Randy Borman was born in a Cofán village and grew up hunting, fishing, and speaking Cofán, the language of an indigenous people from Ecuador of the same name. Borman says he also learned the English language and “western” values from his American missionary parents.
Today, Borman is considered one of the Cofán Nation’s most important and respected leaders. He is also a recognized leader of Ecuadorian environmental and conservation related issues, which he supports through his Cofán Survival Fund. Borman joined Worldview host Jerome McDonnell to discuss his life and work.
Jerome McDonnell: What is the history of the Cofán people?
Randy Borman: They’ve been in what is now Ecuador for over a thousand years. We really don’t know when they got there, though. It’s one of the groups that was definitely politically important when the Incas invaded the area that’s now Ecuador. We know enough from what the Catholic priests wrote that the language has pretty much remained the same, and they continue to live in the same place.
McDonnell: Explain your personal history.
Borman: I was born there. I was the oddball white kid among a bunch of brown kids that were growing up there, but nobody paid much attention to it. I was just another kid on the block, as it were. I spoke English at home, and Cofán in the community.
Looking back, one of the things that impresses me the most was that we had unlimited resource. It’s something the world doesn’t understand anymore. We had just the huge vastness of Amazonia around us and really nobody there. Our village was about 120 people. In an urban setting, you get very, very used to everything being built for humans and even the wildlife is saved for humans. But here, we’re just a chip in the middle of nature.
It all changed in the 1960s, when oil companies found substantial amounts of oil right under our territories. As road systems came in to access the oil fields, colonization from other parts of the country came in. We went from being a few hundred people in a huge open space with unlimited resources to basically having no rights, no land, no nothing. So my fight there in the 1970s and 1980s was to just survive.
McDonnell: You’re working on a new law that would protect almost half of Ecuador environmentally. Explain what you’ve been doing.
Borman: We’ve been working towards a recognition at the national level, but also on an international level, of the tremendous importance of these forests. It’s not just for the Cofáns. It’s not just about a little group of indigenous people that are living out there. It’s not just about Ecuador.
It’s about the global situation. As we face climate change, this is one of our last dikes holding back to sea. I always think a little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Well, you know, that’s kind of what we feel like sometimes. The reason why climate change isn’t worse is because we still have rainforests, we still have natural areas, and trying to keep those natural areas is so important.
McDonnell: Making a law, not just for one country, but for the world is a huge step.
Borman: You know, the law isn’t going as I’d always like. Some people like to water things down. But just the idea that a country decides to set aside almost half of its territory in recognition of something that’s important for the globe is tremendously exciting. It’s just awesome. As a species, if we’re going to survive, we’ve got to take care of what we’ve got a place value on it.
McDonnell: How has being a Cofán shaped the way you feel about this?
Borman: I was sitting around with a bunch of Cofán leaders with some bowls of yuca beer. Sort of like how you’d chat over a Budweiser. We were talking about what makes a Cofán a Cofán, and it’s the relation with the forest. Half of our language is dedicated to the physical environment around us.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity by ‘Worldview’ producer Julian Hayda. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.