Cofán Pragmatism in Times of Uncertainty: Negotiating the Negligent Hegemonic State and Imaginary Oil

Julio Ignacio Rodriguez Stimson
The Cofán people of Zábalo, a community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, have always engaged pragmatically on an everyday basis with their forest-based lifestyle and relations with the government, corporations and outsiders (fuesu a’i). However, in recent years the community has been dealing with growing uncertainty, internal economic inequality, high unemployment, and an Ecuadorian state that extends governmental control, while also neglecting the needs of people in this region. A myriad of factors discussed in this paper, including the increased integration of outside commodities into the Cofáns’ daily life, have led me to believe that unless the Cofán gain access to a steady source of financial income to purchase basic supplies and commodities (such as bullets, gasoline and salt), many people will have to look for work outside the community or allow oil companies to exploit their resources. The growing accumulation of wealth by just two families in the community, increasing dependence on money, lack of access to jobs, and internal political divisions have increased distrust and bad talk (ega afa’cho). Through a two-month stay with the community, where I interviewed 25 individuals (collecting 67 hours of semi-structured interviews) and produced 7 short films , I mainly sought to answer the following three questions: What political and economic changes have these people encountered in recent years? What is the community’s relationship with money, commodities and other sources of value? Can the Cofán maintain an ideal tranquil (opatssi) life and take care of the forest (tsampima coiraye), while simultaneously engaging with external influences, including restrictive laws, expansion of the capitalist frontier, commodities, the Socio Bosque environmental conservation government scheme, populist local politicians, and the potential of oil exploitation?

I conclude that Zábalo is currently a frontier of ‘negligent hegemonic control’ and is becoming more assimilated into the global economic market, creating a greater dependence on money and commodities, which is both changing people’s relationship to the concepts of opatssi and tsampima coiraye and also making them more likely find a pragmatic solution to their economic problems, such as allowing oil exploitation. Finally, this paper advocates for an engaged, activist anthropology in the context of a neoliberal world with increasing inequality, marginalized indigenous peoples, and increasing environmental degradation.

Why should we care about indigenous people?

Much can be learnt from sitting still and listening, especially to our elders. Last summer, I lived with an indigenous community called the Cofán, who inhabit the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. I was sitting near Cofán leader Randy Borman, who was gently swinging in his hammock as we both enjoyed a cup of cui'ccu banana juice. He gulped it down and turned to look at me. “Take what I say with a grain of salt, but the bottom line is 'nobody cares.’ I mean, basically  human  beings  are  totally  selfish  99%  of  the  time and  serve  short-term  interests,  especially  when  fueled  by strong  economic  incentives…Right  now,  the  world  wants our  oil.  The world wants our gold.  The world wants our water.  They don‘t realize they can‘t have everything.” A few days later, he elaborated: “The minute you have success going for indigenous people of any sort, you know, 500 years of guilt comes crashing back down on top of you and you‘re all of a sudden afraid that your head is going to be shrunken down to this size and that they‘re going to come into Quito and raid it.”

In general, the Cofán people who I talked to feel completely abandoned by the Ecuadorian government and international organizations following the 2008 global financial crisis. In spite of all odds, the Cofán have been extremely successful at securing large areas of ancestral territory, creating a park ranger program, partnering with conservation scientists and creating their own ecotourism initiative. To a great extent, these successes are because of Randy Borman himself, who is the son of American missionaries, grew up in the rainforest, and is deeply rooted within Cofán culture, while also being able to use his knowledge of the Western world to lobby for his people. However, it appears that consciously or unconsciously the mainstream of Ecuadorian society and the Ecuadorian government do not support this indigenous success because they want Cofán natural resources.

At the present moment, the Cofán community of Zábalo is in dire need of sources of income to allow them to buy gasoline for motorized canoes, bullets for hunting, salt and other basic supplies. All indigenous people also would like their children to have good education and healthcare, just like us. However, a government program funding the Cofán park guards has fallen through and their fiberglass canoe businesses and ecotourism activities are extremely vulnerable and seasonal. Although they were against oil exploitation on their territory two decades ago, the lack of economic support has made people desire for oil companies to enter their territory and this may occur in the coming years if no alternative is found.    

Hence, one of the most valuable lessons I took away from my lived experience with the Cofán was to see that our 'Western lifestyle' is completely interdependent and connected to the wellbeing of indigenous peoples. Without the Cofán protecting their land, we lose the carbon sinks that are slowing down climate change. Similarly, the Cofán cannot live without us because they now depend on motorized canoes, shotguns and outside goods and services. Therefore, I believe it is our responsibility as a global community to create economic incentives for indigenous peoples to fund their park guards, protect the environment and slow down global warming, for the benefit of us all.

In addition to this environmental reasoning, the other central reason for supporting indigenous peoples like the Cofán is because they are the victims of over 500 years of colonialism. In addition to having their population decimated by the Spanish conquest and disease, now the current threat remains the outside world’s unquenchable thirst for natural resources. Not only do the Cofán have a unique culture, worldview and language, which would be lost if we don’t support them, but they also are the original inhabitants of the rainforest: we are the aliens and because of us their lands have been polluted by constant oil spills, leading to increased rates of cancer and birth defects.     

As Borman explained to me, the clash between Western values and indigenous values can be described as follows: "the problem with the Western World and the way it’s gained so much success is because on a short-term basis it does give you access that the indigenous worlds have never done...It’s also created along with those a tremendously volatile situation for the planet...If we are providing a benefit to the world in terms of ecological services, we should be paid for that benefit.” The Cofán are pragmatic, just as we are, and will choose the best path to maintaining and improving their lifestyle, whether that be through eco-friendly practices or by accepting extractive industries in their territories. It’s up to us to decide whether we’ll partner with them and have a more sustainable future or whether the status quo of extractivism must continue with dire consequences for everyone on the planet and billions of dollars spent on reconstructing cities from the natural disasters caused by climate change.

During my last conversation with Borman, he told me that he “would love for Amazonia as a whole to still be part of Cofán heritage hundreds of years from now.” Aren’t we willing to see his dream come true?

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Universiteit of Hogeschool
MSc. in Social and Cultural Anthropology
Publicatiejaar
2016
Promotor
Steven Van Wolputte
Kernwoorden