's cultural and biological diversity. To be sure, the Cofán struggle is one among many. From central Brazil to the Pacific Islands to postindustrial America, an array of efforts inspire a utopian sensibility: indigenous projects that combine new technologies with enduring lifeways; urban communities that play with novel forms of social and ecological organization; and a transnational, anti-globalization movement that is creating autonomous spaces in the fissures of contemporary capitalism. Viewed against this wider background, Cofán experiences hold valuable lessons for all actors who are striving to create a world whose difference is not doomed to destruction.

Cofán Losses, Cofán Possibilities

The community of Zábalo reflects a common history of Cofán loss and a shared field of Cofán possibilities. Attempting to escape the effects of oil pollution and uncontrolled colonization, Randy Borman and a small group of other Cofán people traveled far down the Aguarico River and founded the village in the late 1970s. It is located in the northeastern corner of Ecuador, along the heavily forested borders with Colombia and Peru. Zábalo residents hunt, fish, gather, and garden throughout their territory. Although some villagers speak Spanish, Quichua, Siona, and English with varying degrees of fluency, the majority consider themselves to be functionally monolingual in A'ingae.

Despite its remoteness, Zábalo is one of the most well-publicized indigenous communities in South America. During my time there, a film crew from the National Geographic Channel visited. They were preceded by others from CBS America Tonight, Australian 60 Minutes, and A&E Investigative Reports. In addition, Zábalo is the object of articles in Life Magazine, Earth Island Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, and Cultural Survival Quarterly. Joe Kane featured the community in Savages, and Mike Tidwell made it the object of an entire book, Amazon Stranger. In mid-2010, a journalist interviewed Borman (and myself) about political efforts that began in Zábalo. His research led to an article in the Washington Post and a story on National Public Radio.

The journalists who visit Zábalo are amazed by its strange conjunctures: English spoken alongside A'ingae, blowguns propped next to satellite telephones, and traditionally clad elders helping to enter ecological data into laptops powered by solar panels. What intrigues outsiders most, however, is Randy Borman. The Western media is fascinated by Borman's illustration of cultural distance, precisely because he exhibits key signs of "closeness" in a setting of radical alterity. The idea of "the gringo chief" strikes Western audiences as an index of the farthest flight or the deepest return, as well as the hybrid product of the passage itself. Many accounts write the story of Borman and Zábalo with archetypical images from colonial mythology. In Mike Tidwell's telling, Borman first appears in the observer's imagination as a stranger in the heart of darkness:

[W]e heard the rumor about the small village down the river where the great white chief lived. The chief was an American, reportedly born and raised among forest Indians, a blowgun hunter since age four, a man gone totally native. With paint on his face and wild-boar eye teeth strung around his neck, this bushed-out Caucasian was leading the Indian campaign to keep the oil intruders out. The name Kurtz settled over my mind like equatorial heat when I heard this. I saw a malarial dream of a man. Conrad's antihero fast-forwarded to the late twentieth century.

Other accounts downplay evocations of remoteness to focus on Zábalo's symptoms of globalization. The journalist Joe Hooper writes, "There's no question but that Randy Borman has created an unusual place, a postmodern Indian village. Semioticians would have a ball with Sabelo [sic]". The political scientist and analyst of indigenous movements Alison Brysk suggests that, along with Rigoberta Menchú and Subcomandante Marcos, Borman is one of the most important faces of the clash between the "global village" and the "tribal village." In her words, "Randy Borman personifies the collisions brought about by globalization". In these perspectives, Borman's position looks less like that of Kurtz or Crusoe and more like the collapsed distance and difference of postmodernity's hybrid-man. Accordingly, the figures of Borman and Zábalo appeal to audiences as strange but intriguing icons of globalization's most progressive and promising currents, set against a background of extreme cultural and biological destruction.

Cofán History

Although they are important actors in the development of a Cofán-wide political project, the people of Zábalo form just one Cofán community among many. Cofán people live on both sides of the Ecuadorian-Colombian border, where the Andean foothills meet the Amazon rainforest. A'ingae, which remains unclassified, is their primary language.1 Current census figures suggest that approximately 1,200 Cofán reside in Ecuador's province of Sucumbíos with a similar number in Colombia's department of Putumayo. In part, the national divide reflects a linguistic difference, with one dialect of A'ingae spoken along the Aguarico River and another along the San Miguel and other Colombian rivers. (The dialects are, however, mutually intelligible.) Due to intense political turmoil and social breakdown on the Colombian side, many Ecuadorian Cofán people do not consider their Colombian kin to be ethnic compatriots. As reasons for exclusion, they cite many Colombian Cofán individuals' inability to speak A'ingae, their abandonment of a forest-based lifestyle, and their long association with nonindigenous "killers," which has made them violent and unfit for peaceful community life.

