The city of Lago Agrio, Ecuador sprung up overnight. With the discovery of oil in the region by the Texaco-Gulf consortium in 1964, the company’s outpost— named after its hometown of Sour Lake, Texas— quickly attracted settlers: landless peasants, military personnel, oil workers, prostitutes, businesses, and any one else looking to cash in on the growing oil economy.
Lago Agrio is located in the ancestral homeland of the Cofán indigenous nationality. The Cofán moved down from the Andes foothills into this area over the course of several hundred years. Spanish conquest, missionary activity, and the horrific abuses of the rubber boom of the 19th Century devastated the Cofán people physically, through disease and violence, and culturally. It is estimated that prior to the rubber boom the Cofán numbered between 15,000-20,000 people, and that their numbers dropped down to as few as 350 people. Despite this tragic history of violence, cultural loss, and forced religious conversion, the Cofán survived. Their population began to grow once again, although it has never come close to what it once was.
The arrival of Texaco in the 1960’s signaled the start of another intense period in Cofán history, one in which they still find themselves today. The oil boom resulted in the massive deforestation of the Cofán’s rainforest territory, contamination of the rivers, streams, and soil, further penetration by Christian missionaries, the construction of an ever-expanding network of roads, and large-scale settlement by outsiders.
The Cofán now reside in several communities along the Aguarico River. Some communities, including Dureno, Bavoroe, and Pissurie Canqui, are located in close proximity to the modern day city of Lago Agrio. Despite the intense industrial pressures on the Cofán’s territory, these communities still maintain areas of intact primary forest, a far cry from the neighboring city: a dreary landscape of concrete, cars, and crowds.
Lago Agrio is now a city of around 90,000 people, and it continues to grow. The hot, humid climate is at times the only reminder that this urban sprawl is located within the Amazon Basin, the largest rainforest in the world. Other than the Cofán who travel into Lago Agrio to buy or sell commodities, the occasional mural— like the one pictured above— or the dubiously named “Hotel Cofán”, there is very little acknowledgment of the original inhabitants of this region, or to the bleak history of violent displacement embodied by this city.
And yet, the Cofán are still here. They maintain their language, A’ingae, their traditions, and their dignity. Life is changing, but the Cofán have a strong sense of place, and with it, hopes, aspirations, and dreams for the future.