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?


Agrawal, A., Gupta, A., Hathaway, M., Narotzky, S., Raffles, H.,Skaria, A., & Agrawal, A. (2005). Environmentality: Community, intimate government, and the making of environmental subjects in Kumaon, India. Current Anthropology, 46(2), 161-190.

Albert, B. (1997). ‘Ethnographic situation’ and ethnic movements: notes on post-Malinowskian fieldwork. Critique of Anthropology 17(1): 53-65.

Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization (Public Worlds, Vol. 1). Minneapolis, MN: University of  Minnesota Press.

Appel, H. (2012). Offshore work: Oil, modularity, and the how of capitalism in Equatorial Guinea. American Ethnologist, 39(4), 692-709.

Banerjee, S. B. (2011). Voices of the governed: towards a theory of the translocal. Organization, 18(3), 323–344.

Barrett, P.M. (2014). Law of the jungle: The $19 billion legal battle over oil in the rain forest and the lawyer who’d stop at nothing to win it. New York: Crown Publishing Group. Borman, M. B. (1976) Vocabulario Cofán. Quito: Instituto Lingüistico de Verano en Cooperación con el Ministerio de Educación Pública.

Borman, R. B. (1996). Survival in a hostile world: Culture change and missionary influence among the Cofán people of Ecuador, 1954–1994. Missiology: An International Review, 24(2), 185–200.

Borman, R. B. (2008). Ecotourism and conservation: the Cofan experience. In A. Stronza & H. Durham (Eds.), Ecotourism and Conservation in the Americas (pp. 21-29). Wallingford: CAB International.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cepek, M. L. (2006). The Cofán experiment: Expanding an indigenous Amazonian world (Doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, Department of Anthropology).

Cepek, M. L. (2008a). Bold jaguars and unsuspecting monkeys: The value of fearlessness in Cofán politics. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 14(2), 334–352.

Cepek, M. L. (2008b). Essential commitments: Identity and the politics of Cofán conservation. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, 13(1), 196–222.

Cepek, M. L. (2009). The myth of the gringo chief: Amazonian messiahs and the power of immediacy. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 16(2), 227–248.

Cepek, M. L. (2011). Foucault in the forest: Questioning environmentality in Amazonia. American Ethnologist, 38(3), 501-515.

Cepek, M. L. (2012a). A future for Amazonia: Randy Borman and Cofán environmental politics. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Cepek, M. L. (2012b). The loss of oil: Constituting disaster inAmazonian Ecuador.The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, 17(3), 393–412.

Cepek, M. L. (2012c). Strange powers: Conservation, science, and transparency in an indigenous political project. Anthropology Today, 28(4), 14-17.

Conklin, B. A. (1997). Body paint, feathers, and VCRs: aesthetics and authenticity in Amazonian activism. American Ethnologist, 24(4), 711-737.

Correa, R. (2013, October 1). Comunidad del Milenio Playas de Cuyabeno (Speech presented in Cuyabeno, Ecuador). Retrieved from /2013/10/2013-10-01ComunidadMilenioCuyabeno.pdf

Cossío, A. Y., & Cabezas, G. (1998). Chiga 2. Quito: Imprenta Nuestra Amazonía-COICA.

Davies, C. A. (2008). Reflexive ethnography: a guide to researching selves and others. London: Routledge.

Deloria, V., Jr. (2012). Custer died for your sins. In A.C.G.M.

Robben  &  J.A. Sluka (Eds.), Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader (pp. 199-206). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1976). Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fabian, J. (2012). Cultural anthropology and the question of knowledge. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 18(2), 439-453.

Ferguson, J., & Lohmann, L. (1994). The anti-politics machine: 'Development' and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. The Ecologist, 24(5), 176-181.

Ferguson, J. (2005). Seeing like an oil company: Space, security, and global capital in neoliberal Africa. American Anthropologist, 107(3), 377-382.

Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Random House.

Gaechter, D. A. (2007). Recolonizing Ecuador's Oriente: Oil, agriculture, and the myth of empty lands. Retrospective Theses and Dissertations, 1919-2007. Vancouver: The University of  British Columbia.

Geiger, D. (2008). Turner in the tropics: The frontier concept revisited. In Frontier encounters: Indigenous communities and settlers in Asia and Latin America (pp. 75-215). Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.

Graeber, D. (2001). Toward an anthropological theory of value: The false coin of our own dreams. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gramsci, A. (1971 [1935]). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. G. Nowell-Smith, & Q. Hoare (Eds.). New York: International Publishers.

Guenther, M., Kenrick, J., Kuper, A., Plaice, E., Thuen, T., Wolfe, P., & Zips, W. (2006).The concept of indigeneity. Social Anthropology-Cambridge, 14(1), 17.

Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248.