Colonial and republican records do not consistently classify A'ingae speakers in the same group. People who today call themselves "Cofán" (sometimes spelled "Cofan," "Kofán," "Kofan," "Cofanes," "Kofanes," "Cufán," or "Copane" [Ortiz 1954]) were identified by other ethnonyms over the past four and a half centuries, including "San Miguel," "Sucumbíos," and "Macas". In community contexts, most Cofán people refer to themselves as a'i (human being), which functions as a loose synonym for "Cofán." The early Jesuit missionary Rafael Ferrer estimated the total Cofán population in 1600 as 15,000. The Colombian geographer Juan Friede expanded the pre-Conquest estimate to 70,000. Smallpox, measles, polio, whooping cough, cholera, tuberculosis, and malaria drastically reduced the Cofán nation. The population hit a low point of fewer than 400 individuals after a 1923 measles epidemic. Thanks in part to the vaccination campaigns of Summer Institute of Linguistics/Wycliffe Bible Translator (SIL) missionary-linguists, which included Randy Borman's parents, the Cofán survived.

Until the mid-twentieth century, Cofán history is not well documented, although Juan Friede, Sergio Ortiz, Scott Robinson, Miguel Angel Cabodevilla, Eduardo Kohn, and Randy Borman do a good job of synthesizing the available materials. Very little is known about the pre-Conquest Cofán. A number of colonial sources make reference to unsuccessful Inca attempts to subjugate them in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Contemporary Cofán mythology makes no mention of Inca wars or relations with Andean peoples. Stories place much more emphasis on hostile relations with the Tukanoan and other peoples who continue to live to the east and south of contemporary Cofán territory, in Amazonia proper. Nevertheless, it is clear that A'ingae-speaking people occupied areas far into the Andean valleys in pre-Conquest times. Historical records suggest that A'ingae may have been a common language in much of northern Ecuador's highland and montane regions before the Inca conquered the area's peoples prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

In search of the "land of cinnamon," the military expedition of Captain Gonzalo Díaz de Pineda brought the Cofán into the Gobernación de Quijos in 1536. Upon finding evidence of alluvial gold deposits in the Aguarico and San Miguel region, Spanish forces set up mining operations and towns. Hostile Cofán attacked and destroyed Spanish settlements in the 1500s. By the early 1600s, most of the mining centers were abandoned. The first missionary activity occurred with the entrance of Pedro Ordóñez de Cevallos in the late 1500s. When Rafael Ferrer entered Cofán territory in 1602, he found that many of the Cofán "lords"—who appeared to lead relatively autonomous and very large settlements—had already acquired Catholic paraphernalia, such as statues, paintings, and bells. Contemporary Cofán tell myths about the miraculous powers of Catholic icons, which they describe as "God's Skin" and "Little God." Ferrer baptized 4,800 Cofán in seven years and founded a number of mission sites, some with as many as 3,000 inhabitants. Unfortunately, Spanish soldiers and gold miners followed him into Cofán territory. The Cofán responded by drowning Ferrer in the Cofanes River in 1611.

After the death of Ferrer, the historical record is extremely spotty. There are various references to killings of Jesuit priests and isolated "uprisings" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, possibly in response to additional intrusions for gold. The historical record contains very few references to Cofán people between the mid-eighteenth and the late nineteenth centuries. Friede uncovered evidence of large Cofán villages along the San Miguel River in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Government forces destroyed the largest settlement in retaliation for the killing of a priest, and epidemic diseases apparently devastated the others.

