“This is what I have chosen, the best place in the forest, because there are different varieties of hunting game and fish, plants for medicine and crafts, because the soil is sandy and you can walk while avoiding pain on your feet. For this reason, we have to protect this place from colonizers, because one day, they will come and do damage to our lands” – Guillermo Quenamá, Revered Cofán shaman.”
Cofán Dureno – The shaman’s prophecy has come true; the community he founded more than 70 years ago is no longer the haven it formerly was. The legendary shaman and founder of Dureno has since passed, but his message is still clear among the Cofán – they must protect Dureno.
This territory of 9,469 hectares located east of the oil town of lago Agrio is one of the last remnants of lowland rainforest in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon. Satellite imagery reveals the precarious situation in the Cofán Dureno territory: Dureno stands out as a diamond shaped reserve surrounded by a scared Jungle, full of roads, cash crops and extensive pastures for cattle. Worst of all, Dureno finds itself surrounded by oil fields, pipelines and pools of oil waste that have poisoned people in every single way possible. Making matters worse, much of this toxic waste is located in community itself, in rivers, streams, soils, and in the animals they eat – The consequence? Dureno is still one of the communities hardest hit by the reckless operations of the oil industry and colonist expansion.
Despite the tremendous challenges endured by the Cofán of Dureno, this group of 60-70 families has managed to survive against all threats that come their way. They have learned to negotiate between the Cofán and outside world, keeping the Cofán culture alive while adopting new elements of the outside world. Doing so, they are choosing the way they want to live – they are exerting their self-determination.
Any visitor would be amazed to learn that all Cofán of Dureno still speak A’ingae (Cofán tongue), and that Cofán women and school children still wear their traditional costumes on a regular basis, or that the majority of Cofán still sustainably subsist on the crops they produce. These are some of the age old traditions the Cofán have kept.
Oddly enough, the younger generations can be much like you and I. They watch the same TV shows and listen to the same music you and I listen to. The teenagers wear the latest trends and hairstyles they see on TV. For that matter, most houses in Dureno have televisions. This community with no roads even owns one motorized vehicle to transport people from one end to the other.
The Cofán navigate between tradition and modernity; a skill possessed by every generation. The photo to the right is a portrait of Florinda Vargas (far back) and her family. These families have extremely closed bonds, and are going very far to maintain their traditions. In Dureno for example, marriage with non Cofán is increasingly forbidden. According to community members, previous cases of marriages outside of the community have brought problems.
The rapid cultural changes experienced by the Cofán may be worrying to the outsider, but we need not worry, nor do we need to try to protect the Cofán from change. Why would we? This is something they have managed on their own for a long time now. If I have learned anything from living and working with the Cofán, it is that the Cofán of Dureno are in charge of their destiny and perhaps more than ever. They are organized and creating their own life plans and forms of development. With the best interest of the community in mind, the Cofán partner with and negotiate with local governments, NGOs and development agencies to make projects like “ClearWater” possible.Today, almost all families in Dureno have their own rainwater catchment units to drink healthy water. As you can see, the Cofán are everything but helpless victims. On the contrary, they are constantly and proactively seeking ways to improve their circumstances, always making decisions that ensure their future as a distinct indigenous nationality of Ecuador.
*This short blog stems from my weeklong research and work around the ClearWater pilot project in the Cofán community of Dureno. Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of entering the world of the Cofán. This blog is just a snippet on the life and story of Dureno and its people. “The best place in the jungle” (Guillermo referring to Dureno) has much to offer, and its people are determined to protect it. The ClearWater project is part of that effort, an effort to better health conditions through water projects like these. Saving an Angel, Groundwork Opportunities, Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Watch and the Amazon Defense Coalition are working with the Cofán and many more indigenous groups determined to improve their circumstances – This is an effort I am truly proud to be a part of.