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