Even after the decline, Friede concludes that the Cofán who lived along the San Miguel and Guamués Rivers at the beginning of the twentieth century constituted a "large tribe." In the late nineteenth century, Ecuadorian officers estimated the number of A'ingae speakers along the Aguarico and Cuyabeno Rivers to be approximately 1,800. Although the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Amazon Rubber Boom did not hit hard in Cofán territory, Capuchin priests entered in 1896 and caused significant disruptions. Starting in 1914, they rounded up Cofán people from dispersed communities and formed the new site of Nuevo San Miguel. In the settlement, the Cofán planted cash crops, attended school, listened to masses, and were "taught" to give up their long houses. In June of 1923, a measles epidemic ravaged the community. Survivors fled both upriver to the headwaters of the Aguarico and San Miguel and downriver to the Putumayo. Shortly thereafter, large-scale missionary efforts ceased.

When the Aguarico River officially became part of Ecuadorian territory with the Colombo-Ecuadorian Boundary Commission in 1929, the overall Cofán population was at an all-time low of approximately 400 individuals, thanks to the measles epidemic and subsequent social disruption (Robinson 1979:32). Waves of nonindigenous colonists invaded Colombian Cofán territory. Although isolated colonists entered Ecuador, Cofán territory along the Aguarico was less affected, at least for a few decades. One family set up a small-scale gold mining operation near the community of Sinangoe in 1932 (Robinson 1979:33). A preliminary census by the SIL estimated the total Cofán population at 517 in the mid-1940s.

In 1955, Randy Borman's parents—Marlytte ("Bub") and Roberta ("Bobbie")—settled in the Cofán community of Doreno, where they raised their infant son and learned A'ingae so that they could produce a Bible translation. The Bormans also provided medical care, helping to cut off an emerging tuberculosis epidemic. Due largely to their interventions, the Cofán population began to recover. Carmelite missionaries, who began to work among the Ecuadorian Cofán in the second half of the twentieth century, later joined the medical effort. The Carmelites concentrated their programs in communities where the Bormans were not working, especially along the San Miguel tributaries and in Lago Agrio, which became the capital of the newly created province of Sucumbíos in 1991.

The Contemporary Political Situation

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Ecuadorian Cofán began their relationship with the force that would determine much of their lives through the new millennium: oil. In 1921, the Leonard Exploration Company, a front for Standard Oil, obtained a 2.5-million-hectare concession to explore and exploit deposits in Amazonian Ecuador. The first all-weather road was constructed from the highlands to the lowlands in the 1930s, when the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company Ltd. (later revealed to be Royal Dutch Shell) acquired a forty-five-year 10-million-hectare concession. Nevertheless, the true invasion of Amazonian territory did not begin until a U.S.-based Texaco-Gulf consortium discovered large deposits of high-quality crude underneath Cofán territory and began commercial extraction in 1972. Texaco-Gulf constructed a highway between Quito and the new provincial capital of Lago Agrio, which sat on top of the small Cofán village of Amisacho, which was inhabited through the 1960s.

Colonists flooded the lowlands both spontaneously and under government programs. After ten years of commercial extraction, half of the region's population was born outside of the lowlands. By 1990, two-thirds of Ecuador's Amazonian population was nonindigenous. With petroleum-based development, Ecuador achieved the dubious honor of exhibiting the highest rate of deforestation in South America. Many Cofán people found it increasingly difficult to find enough game to sustain themselves on their shrinking patches of forest.

As the Cofán learned the consequences of land loss, they also began to suffer from the pollution caused by the dumping of billions of gallons of petroleum wastes into their environment. A series of studies note correlations between residence in Ecuador's oil-producing areas and a set of medical problems, including increased rates of malnutrition, cancer, birth defects, developmental disorders, miscarriages, skin and respiratory ailments, and diarrhea. Texaco drilled one of its most productive wells inside the boundaries of Doreno. The well—"Dureno Uno"—produced more than one million barrels of oil. In return, the Doreno Cofán received the destruction of their forest, decades of toxic runoff, and three spoons, which early oil workers gave them as "gifts".

After the initial decades of shock and incomprehension, the Cofán nation began to resist the consequences of oil extraction. In the late 1970s, Borman and a group of Doreno residents decided to flee the effects of petroleum-based development by forming Zábalo. In 1987, Zábalo residents joined their Doreno relatives to block a road that Texaco attempted to build through their community, which was already an island of forest in a sea of colonist settlements. In 1991, seismic crews began working in Zábalo's territory. After initial Cofán resistance, the state oil company, Petroecuador, succeeded in drilling two exploratory wells near the village, without Cofán permission or proper state permits. In 1993, the people of Zábalo detained workers, confiscated equipment, took over a well, and burned down a heliport to force Petroecuador out.3 On October 12, 1998, a Cofán-wide contingent took over and shut down Dureno Uno, the most visible sign of oil exploitation in Cofán territory.

