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So, Now to the Adventure….

Day 1:

Today is Wednesday, Amelia and I wake up early and rouse Geof and Sue and we all pile into the pick up. The day isn’t all that good, but we do see the glaciers on Antisana, and the Coca Falls are running full in spite of the new hydroelectric plants that is drawing off much of its water. We meet up with my oldest son, Felipe, president of the Cuyabeno township, when we get to Lago Agrio. He sends us on ahead to Nuevo Union and works at finishing his business in Lago. We go to the river and pack the boat- we are taking advantage of the township boat for transportation- and are waiting when Felipe arrives around 4:30pm. The boat trip with a 60 hp engine takes about three hours, so it is after dark when we finally get to Zabalo. But Amelia’s brother Alfonso and his assistant Angel have everything under control, and Geof and Sue get a good supper and beds in our facilities.

Day 2:

Today is Organization Day. We gather our Cofan group and assign duties to the various people. Meanwhile, Geof and Sue get at least a brief chance to see the village.

Day 3:

Backpacks are ready, machetes are sharpened, the chainsaw is unlimbered, and we are ready to go. Felipe drops the trail group- now nine strong plus Geof and Sue, for a total of eleven. Then Felipe continues up the river to deliver Andres and Oswaldo, who will travel with Roberto Aguinda, founding board member of FSC and long term Cofan leader who is presently the president of the Cofan Federation, to Puerto Carmen on the Putumayo River. We still have a canoe and motor there, so they plan to circle around via the Putumayo and come up the Gueppi with the canoe.
Meanwhile, our trail making group is pushing hard. I am at the end of the line, with the chainsaw, cutting away logs and tree falls. Rainel and Geof stay with me to help carry gas, oil, and roll cut logs out of the way. Meanwhile, Amelia and the rest of the group clear the trail with machetes, hacking through regrowing brush and masses of vines. By the time I get there, the theory at least is that most of the garbage has been cleared away from the logs, and we just need to cut- not necessarily the easiest! Lots of problems… first, the logs are usually spring-loaded- tensions going all different ways and multiple traps awaiting the unwary chainsaw person. The worst case scenario is a quick kick-back with a big branch smashing sidewise into one of us workers. Far more often, things just get pinched- chains getting stuck, bar getting twisted. But these are just part of the problems. The third log on the trail turns out to be a big “mascaray”- excellent wood, often used for parquet because of its resistance to abrasion, etc. But the flip side is that it is full of silica, surpassed only by another marvelous wood called “moral”. At least with mascaray, it takes fifteen or twenty minutes of work before the chain is too dull to cut. So we settle in and cut the log and roll the section out of the trail… we go on for another hundred meters, and find another log fallen down. Guess what. Moral. Four logs into the trail and our chain is already toast.
And so the day goes. I continue to cut, Rainel and Geof roll the logs out of the way, and we advance slowly. Multiple sharpenings, lots of sweat, and finally, around 4:30 pm, the “Big Stream”, where we will camp…. The camp goes up in moments. Romel has been carrying plastic sheeting, and the machetes fly as we clear our camp site, put up poles, pull tarps across, light fires, set up mosquito nets and tents, and start in on baths and clothes washing. There was no chance to pick up any meat on the trip, so supper is rice, potatoes and a bit of tuna. But just as we get ready to relax, a huge storm moves in. Wind roars, and trees bend dangerously over the camp. Rain pours down, and all of us are out digging ditches for run-off to keep the water from making pools under the tarps. Fortunately, none of the trees take it upon themselves to squash us, but the rain dampens spirits as well as bedding, and the camp goes to sleep early.

Day 4:

In the trip, dawns gray and threatening rain. We break camp and return to work. It is a long day, even though the sun comes out and the heat becomes almost as bad as rain would have been. And we are now realizing that the trail is in verified Bad Condition, and that our original projection of a two day trail making trip is not even close to reality. We camp at a pleasant rocky stream which marks more or less the half way point in terms of distance, and once again content ourselves with rice and pasta for supper- our noise level is keeping any possible game dinners away.

Day 5:

We determine to go as far as possible. But I run into a snag fairly early. We are almost out of gasoline for the chainsaw. To make matters worse, my chain snaps, and my replacement chain quickly loses its edge as we cut through silica rich logs and hardwoods which have been down for decades. By noon, chainsawing is over with, and all of us are working with machetes. Geof switches from rolling logs to carrying back packs- a wonderful asset, as one of the biggest difficulties of trail making is constantly taking off and putting on your pack. Finally, at around 4:30 pm, we realize we are still a long way from the nearest good camp site, and we drop our work and begin to run along what remains of the trail to make it to the Uttetsu Nai’qui (stream of the currasow) with time enough to make camp. On the way, speaking of currasows, a couple of the large turkey like birds fly up, our hunters do their thing, and now we have supper. The camp goes up in haste as daylight wanes, but by 7:30, turkey stew is bubbling, the tents and mosquito nets are up, and everyone is washing the last vestiges of sweat off their bodies in the stream.

