The Cofán: Hope in the Midst of Tragedy


Straddling the Ecuadorian-Colombian border reside the semi-indigenous communities of the Cofán. Calling themselves the a’i, this horticultural group is dependent on the waters of the Guamués and Aguaricó rivers as well as the surrounding forests for their way of life (Townsend 2743). Today, the Cofán face intrusion and destruction of their territories by outsiders; petroleum companies and commercial farmers pose the greatest threat to the Cofán lands (Caesar). Currently, the Cofán are working to maintain their traditional beliefs and lifestyle while learning to navigate Western politics and tourism for their own benefit as well as to survive. The Cofán have seen some progress in achieving government recognized land rights and reparations for damage caused by exploitive intruders (Mena 1832). The major question facing the Cofán, however, is not just what will be the impact of outsiders on their land and traditions, but what will happen to their culture as they are forced to adapt to Western politics and environmental rhetoric in order to protect their land and lifestyle.

Much of what is known about the Cofán is what has been recorded since the time of the European’s arrival in the “New World.” The Cofán region is in northeastern Ecuador and a small portion of southern Colombia, along two major rivers, the Aguarico and Zábalo. The Cofán territory was likely much larger in the past (Townsend 2743). The Spanish appeared in Cofán lands in the mid-1500s, but the colonizers’ attempt to take over land and to set up missions was largely resisted (Cardenal). The Europeans did have an impact, however, through the introduction of diseases: the spread of smallpox, polio, measles, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, and whooping cough devastated the Cofán in the years after the Spanish arrival. Only about two thousand Cofán are currently living, and few of them, if any, are not multiethnic. Cepek, an anthropologist who has extensively studied the Cofán, was surprised when he “investigated the family histories of Zábalo residents and found not a single ‘pure’ Cofán” (Essential 205). Despite their mixed ethnicity, the Cofán still identify as a’i (which can mean “human”, “Cofán”, or “indigenous person”), and individuals who are able to speak A’ingae (the Cofán language) and participate socially can be considered a’i, even if they are not entirely ethnically Cofán (Cepak Essential 205).

Although the recent introduction of wage labor and luxury goods is having an effect on
Cofán society, traditional social structure was relatively egalitarian and relied heavily on the rivers and forest. The Cofán social structure is dominated by kinship, and most community members who are not related by blood become kin through rituals (Cepak Bold 342). One Cofán describes the system of reciprocity: “If you get a little bit of meat, you bring it over and give it to your friend. If you get a lot, you give it to someone else, unrelated people” (as cited in Cepek Bold 342). Traditionally, Cofán villages were spread throughout the region and generally followed a pattern of segmentary opposition, uniting only when faced with an outside threat (Cardenal).

The Cofán were warriors and traders heavily reliant on nearby rivers for trading and for food (Towsend 2745). Gardening was the primary source of nutrients for the Cofán, with corn, plantains, manioc, and bananas making up the majority of their crops (Fitton 161). Fishing and hunting provided some of the protein in Cofán diets: peccary, tapir, monkeys, fish, and turtles were eaten a few times a week (Fitton 169). In the past, the Cofán traded weapons, necklaces, hammocks, and feathered crowns along the river for cloth, salt, and other supplies (Cardenal and Borman). Health and spirituality were closely tied, and Shaman used compounds from the forest to contact spirits as well as for healing (Cepak Bold 344). Cofán continue to aspire to become Shaman today, and those who desire Shamanism are prepared for a long initiation process and a life of few worldly pleasures.

The current Cofán population is estimated at around two thousand, living mainly in Ecuador but with some villages in Colombia (Cardenal). The communities are facing serious hardships because of deforestation, oil drilling, cattle grazing, and coca farming. Estimates of the Cofán population before the European arrival vary widely (anywhere from fifteen and fifty thousand, according to Cardenal and Mancheno), but regardless, the Cofán have witnessed a devastating loss of population since the colonization of South America. The earliest arriving Europeans did not have particularly prolonged contact with the Cofán; the main point of contact between the Cofán and outsiders occurred during the twentieth century, with the discovery of oil in Ecuador and Colombia (Cardenal). Initially, the presence of outsiders was welcomed: the Cofán retained control over abundant resources, new medicines halted the spread of introduced diseases, and Western goods like pots and knives were available for purchase. This happy balance did not last, however, as oil companies increased their presence with growing disregard for the indigenous population.

Tragically, the governments of Ecuador and Colombia did not act to protect the rights of indigenous peoples but were instead “overtaken by dreams of oil wealth and miraculous development” (Cepak Bold 337). In addition to exploitation by petroleum companies, “agrarian colonization” became prevalent in both countries, and the Cofán were forced off of their land (Valdivia 536). The impact of exploitive industries and an asymmetrical contact with the capitalist market has had dramatic negative impacts on Cofán culture. The once egalitarian, community-based society is deteriorating as members increasingly work in wage labor and own private goods. Cofán in Colombia increasingly have turned to harvesting the coca leaf in order to support themselves, now that gardening and fishing do not sufficiently provide for their needs (Ceaser). One individual expresses sadness that his peers, other Cofán youth, are “wearing Western-style clothes, listening to popular music and abandoning their native language [in favor of] Spanish” (as quoted in Caesar). Cofán women, who traditionally had near-equal status with men, were placed in a position of having to prostitute themselves or face sexual abuse after the arrival of oil workers in the 1970s (Valdivia 547).

As well as cultural erosion, the Cofán are facing serious health concerns because of oil contamination in their soil and water; these issues are related to the petroleum companies that have been working in the region since the mid-twentieth century. They are currently in the midst of fighting a protracted legal battle with Texaco-Chevron demanding reparations for the environmental destruction caused by oil drilling (Cardenal). The trial has been going on for nearly two decades, and may not be concluded any time soon. Damage to the forest is also having an effect on traditional religious and medical practices, and limits food resources. Rather than providing their own food through gardening, hunting, and fishing, Cofán increasingly sell cash crops to earn money to purchase processed food; this change is detrimental to their culture and to their health (Fitton 161).

The Cofán have recently seen some success through working with government authorities to protect their rights. In Ecuador, the Cuyabeno Reserve is designated as a site of preservation because of its ecological diversity; a similar protected area in Colombia called the Orito Ingi-Ande Medicinal Plants Sanctuary is intended to protect plants used by the Cofán for traditional medicinal and spiritual purposes (Mena and Caesar). Some Cofán have migrated to the Cuyabeno Reserve, where their land is protected from exploitation by outside interests, and have had some success in returning to a more traditional lifestyle. The Cofán living in the protected area are more likely to make a living based on eco-tourism and resource management, rather than cash crops (Mena 1838).

While this may be seen as a positive development, some anthropologists question what effect this socially exaggerated “indigenous” role might engender on the Cofán. A member of an Ecuadorian tribe reportedly asked an anthropologist “Show me, where is the Indian? …the Indian does not exist. It is a theory” (qtd. in Valdivia 539). As this is a contemporary problem, it remains to be seen how the Cofán will handle pressure to work within the Western political and legal system while maintaining their image of indigenous protectors of the rain forest. The environmental and cultural damage brought on by centuries of contact with Europeans and, more recently, transnational companies, cannot be easily overcome. Despite the difficulties, the Cofán have made some progress in drawing upon global recognition and political rights. While it is unclear how the Cofán will be affected by the pressure to fit into an indigenous environmental role, their increased visibility is viewed positively by many of those who are accustomed to years of silent oppression.

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