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.
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.