In addition to direct actions, the Cofán are plaintiffs in Aguinda v. Chevron, a precedent-setting, multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit. Lawyers first filed the case in the United States on behalf of the thousands of indigenous and nonindigenous Ecuadorians who have suffered the environmental devastation caused by oil extraction. They made creative use of the U.S. Alien Tort Statute to base the case in the New York district where Texaco's headquarters are located. After rounds of appeals, a federal judge sent the case back to Ecuador. After Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001, North American environmental NGOs brought Cofán leaders to Chevron's California headquarters to communicate their experiences and make their demands. In 2011, an Ecuadorian judge ruled in the plaintiffs' favor to the tune of $18 billion. Nevertheless, both parties are appealing the decision, and it is unclear when a final ruling will occur.

As oil prices surge, and as companies from all over the world acquire concessions in northeastern Ecuador, more conflicts will emerge. Currently, the political-economic pressure on the Cofán is substantial. Oil is Ecuador's most important export. Its revenues cover nearly half of the federal budget. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, Venezuela was the only South American country that exported more oil to the United States than Ecuador, and Ecuador was the third-largest supplier of oil to the West Coast, after Saudi Arabia and Iraq. By 2011, Ecuador had become an important supplier to China. In 2009, Petroecuador opened a new oil field directly upriver from Zábalo, although it has yet to cross the community's boundaries.

The petroleum industry has also destroyed Cofán territory on the Colombian side of the border. The Colombian Cofán are widely known as one of the indigenous peoples most affected by oil and colonization. Environmental destruction in their homeland is extreme: over 70 percent of the Guamués valley is deforested, and nearly half of the forest in the district of San Miguel is gone. Only a small minority of Colombian Cofán continue to practice a hunting, fishing, and horticulture-based lifestyle. At the beginning of the millennium, twenty-eight multinational companies were extracting oil from the department of Putumayo. Although the environmental destruction is substantial, an equally pressing problem is the money that oil companies pay to armed groups for "protection". Colombia's militant factions, however, have additional sources of revenue.

Putumayo is the epicenter of Colombia's cocaine trade, which produced $3.5 billion nationally and $46 billion globally in 2002. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, two of the groups who profited most from drug money were the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Although the FARC and other guerrillas such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) have deep roots in decades of leftist politics, the late 1990s ushered in a different phase of conflict. During the main years of my fieldwork, Colombia had the highest murder and kidnapping rate in the world. In 2002, there were over twenty murders a day. Homicide became the leading cause of death of men and the second leading cause of death of women.

As part of its war on drugs, the United States funded the intensification of the Colombian conflict. Contemporary U.S. policy took form in 1989 with George H. W. Bush's "Andean Initiative." Bush wanted to solve the United States' drug problem by attacking its "source"—i.e., coca and poppy production centers in Andean countries. Bill Clinton followed Bush's policy. In 2000, 65 percent of the federal antidrug budget was directed to the "supply side." Most of the funds went to military and police programs in drug-producing countries. In 2002, George W. Bush took his father's cue and created the "Andean Regional Initiative," which focused on financing strategic military interventions in Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. The Bush administration cast the Colombian conflict as a battle against terrorism. After September 11, both the FARC and the AUC made the United States' terrorist list.

The Colombian civil war intensified in 2000 with President Andrés Pastrana's "Plan Colombia," or "Plan for Peace, Prosperity, and the Strengthening of the State." President Clinton's original contribution of $1.3 billion made Colombia the United States' third-largest recipient of military aid, after Israel and Egypt. Supported by dozens of U.S. Blackhawk and Super-Huey helicopters as well as training and firepower, the Colombian military pushed into Putumayo in December of 2000 to fumigate coca fields with a toxic mix of Cosmo-Flux 411F and Ultra Glyphosate (Roundup Ultra). The FARC responded by increasing its military training and investing in handheld antiaircraft weapons. In March of 2002, the Colombian army invaded the "safe haven" that Pastrana had ceded to the FARC as part of peace negotiations. Violent encounters between the FARC, the AUC, the Colombian military, and civilians increased rapidly. Many of the involved actors extended their sphere of operations into Ecuadorian territory. In 2002, the Colombian people elected the ultra-conservative Álvaro Uribe Vélez as their president. He declared that the only way to end the civil war was to beat the FARC through unrestrained military might. Uribe's policy significantly reduced the power of the FARC, although it is still a dominant actor in Cofán territory.

