A message from Randy Borman, Executive Director, Cofan Survival Fund

I wanted to share with all of you an update about what transpired in 2014. On July 2, 2014 we experienced a major oil spill on the Aguarico River. A 37 year-old pipeline running along the major road near the Cofan village of Dureno broke in the early hours of the morning, and ran unchecked for at least an hour, dumping an estimated 10,000 barrels of petroleum into the nearby stream. By dawn, the Aguarico River was running black with oil.

I was travelling from Quito to the Cofan community of Zabalo that morning when Roberto Aguinda called me. “The pipeline broke at Poca Ttonocho. We are in emergency mode over here.” (Roberto is a long-term board member of the CSF's Ecudador-based sister organization, Fundacion para la Sobrevivenicia del pueblo Cofan "FSC" and currently serves as president of the Cofan Federation.)

When I arrived at the site, the military had buttoned up the access to the spill location and were doing their best to keep people from taking photos. Official reporters were not being allowed in, but it was easy to see the effects on the Poca Ttonocho River as we drove across the bridge. A thick sludge of bubbling crude rode the swift stream, the edges were black with gunk, and the workers were covered in grime from head to toe.

In Dureno, the main Aguarico River channel was heavily marbled with huge streaks and swirls of petroleum, and the air reeked of oil. A canoe full of “reporters” for the government owned TV channels were crossing as we drove up. Their boat was covered in black scum, but they seemed singularly uninterested in the oil spill. One of the reporters had interviewed me several times before, but now climbed into the waiting pick-up truck without even offering me a greeting. The message was clear. Monkey hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil. The next morning, I began a round of meetings with emergency staff people from the national oil company PetroAmazonas. I was joined by fellow leaders of other affected communities and government officials.

Over half of th 40 Cofan families in our Zabalo community depend directly on the river for all water needs other than drinking water, which is collected in rain barrels. The rest have part-time access to stream water; but only when the river is low. We needed to get emergency water to at least twenty of our families immediately and we needed back-up plans to cover the rest of the community. We were not alone in these needs—the rest of the people on the river were facing the same issues.

After some heavy discussion with PetroAmazonas, we were able to get a promise to supply funding, gasoline, barrels and a pump so we could canoe to clean water sources, fill up barrels with water and distribute it. The company also accepted our demand for pumps and tubing to be able to bring water in from clean sources in our pristine forests behind our communities

The next few days, involved meetings and more meetings with officials, politicians, and oil people in neighboring Cuyabeno, Tarapoa, and Lago Agrio.

The most disturbing aspect of this disaster was the total silencing of the press. Especially in the wake of the politics regarding state-sponsored drilling in the Yasuni National Park, it seemed that the government was petrified by the very thought that any information should leak out and re-ignite a popular rejection of the Yasuni oil exploitation.

Thanks to the support of the Cofan Survival Fund, the Cofan have an organized presence and we continued our demands of the oil company. Eventually, the company sent a team to collect oil-contaminated leaves and branches along the river side, and by the middle of August, most of the obvious signs of contamination were pretty much gone. As clean-ups go, it was definitely the best one yet, but ultimately, nature was the real star; naturally-occurring bacteria were the main workers involved.

The Cofan continue to live with this and similar disasters—waters oozing petroleum, inedible fish, and constant work to get fresh water to our people. Luckily, rains were constant and heavy following the spill. We all have rain water systems of one sort or another, and so we survived, as we have countless times before; but the impact remains, with blighted fields, a contaminated well, and with oil once again a noxious substance directly affecting our lives.

Documentary Oil & Water Tells Cofan Story

A documentary released in 2014 helped to spread the word about the Cofan efforts to protect its land and its very existence. Oil & Water is the true story of two boys coming of age as they each confront one of the world’s worst toxic disasters. Shot over the span of six years, the film is an independent documentary produced and directed by Laurel Spellman Smith and Francine Strickwerda of Stir It Up Productions, a Seattle-based documentary company. The film was funded by Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation and made for broadcast on PBS. The film features Cofan Hugo Lucitante, 27, who was born and raised in Zabalo, EC. But at 10 years old, was selected by his parents and tribal leaders to begin a Western education in the United States with American graduate student, Miranda Detore, as his legal guardian. The hope was that he would return to the Ecuadorian Amazon to provide leadership the Cofan desperately need.