Harvey, D. (2003). Accumulation by dispossession. In D. Harvey (Ed.), The New Imperialism (pp. 137-182). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hilgers, M. (2010). The three anthropological approaches to neoliberalism. International Social Science Journal, 61(202), 351-364.

Jackson, J. E. (1990). "I am a fieldnote”: Fieldnotes as a symbol of professional identity. In R. Sanjek (Ed.), Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology (pp. 3-33). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kerr, D. (1999). Beheading the king and enthroning the market: A critique of Foucauldian governmentality. Science & Society, 63(2), 173-202.

Kimerling, J. (1990). Disregarding environmental law: Petroleum development in protected natural areas and indigenous homelands in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Hastings International Comparative Law Review, 14, 849.

Kimerling, J. (2006). Indigenous peoples and the oil frontier in Amazonia: The case of Ecuador, Chevron-Texaco, and Aguinda v. Texaco. New York University Journal of International Law and Politics, 38(3), 413-664.

Latour, B. (2012). We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Li, T. M. (2014). Land’s end: Capitalist relations on an indigenous frontier. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lu, F., Bilsborrow, R.E., & Oña, A. I. (2012). Modos de vivir y sobrevivir: un estudio transcultural de cinco etnias en la Amazonía ecuatoriana. Quito: Abya Yala.

Lyons, M. (2003). Case study in multinational corporate accountability: Ecuador's indigenous peoples' struggle for redress. Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, 32, 701.

MacCannell, D. (1976). The tourist: A new theory of the leisure class. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Magdoff, F., & Foster, J. B. (2011). What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism: A citizen’s guide to capitalism and the environment. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Malinowski, B. (2002 [1922]). Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge.

Martin, D. A. (1999). Building heterotopia: realism, sovereignty, and development in the Ecuadoran Amazon. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 24(1), 59-81.

Murphy, L., Bilsborrow, R., & Pichon, F. (1997). Poverty and prosperity among migrant settlers in the Amazon rainforest frontier of Ecuador. The Journal of Development Studies, 34(2), 35-65.

Orta-Martínez, M., & Finer, M. (2010). Oil frontiers and indigenous resistance in the Peruvian Amazon. Ecological Economics, 70(2), 207-218.

Polanyi, K. (1944). The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our time. Boston: Beacon Press.

Radcliffe, S. A. (2012). Development for a postneoliberal era? Sumak kawsay, living well and the limits to decolonisation in Ecuador. Geoforum, 43(2), 240-249.

Ramos, A. R. (1998). Indigenism: ethnic politics in Brazil. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Redford, K. H. (1991). The ecologically noble savage. Cultural Survival Quarterly, 15(1), 46-48.

Rivero, S., & Cooney Seisdedos, P. (2010). The Amazon as a frontier of capital accumulation: Looking beyond the trees. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 21(4), 50-71.

Rogge, M. J. (1997). Ecuador's oil region: Developing comunity legal resources in a national security zone. Third World Legal Studies (1996-97), 233-266.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (2012). Ire in Ireland. In A.C.G.M. Robben  &J.A. Sluka (Eds.), Ethnographic fieldwork: An anthropological reader (pp. 219-234). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the subaltern speak? In C. Nelson & L. Grossberg (Eds.), Marxisim and the interpretation of culture (pp. 271-313). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Thapa, K. K., Bilsborrow, R. E., & Murphy, L. (1996). Deforestation, land use, and women's agricultural activities in the Ecuadorian Amazon. World Development, 24(8), 1317-1332.

Tidwell, M. (1996). Amazon stranger: A rainforest chief battles big oil. New York: Lyons and Burford Publishers.   

Turner, T. (1992). Defiant images: the Kayapo appropriation of video. Anthropology Today, 8(6), 5-16.

Valdivia, G. (2007). The 'Amazonian trial of the century': Indigenous identities, transnational networks, and petroleum in  Ecuador. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 32(1), 41-72.

Vickers, W. (1984). Indian policy in Amazonian Ecuador. In M. Schmink & C. Wood (Eds.), Frontier expansion in Amazonia (pp. 8-32). Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.

Weber, M. (2005 [1930]). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. London & New York: Routledge.

Wenner, M., English, R., & Riley, M. (1994). Protecting biodiversity reserves from agricultural encroachment: An analytical framework with an application in Ecuador. Report prepared under the Agricultural Policy Analysis Project, Phase III. Available at

Whitten, N. E. (1981). Amazonia today at the base of the Andes: An ethnic interface in ecological, social, and ideological perspectives. In N. E. Whitten (Ed.), Cultural transformations and ethnicity in modern Ecuador (pp.121-161). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Wolf, E. R. (2001). Pathways of power: Building an anthropology of the modern world. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.





/* Style Definitions */
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";

Universiteit of Hogeschool
MSc. in Social and Cultural Anthropology
Steven Van Wolputte