Colombian indigenous leaders began negotiating with the FARC and the ELN in the mid-1980s to keep the conflict out of their communities. Nevertheless, the leaders admitted that over six thousand indigenous youths joined the guerrillas while a much smaller number joined the paramilitaries. On the ground, the situation is complex. Many Colombian Cofán began cultivating coca in the 1980s. In 2001, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) agreed to give the Colombian Cofán $864,000—$1,774 per family—to manually eradicate their coca crops. In December of 2000 and January of 2001, paramilitaries assassinated three Colombian Cofán leaders. In response, approximately eighty Cofán families crossed into Ecuador to seek refuge with distant kin, but the Ecuadorian Cofán accepted very few of the newcomers. They feared that the Colombian Cofán had lost their "Cofán heart," thereby becoming thieves and murderers. Eventually, the great majority returned to Colombia. None stayed in Zábalo.

Ecuador's border province of Sucumbíos, where 90 percent of the population lives in poverty, has been completely transformed by the Colombian conflict. As early as 1993, the Ecuadorian army clashed with FARC combatants. Over the last two decades, Ecuadorian soldiers have discovered hundreds of coca fields, coca processing plants, and guerrilla camps in the province. Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries now have Ecuadorian offshoots. In the first six months of 2002, there were more than one hundred murders in Lago Agrio, which had 25,000 inhabitants at the time.

The herbicides from Colombian coca eradication drift over the border. Ecuadorians report that the chemicals destroy their subsistence crops and cause skin rashes, fevers, headaches, diarrhea, and even death. At least three indigenous communities on the Ecuadorian side of the border have been abandoned because of paramilitary threats. The Ecuadorian military has tortured members of the same communities for information. High-profile kidnappings of oil company workers in 1999 and 2000 destroyed the ecotourism business in Sucumbíos, which was the central source of income for many Cofán people. Thousands of Colombian refugees entered Ecuador. In order to deal with the problems, the Ecuadorian government created a "Plan of Internal Defense". It made use of $12 million of U.S. military aid to augment its border security with 12,000 troops.

Although Ecuadorian Cofán communities have experienced little direct violence from either guerrillas or paramilitaries, it is possible to hear warplanes and explosions from some villages. During the highly violent years of 2001 and 2002, the residents of Zábalo avoided making trips to Doreno and Lago Agrio, which were close to the most dangerous zones. For a short time, the military installed a checkpoint in the colonist town across the river from Doreno, through which arms and drug production materials pass. Although the troubles usually seemed distant during my fieldwork, one morning in 2002 a burlap sack containing human body parts washed up in Zábalo on the shore of the Aguarico River. No one knew its origin, but everyone concluded that it must have had something to do with Colombia.

Zábalo residents have heard many stories about paramilitary atrocities, including the use of chain saws to dismember their live enemies and the consumption of their enemies' flesh. Many Cofán refer to paramilitaries as cocoya, the same word they use for malevolent supernatural agents. Although travels across the border have decreased because of the violence, a number of Zábalo residents continue to visit Colombian communities in order to spend time with kin and to seek the treatment of powerful Cofán shamans.

Caught between the consequences of oil exploitation and civil war, the Cofán have received inconsistent aid from the Ecuadorian state, which has suffered severe instability. Ecuador went through seven presidents in a decade. Seventy percent of its population lives in poverty, and nearly 10 percent of its citizens have gone abroad to find work. In 2003, emigrant remittances surpassed every source of national revenue except petroleum. The country appears to be increasingly polarized between sectors that desire to implement neoliberal reforms and U.S.-backed policy objectives and the populist, nationalist, and left-wing segments that want to steer the country in a new direction.

