Our Grants

The Cofán Survival Fund

Control, Management, and Protection of the Cofán-Bermejo Ecological Reserve

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Photo by Kiliii Yuyan

USD 25.000 grant
to protect a key part of legalized Cofán territory
from the increasing threat of illegal gold mining,
which is decimating environments
and endangering health in Amazonian Ecuador
 

The Community

A'i-Kofán

The Cofán, also known as "A'i-Kofán," are an Indigenous people who live on both sides of the Ecuadorian-Colombian border, where the Andean foothills meet the Amazonian lowlands. Ecuador's approximately 1,500 Cofán citizens reside in 13 communities, which range in size from more than 500 to less than 20 inhabitants. The communities are located along the Aguarico and San Miguel Rivers and their tributaries in the province of Sucumbíos. The everyday language of almost all Cofán individuals is A'ingae, an isolate with no known linguistic affinities. 
Cofán people practice a way of life based on hunting, fishing, gathering, and horticulture; the periodic sale of garden produce, forest products, handicrafts, and wage labor; and participation in culturally and environmentally focused tourism ventures.

Tsampi

In Cofán culture and cosmology, there is no term that corresponds to the Western notion of "nature." Instead, there is the central concept of tsampi, a word that most commonly means "forest" but also refers to all the spaces, processes, and inhabitants of environments unaffected by large-scale human conversion. Indeed, to identify their dependence on and protection of the Western Amazonian landscape, Cofán people refer to themselves as tsampini canjensundeccu (dwellers of the tsampi) and tsampima coirasundeccu (caretakers of the tsampi). In everyday speech and political declarations, Cofán people repeatedly stress the mutual enmeshment of the tsampi and a way of life they deem deeply desirable.
Cofán people do not intrinsically value or sacralize the tsampi and its denizens, but they do value the form of existence that only an intact tsampi makes possible. Without the tsampi, they would not be able to hunt, fish, and gather, which they enjoy for the foods they provide but also as ends in themselves. In addition, without residing in a tsampi-dominated landscape, they would lose central elements of their valued lifeway: the hundreds of medicinal plants they depend on to treat their illness; the distance from violent human others that ensures a calm and peaceful life; the freedom to live according to their talents, desires, and energies through everyday subsistence practices rather than isolating, exhausting wage labor; the psychological security of access to a resource-rich land base, which helps them weather the constant uncertainties of a boom-and-bust regional economy; a comfortable material environment characterized by the cool, shade, and quiet of standing forest; and the immediate, reassuring presence of all the places and beings that figure in their myths, histories, and cosmological beliefs and practices.
Cofán people's valuation of the tsampi exists mainly as the unremarked, taken-for-granted foundation of their daily mode of being. Over the last 50 years, though, their political struggles, economic impoverishment, and witnessing of large-scale forest destruction have led them to institute more formalized processes of environmental valuation. At the national level, NOAIKE, Nacionalidad Originario A'i-Kofán del Ecuador, holds Cofán-wide annual assemblies in which leaders stress their commitment to protecting the tsampi. In addition, the ethnic federation periodically composes "life plans" to outline projects for ensuring Cofán people's health and prosperity without destroying their territory. At the community level, members gather each year to review and modify the set of rules they have created to ensure a satisfying style of collective life. In some Cofán communities, many of these rules comprise an intricate management system for protecting the tsampi from overuse or other forms of destructive practice.

Home, the most biodiverse place on Earth

Cofán people depend deeply on the more than 430,000 hectares of largely intact forests they legally control. Even though Ecuador has one of South America's highest rates of deforestation, the Cofán homeland remains one of the planet's most biologically diverse places. The Cofán-Bermejo Ecological Reserve is a mixture of both Andean montane and lowland Amazonian habitats. According to a biological inventory by the Field Museum of Natural History, the forests "contained a spectacularly diverse mix of lowland and montane biota, including many undescribed and endemic species protected nowhere else." There are an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 plant species, 42 species of large mammals and a rich bird community of 700 estimated species, just to name some of the extraordinary life that inhabits the Cofán's ancestral lands. Through a series of agreements and treaties, the Cofán Nation has secured recognition of their ancestral rights to these lands and the ability to act as legal functionaries of the Ministry of Environment to protect them. Four Cofán communities exist inside the reserve, a 55,000-hectare protected area in which Cofán people have both use and residence rights and co-administration powers over the reserve itself, which was created at their instigation. Furthermore, the Cofán Park Guard Program, which is managed by the Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán, sends teams of Cofán rangers with state enforcement powers throughout Cofán territory to protect it from threats. Finally, the Cofán people have made extensive use of the Ecuadorian government's Socio Bosque program, which funnels sizable payments to communities that vow to keep their forests intact. In short, the Cofán Nation has garnered significant power, resources, and land rights by allying itself with many state and non-state environmentalist actors within and beyond Ecuador. 

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RI: 3 | Rapid Inventories

Information on the biodiversity and ecology of Cofán territory exists in a set of Rapid Biological Inventories done by the Field Museum of Natural History.

