Update: 10-10-16 What’s New in Zábalo

After returning from another “small” adventure, CFO Randy Borman recorded these updates to share with our supporters…

Some Background Info:

The community of Zabalo is one of the more recent Cofán settlements. I “founded” it in the time between 1979 (when I first camped on the beach in front of what is now the town) and 1984 (when the first “permanent” fields and houses were established). We quickly spread out, creating trail systems, opening local rivers, and making the area into our home during the next few years. It was not until 1992 that we were able to legalize our lands, as what is now the Ministry of Environment extended the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve to include that region. Our management strategies quickly converted our area into the best conserved region of the entire reserve. However, it soon became obvious that our borders to the south and especially to the north represented very real risks for us. We realized that our “back yard” to the north had a major river (the Gueppi) running through its midst, and that in spite of paper status as an “area of maximum protection” and “nucleus of the reserve” the reality was that the Ministry of Environment had no funding, political will, or real interest in trying to provide real protection. Using the Gueppi as their access route, Colombian lumbermen, Ecuadorian commercial hunters, Peruvian fishermen, and military personnel from all three countries were exploiting the region’s resources unmercifully, while campesino and indigenous groups from the Napo and other regions of the country were looking at acquiring lands under Ecuador’s lenient colonization laws. (The extension of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve to include us in 1991 was because of major losses of supposedly protected lands in the western half of the reserve. Rather than fight difficult legal battles to expropriate informal farms, the Ministry ceded the lands to the colonists and extended the reserve to the less populated east).  The time bomb of this constant entry and its potential effects on our activities led us to begin an active campaign to protect the region, even without legally recognized rights. We fought hunters, lumbermen, and colonizers to a standstill during the middle 90s. Finally, in 1999, the government recognized our work, ceding us an additional 50,000 hectares (125,000 acres) and recognizing the area as part of our ancestral territories. With this authorization, we were able to establish a solid system of trails and eventually build an imposing “station” to house a permanent staff of Cofan park guards to provide constant vigilance over the area.
With Cofan ranger staff on guard, the area quieted down. Lumbermen and commercial fishermen and hunters no longer bothered the region. The militaries became allies rather than enemies in the fight to keep the area intact and conserved. Eventually the Gueppi went from being one of our most tense assignments to a sort of cake walk/milk run- a month at a time of loafing, fishing, and doing minor wildlife observation. But all that changed as funding for the Cofan Ranger program became increasingly scarce by 2013. We concentrated on areas of greater risk, and the Gueppi lost much of its importance.
By 2016, however, river people all along the Putumayo were increasingly aware that the Cofans were no longer on guard 24/7. Sneak hunting and fishing trips became more frequent. Our station was vandalized repeatedly, with attempts to cut the cement posts and break-ins that cleaned out most of our moveable equipment- including pots and pans, axes, hammers, and desks and file cabinets. Meanwhile, access from the community by trail became more and more difficult as the 25 kilometer long trail got hit by windstorms, tree falls, and the normal resurgence of rain forest vegetation.
Both at the community level and at FSC, we discussed the need for reopening the trail, repairing our canoes, doing basic maintenance on the station, and reestablishing a presence on the Gueppi.

It was into this situation that one of our longest term supporters and friends, Geof Corriveau, now stepped. Geof first arrived in Cofan-land 35 years ago, as part of the program created by Doug Stuffebeam. Doug was an ex- Navy medic, Peace Corps volunteer, fishing boat captain, and a bunch of other things. His passion in life was introducing young American students to the reality of the world outside of their convenient world in the US. Each year, he would bring groups of up to 35 students down to South America, staying with the Cofans for about ten days as part of a program that also included similar times in the mountains and the coast. Geof was part of one of the fairly early trips, and it changed his life totally. Part of his commitment to a very different world view and life style included staying in contact with me and through me, the Cofan community during the coming years. When we started FSC in 1998, he became one of our first supporters, and through the years has consistently “bought in” to our concept of an extended and international Cofan family dedicated to taking care of our forests- not just for local Cofans, but for all of us, everywhere across the globe.
For years, I had been trying to get Geof to come visit. Finally, things began to work out, and Geof and his wife, Sue, made plans to come visit in September. But especially with someone who has put so much in to being part of our Cofan environmental work, I didn’t want him to come and just do a simple “tour”. I wanted to let him and his wife get a deeper feel and be directly involved in what we are doing. So instead of outlining a “tour package”, I challenged him. Can you help out with about half of what we need to reopen the Gueppi trail system and fix up the station? He said yes. We were on our way.
So, with FSC putting up half, Geof helping out with the other half of the financial stuff, and the community putting up the work force, we got together the expedition

Trip Summary:

So here’s the bare bones of the trip. We achieved our objective; re-opening the trail from Zabalo to the Gueppi and doing necessary maintenance on the station. In the process, we indicated to potential interlopers that we are still there, still in charge, still managing this area. Outsiders will see that the station is cleared and has been occupied recently, that the streams and the river itself has been patrolled, and that the Cofáns are still actively in charge. However, the huge question continues to be what our level of activity for this region will be in to the future. To maintain a permanent presence at Gueppi means at least $1,500 per month, between food, transportation, and living allowance for community rangers. That’s $15,000 per year, and more than we have available within our present village budget. An alternative would be to have a one month on- one month off schedule, reducing costs to half of this amount, but this is still a stretch for the community to meet. So the challenge remains for FSC, and for all of us, to figure out how to stretch limited dollars to make sure this incredible area remains intact into the future.

As a community, we have proposed the creation of what we have called in the past, a “strategic village”, made up of a small group of people who are willing to actually build a home site in a critical area. Our first “strategic village” was a settlement named Guanta at Dureno, when Texaco tried to force a road into the Cofán territory there. A couple of families volunteered to move to the spot and live there permanently to provide a Cofan presence to discourage outsiders. The “village” worked, and Guanta has grown into a community in its own right through the years. Other strategic villages eventually took over the guardianship of much of the Cofán Bermejo Ecological Reserve, and most recently the Rio Cofánes Territory at Chispa.

So the idea is not new, but the Ministry of Environment, in spite of their lack of interest in actively helping us patrol and maintain the area, is fiercely insistent that this “area of maximum protection” not be compromised by human habitation. Even if we were to go ahead and push both our constitutional and international treaty level indigenous rights to develop a village, however, how to establish an economic base for the community is a second difficulty. The area’s economic attraction through the years has been its fish and game resources and its lumber potential; both possibilities we certainly want to discourage rather than use as a base for a community!

The bottom line is that not only as a local indigenous community, but as a world wide community we need to come to grips with the costs of conservation. Zábalo is willing to put time, effort, and some of its precious village funds into keeping this area pristine. But Zábalo can’t, and shouldn’t, bear the burden of keeping this intact environment safe by itself. The Gueppi is an integral part of cleaning the world’s air, sequestering the world’s carbon, processing the world’s water, keeping the world’s biological and environmental systems alive. An intact Gueppi slows climate change, and helps maintain the age-old balances which have allowed us humans to survive.

We have two other stations in Cofán lands that need the same round of maintenance right now, and lots of other projects that need some help!

Contact Randall Borman if you are interested in helping out.

You can find Randy’s day-by-day account of the trip here.

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