One of the most important social sectors advocating radical change is Ecuador's indigenous population, which comprises as much as 40 percent of the country's 14 million citizens. Approximately 95 percent of Ecuador's indigenous people are native to the Andean highlands, whereas much smaller groups live in the coastal and Amazonian provinces. For more than fifty years, Ecuador's indigenous peoples worked to build Latin America's most powerful indigenous movement. Beginning in the Amazonian region with the formation of the Comuna San Jacinto del Pindo in the mid-1940s and the Federation of Shuar Centros in the early 1960s, Ecuador's indigenous peoples have created organizations for nearly all of the country's peoples. Ethnic federations are represented by regional organizations: the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Amazonian Ecuador (CONFENIAE), the Confederation of Peoples of the Quichua Nationality of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI, based in the highlands), and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Coast (CONAICE). Created in 1986, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) represents all indigenous organizations at the national level.

Ecuador's indigenous peoples have consistently challenged state policies that threaten to leave them susceptible to the whims of national and transnational capital by weakening their land base and limiting their powers of self-determination. The indigenous movement has been at the forefront of tremendous collective efforts: the Levantamiento (uprising) of 1990; the Caminata (march) from the Amazonian lowlands to Quito in 1992; mobilizations against neoliberal reforms of the Ley Agraria (Agrarian Law) in 1994; participation in drafting the 1998 constitution (which declared Ecuador a "pluricultural and multiethnic state"); an important role in the coup of January 21, 2000; and leadership of collective efforts against state policies and corporate actions every year since the new millennium began.

The Ecuadorian Cofán began developing an ethnic federation in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, they did not succeed in legalizing their organization—the Federación Indígena de la Nacionalidad Cofán del Ecuador (Indigenous Federation of the Cofán Nationality of Ecuador; FEINCE)—until 2001. From the perspective of the people of Zábalo, a more important institution is the Foundation for the Survival of the Cofán People (FSC). Randy Borman and other Cofán leaders established the FSC in 1998 as an NGO that could operate apart from the national indigenous movement. Many Cofán activists have long felt distanced and manipulated by CONAIE and CONFENIAE, as the larger federations are dominated by much more populous ethnic groups.

With the election of President Rafael Correa in 2006, the Cofán appeared to receive a new ally. Correa, who holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois, is part of Latin America's new left leadership. He has been Ecuador's most popular president in decades. Soon after taking office, he personally signed a contentious bill authorizing land acquisition for the Cofán nation in the Cofanes River region. In 2008, he organized a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, which passed a popular vote by a wide margin and included substantial rights for indigenous peoples and "Nature" itself. In the mining and oil sectors, Correa has worked hard to wrest control and profits from transnational corporations through a series of asset seizures and contract renegotiations. Much of the additional revenue is destined for new social programs.

By 2008, however, it became clear that Correa's increasing commitment to expanding mining and petroleum production put him in direct confrontation with the country's indigenous peoples, many of whom oppose a development model focused on extractivism. The government has imprisoned indigenous leaders on charges of "terrorism" for protesting Correa's policies. In addition, Correa has threatened expulsion for many activist "gringuitos" ("little gringos," or North Americans), whom he accuses of manipulating the country's indigenous and environmental movements. In June of 2010, CONAIE felt so alienated from the Correa administration that it created its own parallel "Government of Peoples and Nationalities." Although Cofán people are not directly involved in these developments, Correa's commitment to increasing oil revenues at almost any cost represents a significant danger for their future.

Devastation and Possibility

The history of Cofán loss is extreme. Before the Spanish arrived, Cofán forebears were embroiled in battles with the Inca Empire. Shortly after the Spanish Conquest, waves of colonial forces descended into Cofán territory, bringing wars and epidemic disease. Centuries of missionary attempts continued the dynamics. Only a small fraction of the original Cofán population survived the first few decades of the twentieth century. When the oil industry made Cofán territory the epicenter of its operations in the 1960s, events took a turn for the worse. Colonists expropriated Cofán land, companies polluted forests and rivers, and the Ecuadorian state showed little interest in the survival of a tiny remnant of what was once a powerful native nation. The Cofán hung on to only small fragments of their land. By the beginning of the new millennium, the spillover of violence from Colombia's civil war and drug trade made their situation even more precarious. Decades-old predictions of Cofán ethnocide appeared to become more and more realistic with each additional crisis.

The Cofán nation, however, did not disappear. In the 1970s, two of the communities in the most colonized areas—Doreno and Dovuno—received legal title to a small portion of their territory. Shortly thereafter, the community of Sinangoe established a legalized land base. With the state's recognition of Zábalo in the early 1990s, the Cofán nation's lands expanded exponentially. In the new millennium, Cofán leaders worked through the Ministry of Environment to achieve control of even more territory. Today, Ecuador's Cofán population holds rights to 433,400 hectares of Andean and Amazonian forests. As a result of increasingly strong relations with scientific institutions, the international donor community, and some sectors of the Ecuadorian state, Cofán people have achieved a rate of zero deforestation in their territory. They are using their land base to attain new levels of status, power, and wealth at national and global levels.

