Cofan Survival Fund
Cofan Survival Fund (CSF) was founded in 1999 as a vehicle to reclaim and protect Cofan territory, primarily driven by the need to respond to oil exploitation in the region and the colonists who followed in the oil companies’ wake. Born from this very concrete “fight for our rights or disappear” mindset, CSF focuses on finding practical, on-the-ground solutions that contribute to the survival of the Cofan Nation and our ancestral territory, and managing its natural resources in northeastern Ecuador for the long term.
We are committed to biodiversity conservation and research, protecting our ancestral territory and its natural resources, developing ecological income alternatives, and educating our youngest generation.Our strategy combines government alliances, extensive fieldwork, on-the ground management, and community-based conservation projects to mobilize resources and expertise in support of Cofan territorial management and alternative income-generating activities. Over the years we have developed innovative solutions to the threats to our communities, including oil exploitation, mining, new road construction and the advancing agricultural frontier.
Cofan Ranger Program
The Cofan Ancestral Territories cover approximately one million acres of the most biodiverse region on Earth. A strong partnership of The Field Museum, the Cofan Survival Fund, and the Cofan Nation of Ecuador resulted in the Cofan gaining legal recognition of these lands. The collaborations also led to the Cofan developing a system of protection and management that has been extraordinarily successful in the face of relentless and mounting pressures from oil exploitation, gold mining, bush-meat markets, and illegal logging.
The Cofan Ranger Program achieved the enviable record of zero deforestation in Cofan lands from 2003 through 2011. The program started as an offshoot of a Field Museum/Cofan collaboration focused on training Cofan biological monitors to develop ecological databases to evaluate forest health. The effort grew into a powerful protection and management system for the Cofan territories, marking the first time in Ecuador that indigenous peoples were officially pronounced custodians of federally protected lands.
More than 60 trained Cofan rangers—rotating in five-person patrol teams on 30-day shifts—carried out the protection and management work on the ground to ensure the territorial security and forest health that lead to quality of life and deep vitality of Cofan culture.The training developed for Cofan rangers became a standard for other indigenous groups. CSF established a dedicated training center in Quito to facilitate this outreach and to continue to upgrade Cofan ranger skills.
Turn of Events
In the past year, however, a number of conditions conspired to threaten Cofan protection efforts, including increasingly strict and confusing labor laws, internal and external political pressures, and lack of funding from traditional sources. Simultaneously, everyday dangers in conservation activities were escalating, with armed illegal miners and colonists, many with links to organized criminal elements in neighboring Colombia, continuously attempting to invade Cofan lands.
The worsening conditions culminated in the kidnapping of CSF’s director of the Cofan Ranger Program, Felipe Borman, on July 23 of this year. Felipe successfully escaped and evaded search parties after a 40-day ordeal, but in the wake of this harrowing event the Cofan Ranger Program is at an all-time low, with only two staff members and six rangers on active duty.
In light of these threats, The Field Museum, CSF’s board, and CSF staff engaged in a series of planning activities for the Cofan Ranger Program. Our goal is to develop measures that allow rangers to confront the threats safely by increasing their protection and control activities.
Moving forward: Cofan Rangers 2.0
Field Museum and the Cofan identify two essential needs: (1) to protect the richly diverse lands that are of tremendous importance to the Cofan and the world and (2) to provide secure working conditions for the Cofan rangers.
Four Field Museum Rapid Inventories have documented the staggering biological, environmental, and social richness of this region, and the Cofan Ranger Program’s record of zero deforestation is hard to beat. However, the pressure to respond to immediate dangers and develop new sources of funding and stability reveal the need for new strategies. Much of the context that was in place when the Cofan Ranger Program began in 2003 has changed. This is the moment to launch version 2.0 of the Cofan Ranger Program, which will be applicable to other indigenous nations and their territories as well.
