Painting Life in the Rainforest With the Cofan

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Photo: Alex Goff

By Alex Goff, Field Coordinator When Emergildo Criollo leads a day of art with the Cofán children of Sinangue, it’s more than just a chance for the kids to have fun and paint. It’s also a chance for them to learn about Cofán life and culture in the rainforest from the time of their grandparents. Go to the ClearWater map and zoom in to see the Cofan community of Sinangue. With brushes in hand, and a large piece of white paper and paints spread out on the ground in front of them, the children listen as Emergildo describes how the Cofán villagers used to fish in the rivers— so clear you could see the stones at the bottom—prepare chicha over the fire, hunt wild animals, and build houses out of wood and palm deep in the forest. Emergildo explains how the women and men would dance during celebrations, how the women would sing. The children draw all of this excitedly. They include wild animals happily living side-by-side with the villagers: a romantic, but not-so-unrealistic view of the Cofán’s intimate connection to the rainforest.
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Photo: Alex Goff

But then, Emergildo describes the arrival of the oil company. The helicopters that descended from the sky, the soldiers, the chainsaws that cleared roads for the massive company trucks, the gas flaring towers that burn day and night.  Without Emergildo needing to say more, the children add the oil platforms. Black paint becomes crude oil floating down the clear blue river. The Cofán remain downstream, still fishing as the oil approaches.
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Photo: Mitch Anderson

Today there is an additional theme for the kids’ artwork. Emergildo asks them to depict the water project in their community. The children paint the rainwater systems that now stand alongside their homes, their mothers turning open the taps on the storage tanks to fill buckets with clean water, cooking over the fire. A Cofán man fishes in a clean river.
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Photo: Alex Goff

A group of children take a break from painting to run around and play in the grass field next to the school. They chase each other and fall down, laughing the whole time. Their lives will be very different from that of their grandparents. It is unlikely they will ever experience life in the forest the way that their ancestors did. But there is increasing hope they will experience and enjoy some of their people’s past in their own lives: a happy, healthy life in what remains of their beautiful forest homeland.
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Photo: Mitch Anderson

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