Hugo Lucitante, left, and David Poritz address attendees at a Brown University screening of Oil & Water
Hugo Lucitante, left, and David Poritz address attendees at a Brown University screening of Oil & Water

Oil & Water also tells the story of David Poritz, who was just a sixth-grader when he learned of the oil disaster in Hugo’s homeland. With the blessing of his mother, David started a humanitarian project that led him away from his home in Amherst, Massachusetts to spend much of his youth in the Amazon. The two teenagers meet by chance during a shared canoe ride, and then again, when David travels with Hugo to tour the damage caused by the 18 billion gallons of oil waste that was dumped on Hugo’s ancestral lands. The film follows the boys back to the U.S. as their lives and the situation in Ecuador get more complicated.

During the multi-year filming, the viewer sees Hugo struggle with the demands of learning to be a Cofan tribal leader, becoming a husband to his wife, Sadie, and father to their daughter Asha, while Hugo and Sadie both attempt to finance their college educations on minimum-wage jobs.

The film premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in June 2014 and was screened dozens of times around the country and even at the Rio De Janerio International Film Festival in October. The Cofan Survival Fund Board recognized the opportunity the documentary created to engage individuals interested in rainforest preservation and the rights of indigenous people and sponsored screenings in Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.

At a screening at Evergreen State University, Randy Borman said, “It’s not about a poor indigenous group out in the middle of the jungle that needs to preserve their culture, although that is a component,” Borman said. “It is about the survival of the globe and I don’t know how to get that across to people effectively. We need that million acres of rainforest as a human race to be able to survive climate change. We need many millions of acres, not just that one.”

Oil & Water Co-Director Lauren Spellmen Smith  (second from Left) with with Joshua Borman, Micah McCarty, Randy Borman and Tom Waterer
Oil & Water Co-Director Lauren Spellmen Smith (second from Left) with with Joshua Borman, Micah McCarty, Randy Borman and Tom Waterer

Already shown on public television’s Global Voices channel on September 22, 2014, the film will broadcast in the Seattle-area in January 2015 on KCTS9. The Cofan Survival Fund Board has purchased the rights to screen the film and invites anyone interested in organizing a screening to the Cofan Survival Fund Board.

Stufflebeam "Tripper" Reunion Held

by Kathleen Rauch, Tripper '86 & '87

Other than Randy Borman, Doug Stufflebeam may be the one person most responsible for introducing hundreds of people to the Cofan Nation.

Doug Stufflebeam and Kathleen Rauch in Lago Agrio airport, circa 1986
Doug Stufflebeam and Kathleen Rauch in Lago Agrio airport, circa 1986

Stufflebeam dealt with life on his own terms and created his dream job as owner and sole guide for International Collegiate Expeditions (1978-2001); guiding hundreds of U.S. college students on adventure (or in his words “kick-ass”) trips to Tanzania, Kenya, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Egypt and Alaska. The Cofan villages in Dureno, Ecuador and Zabalo, Ecuador were primary destinations for the expeditions and over 23 years, hundreds of individuals made the journey.

He passed away in March 2012 at the age of 67, but the result of his work was evident during a reunion of “Trippers” held November 1, 2014 in Mercer Island, WA. The Stufflebeam Adventure Tripper Reunion with honored guest, Randy Borman brought together a diverse and multigenerational group of people who either traveled to Cofan territory with Stufflebeam or who had other connections with Stufflebeam, Randy Borman and the Cofan.

Randy Borman (second from left) with Rutger Stufflebeam, Ernst Stufflebeam and Wolfgang Stufflebeam (From left to right)
Randy Borman (second from left) with Rutger Stufflebeam, Ernst Stufflebeam and Wolfgang Stufflebeam (From left to right)

For me, as a former tripper (’86, ’87), I experienced the gathering as an early Thanksgiving. I delighted in the opportunity to connect with people, who across time and geography, have made a deep and lasting impression upon me. The connections with the Stufflebeam community and the Cofan tribe have informed the trajectory of my life and my passions.