This book examines the radical reversal of Cofán prospects at a crucial juncture in Cofán history. The work of Randy Borman and the residents of Zábalo has been an essential element of the unlikely success story. Cofán people have struggled to overcome their challenges by integrating novel sociocultural forms—nongovernmental organizations, science and conservation partnerships, large-scale enforcement mechanisms, and urban schooling programs—into a way of life that continues to be grounded in the forest environment. With a new set of allies, institutions, and capacities, Cofán people are restructuring their society to advance their central project: escaping their position as the unpaid and uncredited objects of scientific expertise, state power, and transnational conservation work to become their fully empowered agents. In so doing, they are laying the foundation for the expansion of their way of life into the next century. Moreover, they are providing a case from which we all can derive inspiration as we ponder the possibility of a world in which cultural and biological diversity are not doomed to destruction.



“It is a well-crafted and nicely combined account of an ethnographic study with the personal story of Randy Borman…it is a must read for all those who want to understand the ecological sustainability efforts of indigenous people around the world in general, and the success story of the Cofán in Amazonia in particular.”
Indigenous Peoples, Issues, and Resources

“We must thank Michael Cepek for an ethnography that not only sheds light on indigenous cultural resistance, but also allows us to imagine such questions.”
Journal of Latin American Studies

“What’s the fate of the Amazon’s ecology and indigenous people? Is cultural and biological destruction inevitable? This may be the predominant message we hear emanating from the global discourse, but, as we read in Michael Cepek’s lively and richly textured account of the Cofán people of eastern Ecuador, we may have reason to be more optimistic.”
American Ethnologist

“It is exciting and always refreshing to read an ethnography that, as Cepek puts it, uses empirical investigation of an existing liberatory project to help us conceptualize alternative futures of hope and possibility.”
American Anthropologist

A Future for Amazonia is ideal for those in search of a rich, readable, ethnography that provides a remarkably rich account of an Amazonian indigenous people and how they have developed the political capacity to take on multinational oil, negotiate the Ecuadorian state, and secure a future that is at least partially hopeful. In short, this book makes an argument for why ethnography remains important for understanding much of what defines Latin America, from natural resource extraction and imperialism to indigenous movements, the ‘NGOization’ of political life, and the broader struggle for cultural and economic survival.”
Anthropology and Humanism

“This book will be of interest to environmental anthropologists for its depiction of divergent cultural models of environmental conservation and ecological cosmovisions, and to scholars in Latin American studies for its analysis of indigenous social movements and their complex relationships with states and transnational NGO networks. It also makes important contributions to the emerging field of NGO studies by examining how the adoption of the NGO form entails the transformation of community identities and practices. Nonetheless, its greatest value lies in the way it challenges anthropologists to examine the cultural tools used by people to refashion their ways of living in order to secure some measure of control over their future in a complex and often unpredictable global context.”
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Cepek has done a marvelous job in documenting and explaining the nuances and narratives of the Cofán story. . . . The book, which is easy to read and very well written, is highly recommended, especially for anyone working in International Development, Development Education, Government, Conservation, or Anthropology. The larger value here is that Cepek provides a pragmatic vision, gained through his sustained relationship with Borman and the Cofán,which might help the world with its problem of maintaining biodiversity. It is a real life story, implemented and worked on by real people, not just a utopian vision. The accomplishments of the 'Cofán experiment' deserve to be carefully studied and debated”
Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

“One of the best Latin American ethnographies I’ve read in a decade. . . . The reader comes away from this work with a strong sense of a people who are not ‘timeless indigenous others’ but thoughtful individuals struggling to keep their social world afloat against formidable odds. Cepek brings extraordinary ethnographic texture to his account and raises our understanding of indigenous survival to a new level.”
Michael F. Brown, Lambert Professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies, Williams College

“Brave . . . original. . . . A thought-provoking and sensitive account of the complexities of Cofán life in a global age. Written with clarity and commitment, this book will surely unsettle assumptions.”
Bret Gustafson, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Washington University


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