Continuous funding is crucial. The larger grants from two or three major foundations, always a risky strategy, have now dried up as traditional funders have shifted their priorities. The much-touted emergence of formal payments for environmental services (carbon credits, watershed protection, biodiversity) is still too uncertain and a dream of the future. To address the need CSF has started to develop a “virtual community” of small-to-medium donors tied directly to the Cofan ancestral lands. The idea of the Campaign for 5000 is a network of 5,000 people, all contributing small amounts of money ($10 - $100) monthly. For this group of 5,000 the global becomes personal: they directly ensure that the Cofan work flourishes and continues to add importantly to the health of our atmosphere and our planet.
As the Campaign for 5000 grows, CSF and The Field Museum are rethinking the Cofan ranger operations, with an increased focus on security measures. Lago Agrio, strategically located at the edge of the Amazon, was the site of the Cofan ranger field offices and facilities. Because Lago Agrio has become a hub of crime for Colombian renegades, the central activities for the program will be moved to Quito. Only a low-profile, quick-response team of four individuals will remain in Lago Agrio. This team will be able to handle emergencies and most of the routine work involved in running the program. The team will draw from the group of Cofan educated over the past 15 years in CSF’s Education Program, which so far has graduated seven students from good-quality high schools in Quito. Three of these students have pursued university training; these young men and women have a solid cadre of skills. Meanwhile, the main program activities, including relations with the Ministry of Environment, central coordination, training, and all administrative activities will operate from Quito. The ease of communications between Quito and Lago Agrio will guarantee a seamless and efficient program.
Leadership—including the high-profile CSF president, Randall Borman, and Ranger Program Director, Felipe Borman—will move quickly and quietly between Quito and secure locations in Cofan villages, rather than be exposed in Lago Agrio. Likewise, monthly meetings of incoming and outgoing Cofan rangers will be held in different Cofan communities rather than in Lago Agrio.
The ranger corps will go through a thorough new training, rather than receive the usual refresher course for veterans. Ranger training and activities will change to incorporate new security measures, including how to handle armed groups, how to facilitate communications with government forces, and how to deal more effectively with conflict. The new hiring process will reflect present labor laws and funding realities. The new Cofan Ranger Program will aim to have elite monthly groups of 15 rangers to be drawn from nearby community. These groups will address the specific issues in each region.
This upgraded program, which will build on the overwhelming success of the Cofan Ranger Program, will be safer and more focused on specific regional concerns, while at the same time maintaining the spirit and effectiveness of the original program. As the Cofan methods evolve to handle a shifting panorama of threats, the Program will continue to develop appropriate strategies to ensure zero deforestation in the Cofan Ancestral Territories.
To launch this upgraded version of the Cofan Ranger Program, we are requesting specific support for the first two years, which we plan for January of 2013. We already are searching for the funds to continue the program, month by month, until it becomes sustainable through the Campaign for 5000 and other funding mechanisms.
Funds for immediate start-up of the program are critical, as CFS builds the Campaign for 5000. A budget of $400,000 is for the first two years of the program for park rangers to launch the new program immediately, secure protection before deforestation and degradation invade Cofan lands, and motivate new donors for the Campaign for 5000. The Cofan currently have funding for the new training course. Community funds will cover some field equipment costs, Campaign for 5000 funds will cover some administrative costs and a funding request has been made to a small foundation to cover the first month’s ranger food, medicine and supplies and living allowances.
Preparing for Long-term Success
With Kaye funds allowing us to “kick off” the program immediately, the opportunity to regain a zero-deforestation record remains viable. These expenses will be covered in future months from the funds that come in from the Campaign for 5000. Adjustments will be made in number of personnel in the field based on funds available. It is vital that a full complement of rangers be fielded the first month to re-establish and re-emphasize Cofan control of the territories.
After almost 10 years of successful territorial and environmental resource management, the Cofan Ranger Program is at a stage where we can make significant improvements based on lessons learned. We were fortunate to have enough funding to grow the program from only a handful of Cofans to a force of over 60 men and women and over 100 people trained, includingrepresentatives from other indigenous and non-indigenous groups. Without Cofan rangers patrolling Cofan ancestral territory, miners, famers and other invaders will eventually move in and destroy the conservation results we have worked so long and hard to achieve.