Tom Waterer (foreground) and guests at the Tripper reunion enjoying great food and friends
Tom Waterer (foreground) and guests at the Tripper reunion enjoying great food and friends

I so appreciated the reconnection with Christine Kohnert, Doug’s wife, and their three sons, Wolfgang, Ruger and Ernst. Christine remains the fierce and lovely matriarch who included all of us Trippers in her extended family and has held each through the years. The “boys” that I remembered from my late teens and early twenties have become powerful young men, exuding both a sense of adventure and compassionate hearts

Host Kathleen Rauch '86 & '87 with Geof Corriveau '81 and Mary Corriveau
Host Kathleen Rauch '86 & '87 with Geof Corriveau '81 and Mary Corriveau

Although I had not seen Randy in 30 years, I immediately recognized the spark of vitality and the profound humanity that Randy embodies. Life in the Amazon has informed Randy in a deep and powerful way that comes through in subtle ways, even in a modern, Western setting. I reveled in meeting Randy’s youngest son, Joshua along with fellow Cofan tribal member, Hugo Lucitante, Hugo's lovely wife, Sadie and daughter, Asha. In 30 years, much has changed, although the essential remains the same. I felt a surge of gratitude to meet the future generations.

Attendees came from far and wide to celebrate the connection with this remote Amazonian tribe whose wisdom has touched the hearts and opened the eyes of those of us privileged enough to make a journey to this wild, invaluable Amazonian landscape.

50,000 Additional Acres to be Added to Cofan Conservation Efforts

Thanks to generous individual donors and support from the MacArthur Foundation, a project to create five new municipal ecological reserves in the Ecuadorian provinces of Carchi and Imbabura is underway. This will add over 50,000 acres of wild mountains, paramos, and cloud forests to the 1 million acres we currently conserve in northeastern Ecuador. The mountain tapir is one of the many animals that will benefit from the additional acreage of conserved lands.

In the process of protecting the vital headwaters of both the Aguarico River flowing toward the Amazon and the Mira River flowing toward the Pacific Ocean, we will also protect many endangered species such as the spectacled bear and mountain tapir. This project will be a big push for the Cofan this year and next. CSF Executive Director Randy Borman is confident that by the end of next year, these new reserves will be both legal and practical realities.

Friday Foto

Park guard station at Gueppi
Park guard station at Gueppi

Cofan rangers analyze a water sample at the Gueppi ranger station in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon. / Guardaparques cofanes analizan una muestra de agua en la estación Gueppi en la Reserva Cuyabeno.

Northeastern Ecuador’s forests have some of the world’s highest species counts for plants and animals, are at the heart of the tropical Andes “hotspot” zone and are instrumental in Ecuador’s status as a mega-diverse country. However, their conservation presents a major challenge. Mining, petroleum exploitation, lumber extraction, mega-infrastructure projects and colonization are major threats, and even within national parks, agricultural expansion continues with little control.

A notable exception is forest within Cofan ancestral territory (CAT). CAT covers about 430,000 hectares (1 million acres) of some of the richest, best-conserved forests in Ecuador ranging from Andean highlands to cloud forest to tropical rainforest.

As a first line of defense, FSC trained and fielded a professional, effective force of Cofan rangers in 2003. This group, 60 members at full capacity, carry out on-the-ground protection and management of Cofan lands to ensure territorial security and zero deforestation. The Cofan Ranger Program (CRP) has trained over 100 Cofan men and women in the protection and management of Cofan territories, as well as people from other indigenous and non-indigenous groups.


Los bosques del noreste del Ecuador tienen algunas de las cifras más altas del mundo de especies de plantas y animales, están en el corazón del "hotspot" andino tropical y son escenciales para la designación de "país mega-diverso" para Ecuador. Sin embargo, su conservación es un gran reto. La minería, explotación petrolera, extracción de madera, proyectos de mega-infraestructura y colonización son amenazas importantes, y incluso dentro de las reservas nacionales, la expansión agrícola sigue con poco control.

Una excepción importante es el bosque dentro del territorio ancestral cofán (TAC). TAC cubre alrededor de 430.000 hectáreas de bosques bien conservados y muy biodiversos en Ecuador, desde páramos andinos hasta bosque nublado y bosque tropical.

Como una defensa para este territorio, FSC entrenó y un grupo de guardaparques cofanes profesionales y eficaces en el 2003. Este grupo, 60 miembros en total, realizan la protección y manejo de tierras cofanes para asegurar seguridad territorial y cero deforestación. El Programa de Guardaparques Cofanes ha entrenado más de 100 hombres y mujeres cofanes en la protección y manejo de territorio cofán, además de personas de otras comunidades indígenas y no-indígenas.

We've been busy! Cofan ranger course, GIN conference keynote speech, turtle news and more!