Day 6:

We split into two groups- the younger, more energetic bunch heading back to where we had stopped actually clearing the day before, and the rest of us continuing toward the Gueppi. By this time, I suspect that Geof and Sue were beginning to wonder whether the Gueppi was just a myth- day after day of trail making, tarp camps, the after-dark quick baths in small streams, the constant sweat bees and horse flies, and the green canopy always overhead, with no breaks except for the occasional fallen tree making a mess of the trail. But, as they say, “all things come to an end”, and around noon, we are finally descending to the Consie, the Gueppi tributary where we will finally be able to stop walking and begin boating! Oswaldo and Andres, the two who went across earlier to bring the motor boat down the Putumayo, are waiting for us with the motor canoe, and have the paddle boat down in the water and cleaned up as well. Amelia, Rainel, Iseria, and one other guy decide to fish their way down the stream in the paddle canoe, while the rest of us pile into the motor canoe to go down and begin work on maintenance at the station.
The drive down the Gueppi is always amazing. This large stream is one of the longest in the region, rising in the hilly forests up above the Cuyabeno Lake region near the Andes, and coming down through pretty much continuous rain forest and swamp lands until it eventually reaches the Putumayo River at the border between Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. Known for its rich game and fish resources, it has been a destination for countless waves of exploiters through the ages. During the rubber boom, not only the game but the people living on the Gueppi at that time were decimated. More recent effects can be seen where the Colombian lumbermen cut many of the large hardwoods, especially the rare and valuable “Spanish Cedar” trees. But in spite of these historical ravages, as we drive down the stream, the sensation of timelessness is strong… monkeys crash heavily through the trees along the edges, countless birds fly up as we cruise down.
We arrive at the station, and are surprised and gratified to find it in very good condition. The locks are all broken, and someone has chipped away at a couple of the cement posts- curiousity? Vandalism? We don’t know. The back of the kitchen area is missing half a wall- some lazy group of “visitors” evidently didn’t want to be bothered looking for firewood. But otherwise, except for leaks in the thatched roof and a lot of dust and cobwebs, the place is in good shape. Likewise, the clearing around the station has gone to grass and low shrubs, so our initial fears of having to hack through a forest of second growth trees is unfounded. We spend the rest of the afternoon clearing brush, sweeping up, and making the station comfortable again. About five, I drive up to meet the fishing boat. They have caught over a dozen of the big silver “zabalos”, (Brycon sp.) a three to five pound game fish which gives you a fight you will remember! They are also delicious eating, and soon we have the fire going and roast fish sizzling on the grill (using real firewood, not our walls!).

Day 7:

Part of the group is ready to return home. We drive up in the early morning to the trail head to drop off four of our people. They will hike back across the now-cleared trail, now a matter of hours rather than days. Meanwhile, I grab the chance to do some fishing myself, along with a couple of others, and Geof and Sue are able to relax in the boat and enjoy the stream. The rest of the team, back at the station, are also taking it easy. We catch a good mess of fish, and once again, it’s a “as much as you can eat” buffet of smoked, fried, or steamed fish for supper.

Day  8:

Well, we were supposed to pull out on Wednesday, but we still have quite a bit of maintenance to do on the leaky roof, so we make the decision to stay an extra day to finish off the work. So Wednesday is spent weaving leaves for the roof patches, smoking the fish catch to preserve it, cleaning out gutters and finishing the yard work, and the rest of the multitude of housekeeping chores of getting the station back in shape. By afternoon, most of the work is done, and we take Geof and Sue fishing on the Tupayacu, a tributary of the Gueppi which forms quite a bit of the border of our Cofan territory. The fishing is of course only part of the trip, as we also want to see what sort of activities are going on there. We are pleasantly surprised to find no recent cut marks or clearing of the stream, meaning no recent incursions on this stream at least.

Day 9:

Thursday we have to go. We are already over our originally planned trip time by two full days, and in spite of there still being lots of work we could do here, time has run out. Our group will split at this point, with Amelia, Geof, Sue, and the motorboat drivers returning down the Gueppi and back up the Putumayo to the town of Puerto Carmen, and with Alfonso, Angel, Romel and me returning overland to Zabalo. Andres drives us up to the Consie, towing the paddle canoe behind us. The Gueppi has been dropping in water levels steadily since we arrived, and we find the Consie almost impassible. We get in the paddle canoe, bid good by to the motorboat drivers, and start the job of pulling over logs, cutting through logs, and ducking under logs as we go up the rapidly drying Consie. It takes a good hour of work to do what we had done a couple days ago in less than twenty minutes, but by ten in the morning, we have arrived at the trail head. We pull the canoe up on land and turn it over to keep the water out, and then head out on the newly cleared trail.
Now it is just hiking. We swing into a smooth rhythm and the four of us half walk, half run as we move along the trail. We pass our last camp site only forty five minutes from the river. It had taken us four hours of hard cutting to do the same section on Monday… Now, we run into wildlife frequently- Spix’s Guans fly up off the trail, wooly monkeys stare down at us, a Grey Brocket (small deer) stops to look us over before bounding into the brush, and a small herd of Collared Peccaries runs parallel to the trail for awhile before sounding the alarm and running off. But we don’t spend much time observing. The trail is long, the sun is hot, and we know we will be arriving late. A short stop at a stream around one to mix up some kool-aid and eat a handful of peanuts apiece, and we are on our way again. I begin to slow up around three- after all, it just happens to be my sixty first birthday today! The rest of the group continues on at normal pace. I finally arrive at the river at five- the others are already waiting, they’ve been there for half an hour already- youngsters! We push off for the 45 minute float back to the village.

Day 10:

Friday is wrap-up day. We settle accounts with the different folks who have been involved, then head up the river, back to Nuevo Union, to see how the others did. When we call in from Cuyabeno, we find that Amelia and her group arrived at about seven in the evening at Puerto Carmen and are now catching a taxi to Tarapoa, where they will hook up with us. We arrive at Tarapoa about noon, and have no sooner gone into the local restaurant to catch a bite to eat when Amelia’s group gets in. Then it is a matter of transferring stuff to different cars, and soon, Geof, Sue, Amelia, and me are on our way to Quito… back to where we started from, ten days later.

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.