The Need

Control over their homeland

Cofán people have been combating imperial incursions for over 500 years. Before the Spanish arrived, the Cofán resisted Inka intrusions. By the mid-1500s, Spanish conquerors were battling Cofán warriors, capturing many as slaves, plundering their land for gold, and allowing Jesuit missionaries to concentrate dispersed Cofán communities into centralized settlements. Although outsiders still mine Cofán people's territory for gold, the extraction of other natural resources also impacts their lives. Perhaps the most serious threat to their survival is the transnational petroleum industry, which has produced oil on Cofán land since the mid-1960s. Oil opened Cofán territory to massive pollution and extensive non-native settlement, with devastating consequences for Cofán health and subsistence. Because of the colonization of their homeland, the Cofán now make use of only a fraction of their traditional territory

Ecuador is an OPEC nation that depends on petroleum exports for a large portion of its federal budget and foreign revenue. Cofán territory overlaps with the center of Ecuadorian oil extraction, making it the object of intensive state interventions. Although Ecuador's 2008 constitution declares the country a plurinational state and provides substantial rights for Indigenous self-government, in practice, the Cofán Nation exercises limited autonomy. During the administration of President Rafael Correa (2007–2017), it became impossible for Cofán people to continue their tradition of militant resistance to extractive industries without being labeled "terrorists," imprisoned, and potentially killed by state forces, as happened to other Indigenous peoples of the region.

Hamstrung by a lack of funding, NOAIKE has ceded much of the work of protecting Cofán people and territory to Cofán-managed NGOs, such as the Fundación para la Sobrevivencia del Pueblo Cofan (FSC) and non-Indigenous ally organizations, such as Amazon Frontlines. In addition, individual communities are significant political agents; their leaders and members are often direct participants in confrontations with miners, loggers, oil workers, and colonists.

The Ecuadorian state is not a simplistic, unified actor. In the early 1990s, Cofán communities began to form alliances with Ecuador's Ministry of Environment to gain control of much of their homeland. Currently, the great majority of legalized Cofán territory overlaps with protected natural areas.

The Grantee 

The Cofán Survival Fund

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Cofán Survival Fund

Founded in 1999, FSC is an NGO with Cofán leadership dedicated to the survival of the Cofán Indigenous culture and its Amazonian rain forest environment. The Cofán Survival Fund (CSF) is an independent U.S.-based supporting organization for the Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán (FSC).
Traditional Cofán Song  - by elder Etalvina Queta (recorded by Michael Cepek)
Traditional Cofán Song - by elder Mercedes Quenamá (recorded by Michael Cepek)

You too can support the Cofán and the extraordinary work of the Cofán Survival Fund, head to

The Project

Control, Management, and Protection of the Cofán-Bermejo Ecological Reserve

This USD 25.000 grant will allow the FSC to remobilize the Cofán Park Guards to clear the Reserve's boundary trails, establish a strong, regular, and clear presence of Cofán people at critical locations, and signal to both the miners and Ecuador's Ministry of Environment that Cofán people are determined to protect their land and are the best possible people to do it. This project will be a key element in compelling the Ecuadorian government to recognize Cofán control of and responsibility for the area's care. The ultimate goal is to have all state park guard positions filled by local Cofán inhabitants.

The funds will help support and organize the people of the RECB resident communities Chandia Na'e and Avié to mobilize as part of the Cofán Park Guard system and rebuild a Cofán-administrated management structure for the reserve; and to gain access to both Ecuadorian government funding and outside donations to help pay for long-term, Cofán-based management of the RECB. It will do so by: 

  1. Holding preliminary meetings with community members from Chandia Na'e and Avié to communicate the project logic and structure and gain local "buy-in" for the effort. 
  2. Organizing activities to immediately field a team of ten Cofán Park Guards who will take on the task of clearing reserve boundary trails. The activities here will include refresher courses for veteran park guards in use of GPS, logistics, medicine, communication, environmental law, and monitoring and reporting skills. FSC will also open the basic training course to new guards without prior experience. The courses will be followed by the purchase of necessary equipment, including basic field kits, medical supplies, and at least one state-of-theart GPS unit. 
  3. Clearing the RECB's neglected boundary trails 
  4. Coordinating with Ministry of Environment staff in an attempt to ensure that over time all government staff positions in the RECB are held by Cofán individuals 
  5. Working at higher government levels in Ecuador's national capital, Quito, to smooth any local friction in the RECB area and provide solid backup for the management team. 
  6. Solidifying and mobilizing backup from the ministry, from the military and police forces, and from higher government personnel, in order to manage conflicts with illegal miners

Update #1 - November 2022

Just last month, we received a promising email update from Felipe Borman, Randy Borman's oldest son and Cofán leader. Felipe shared how his people's effort to remove hundreds of illegal gold miners from the Cofán-Bermejo Ecological Reserve is proceeding.

After communicating the project logic and structure to Chandia Na'e and Avié, the two communities most affected by mining-related violence and contamination, 17 members were trained (4-day intensive training that includes logistical, legal and first-aid courses). 

Then, prepared with this knowledge and adequately equipped, they headed to the field and cleared boundary trails. Now, these trails adamantly say to the illegal miners that Cofán people are there, watching, and committed to stopping the violence and contamination.

These images speak volumes of the courage and determination of the Cofán and the majesty of what they're trying to protect.

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About the author


Michael L. Cepek

Michael L. Cepek, PhD, is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and President of the Cofan Survival Fund. He has collaborated with the Cofán Nation for nearly 30 years on academic and activist projects.