The end of September/October has been a busy time for Cofan Survival Fund! Read on for a roundup of some of the projects we have been working on this year:


Cofan Ranger Program

Cofan rangers taking a refresher course in Quito

First up is the Cofan Ranger training course. In September Cofan Survival Fund carried out a 2-week Cofan ranger training course with support from the Institute for Conservation and Environmental Training (ICCA in Spanish). Ten experienced Cofan rangers, four women and six men who have been working as rangers for years, came to the FSC office in Quito.

Cofan rangers taking a refresher course in Quito

This course, funded by USAID, was a refresher for these experienced rangers, and topics covered GPS use, environmental law, professional ethics and first aid among others, and also focused on the implementation of a new control and monitoring tool from the Escuela Latinoamericana de Áreas Protegidas de Costa Rica (ELAP). This tool is a way for Cofan rangers to systematize, organize and generate products from activities that Cofan rangers, FSC and FEINCE carry out in protected areas. This tool will make it easier for Cofan rangers to manage and present the data they collect in the field and organize and report on their field activities. The rangers left Quito anxious to try out their new knowledge and ELAP tool in the field.

Randy at the Global Issues Network Conference

Randy was invited to participate in the Global Issues Network (GIN) 2013 Conference, which this year was held in Quito at the American School from October 18th to the 20th. GIN Conferences empower young people to develop sustainable solutions to address global problems and to implement their ideas with the support of the network. The key ideas are based on the book, High Noon- 20 Global Problems, 20 years to Solve Them by Jean Francois Rischard. Hundreds of high school students from around the world converged on Quito to attend the conference.

One theme students can choose to focus on is “Sharing our planet: Issues involving the global commons,” and centers on global warming, biodiversity and ecosystem losses, and deforestation, so Cofan Survival Fund fit right in! Randy was one of several keynote speakers, and also conducted a workshop entitled How to save the rainforest: An indigenous community’s struggle against destruction and the conservation model that emerged” about carbon footprints, how the Cofan rangers stop deforestation and help reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and how all of us can do our part to lower our own carbon footprints. Cofan Survival Fund also set up a table at the conference’s NGO fair. 

Socio Bosque (Forest Partner)

Zabalo territory

Another project we have been working hard on is applying for more Cofan territory to be included in the Socio Bosque Program. The Socio Bosque Program is a government initiative that pays landowners for maintaining their forest intact through 20-year contracts. Cofan Survival Fund has already successfully gotten three Cofan territories contracts in this initiative: Rio Cofanes Territory, Zábalo and Dureno. We have been working to include the Cofan Bermejo Reserve, the Cofan-managed zone of the Cayambe Coca Reserve, and the Sinangoe community.For the last two rounds in May and October of this year, for reasons outside our control (which were very frustrating) we were unable to include more Cofan territories in the initiative. This would have meant almost 150,000 hectares would have been earning funds for their environmental services, which would have gone to the Cofan for conservation and development projects.

We were pretty disappointed when we found out that our three applications couldn’t be approved…but, seemingly out of nowhere Socio Bosque officials contacted us to submit paperwork for an additional 40,000 hectares of the Zábalo territory to be included! This would raise Zábalo's annual budget to almost $120,000 total, a significant sum which would cover pretty much all of our control and vigilance activities in addition to providing administrative and community development funds for the community, essentially making Zábalo autonomous in protecting its territories. So, currently we're waiting to hear official word if our application was approved or rejected.

The Charapa Project

Baby Charapas, by Esteban Baus

In our last update about the Charapa Project we told you about the $20,000 grant we got from Petroamazonas to support the project and the business plan we turned in to the Ministry of Environment to be able to sell part of the Charapa harvest, funds which would finance the project.Well, we have gotten another, smaller grant from Petroamazonas that was given directly to the Zábalo community to finance the upcoming harvest, specifically the bonus that will be given to the families who will find and monitor the turtle nests. This will be enough for about 10,000 baby turtles.

We still don’t have the permit to be able to commercialize a part of the Charapa harvest, but it hasn’t been rejected yet, so that’s good news. Stay tuned for future updates!

How to make a Cofán backpack

Watch Carlos as he shows us how they use a leaf from a certain palm in Cofán territory in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon to make a comfortable (really, it is!) backpack. The Cofán use these packs when they need to carry heavier loads, and they can also be lined with bigger leaves on the inside so they are able to carry smaller things. The strap goes either across your forehead or your collarbone, and they last about a week. Talk about being green!

Here is the finished product: