RAIN FOREST MAN : Randy Borman, Chief of the Cofan Indians, Rejected the Modern World for the Jungle and the Hope of Saving His People.

Jack Epstein, a free-lance writer based in Rio de Janeiro, is a contributor to the Pacific News Service and the San Francisco Chronicle.

TWO DOZEN OIL PROSPECTORS WERE HACKING a trail through the deep Ecuadorean jungle just off the shores of the Aguarico River when they found themselves surrounded by a group of Cofan Indians. Gripping their machetes, the Ecuadoreans prepared for the worst. During the previous five years, various tribes of Amazon Indians had beaten or killed several prospectors trespassing on their land, and these oilmen had not bothered to get permission from the Cofans to carry out seismic studies.

But the Indians, dark and sturdy in their T-shirts and shorts, merely stood quietly until a blond, blue-eyed man emerged from their ranks and addressed the intruders in flawless Spanish. “We have nothing against you personally,” he said, “but you can’t stay here.” The white man then ordered his followers to detain the oilmen and bring them by canoe to Zabalo, their village. The oilmen, outnumbered and relieved that they were not going to be beaten, went quietly.

Once in Zabalo, the white man gave them a long lecture on how oil drilling has harmed the ecology of the rain forest and spelled out the Cofans’ tribal rights, which include the right to see environmental impact studies before any seismic studies are conducted. He then radioed the prospectors’ employer, Petroecuador, Ecuador’s national oil company, and said: “I have your men here. Tell them to leave.” The next day, the prospectors left for the capital city of Quito, 300 miles away.

As the oilmen were to find out, the husky white stranger is Randy Borman, founder of Zabalo and chief of a tribe of 100 Cofan. The son of American missionaries, Borman rejected the modern world, choosing to remain in the rain forest and fight to protect his people, the smallest and least-known tribe in the Amazon.

Before the Spanish conquest, the Cofan numbered nearly 20,000, Borman says. But smallpox, whooping cough and measles eventually cut the population to less than 1,000, spread between Ecuador and Colombia. And now these few survivors stand nearly helpless against oil companies determined to advance into their traditional land.


Borman, born and raised with the Cofan, is a tricultural hybrid. He speaks English, Spanish and Cofan and holds American and Ecuadorean passports. In a fundamentally racist society that still considers tribal peoples inferior, his white skin opens doors that have been routinely shut to indigenous leaders demanding their land rights. With a Westernized political savvy, he has been able to lobby politicians and the media, gain public support for the Cofan and provide the tribe with a steady income from, ironically enough, tourism.

As the oil firms, which have come to Ecuador from the United States, Europe and Argentina, sweep along rain-forest tributaries, they have made Borman’s mission urgent. For tribes throughout the Amazon, the stakes are as high as survival: Oil discoveries are inevitably followed by roads that bring in thousands of migrant settlers, devastating the forest and all that lives there. Borman is almost single-handedly trying to prevent that by fighting for a people who have accepted him as their liaison with an increasingly threatening outside world.

“It is rare that somebody leaves everything to work for others,” says Luis Macas, president of the Confederation of Indian Natives of Ecuador, a group of 24 Ecuadorean Indian federations. “They should give him the Nobel Prize.”

TO GET TO CHIRITZA, THE LAST DIRT ROAD before Zabalo, a colleague and I leave Quito to board a C-130 transport plane for a 30-minute flight over the Andes. Then we ride a bus for two hours over a bumpy, dusty highway before hitching a five-hour ride down the Aguarico on a motorized canoe filled with eco-tourists from the United States and Europe munching Hershey bars from box lunches. The trip takes us through scenes from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” calling to mind the “rioting invasion of soundless life” that he described--an endless green wall of palms, ferns, strangler figs, vines and towering mimosa trees casting giant shadows. Flashes of lighting and rainbow arches along the river at dusk make the rain forest seem like a luminous painting.

The two of us part company with the tourists and travel the final hour to Zabalo by motorboat. When we arrive after dark, about 10 villagers crowd around, amused at our clumsy sloshing through the riverbank mud. Most are barefoot women and children who wear casual Western clothes--T-shirts and shorts, cotton dresses. One middle-aged man greets us in halting Spanish. He is broad-faced, with splayed toes, and dressed in a traditional ondiccuje , a cotton tunic. As fireflies buzz around us, he asks if we have come to live in their village. When we tell him that we have come to see Borman, he smiles and says Borman is off hunting.

As we wait, we walk along the river’s edge, appreciating Zabalo’s beauty in the moonlight. The tiny settlement is surrounded by strangler figs and Ceiba trees, with branches alive with the sounds of macaws, toucans and parrots and the fluttering of neon-colored giant butterflies. Some 20 thatched-roof huts on stilts stand between the river shore and the edge of a thick jungle. A sandbar serves as a washing area for village women. Skinny dogs and chickens meander under clotheslines.

A few minutes after our arrival, Borman’s dugout canoe pulls up in the darkness. Wearing a muddy T-shirt with a large, freshly killed woolly monkey strapped to his back, he is greeted by villagers who gaze hungrily at the meat they will share that evening. Borman has not been advised of our impending visit, even though a mutual friend in Quito had promised to message him by radio. Borman looks bewildered and not particularly happy to see us. Barking out instructions in Cofan to his half-dozen followers in the boat, he sends our friend with the splayed toes to guide us to one of three empty huts used to house tourists. Over his shoulder, Borman hollers back in brusque English that he needs to bathe.

An hour later, he returns, dressed in shorts and a clean T-shirt, apparently reconciled to the idea of house guests. Muscular and not too tall, he has the barrel chest and powerful build of a wrestler. We talk for a while before he points to a house where we will eat dinner and goes off to bed. After a meal of rice and chicken, we fall asleep on bamboo cots under mosquito nets to the gnawing of spiny rats on the roof ‘s wooden beams.

The next day, Borman offers us his first wan smile and asks if we want to accompany him on a trip to mark off boundary trails. In May, 1992, after nearly 20 years of politicking with Ecuadorean authorities over land titles for the Cofan, Borman won a presidential decree that included Zabalo as part of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. The decree was not ideal: Although the Cofan were given theoretical jurisdiction over 197,680 acres, Borman says, they got no actual deeds. That means that while the Cofan may now delineate their tribal territory, oil companies are not legally forbidden to search for crude within tribal boundaries. “It’s not as good as a land title,” Borman says, “but it’s better than nothing.”

He has already peacefully staved off Petroecuador. The oil prospectors that he detained and lectured were contracted by the government only several months after the presidential decree. After the confrontation, he flew to Quito with three other Cofan leaders to issue a complaint on national TV. The government remained silent, but the exploration stopped. “Public opinion is turning around,” Borman says. “The days when the companies can do as they please, when they please, are over.”

WHILE OTHER AMERICAN TEENS TOOK THEIR drivers’ tests and studied for their SATs, Randy Borman followed Cofan men into the jungle to chase wild pigs with a lance, to harpoon black caimans, and to catch 150-pound catfish by hand. He has never seen the film classic “Casablanca,” but he has taken ritual journeys with the hallucinogenic vine ayahuasca. He has never joined a gym, but he has hunted monkeys with a blowgun and poison darts from 120 feet, an exercise requiring a training regime in which he had to induce himself to vomit repeatedly to strengthen his diaphragm.

Borman was born in the jungle town of Shell Mera in 1955 to Bub and Roberta (Bobbie) Borman, both Summer Institute of Linguistics (also called the Wycliffe Institute) Bible translators. Their mission was to translate the New Testament into the Cofan dialect (most members of the tribe are Christian, but they retain many of their animist traditions). Randy was the first of four children; his two brothers, Rick and Ronnie, have followed their parents into missionary work in Dureno, while a sister, Sherry, works as an accountant in Texas.

During Borman’s childhood, Dureno was still a rain-forest paradise frequented by freshwater dolphins, river boas and brilliant lilac macaws. The Cofan hunted and fished as they had for centuries. During most of the time that he lived there, Borman was the only non-Cofan child in the village. “Randy was always closer to the people than we were,” notes Rick, now 31. “He got more of the culture ingrained into him.”

When Borman was 5, the family moved 40 miles south to the Amazon village of Limoncocha to help found a missionary community. His parents pursued their linguistic, literacy and health projects, introducing the tribe to such Western amenities as soap. They spent most vacations in Dureno.

In Limoncocha, “Randy had a strong feeling of being an outsider in an Indian world,” says Tod Swanson, a boyhood friend who teaches native religion at Arizona State University. “So he tried even harder to acquire Indian skills by tracking, hunting and fishing.”

As he grew to adolescence, Borman dwelt in both Cofan and Western worlds while studying at a missionary school in Limoncocha. Just before his 13th birthday, he witnessed what happens when the two worlds truly collide. That was the year the oil firms came to Dureno.

They arrived in force after 1967, when Texaco discovered reserves nearby at a base camp that soon came to be called Lago Agrio (“Sour Lake”) and built a 1,000-barrel-a-day refinery, according to the U.S. National Resources Defense Council. By the year Borman turned 18, Texaco had finished a 300-mile pipeline, and what had been a small, tranquil village was transformed overnight into a crowded boom town, with wooden sidewalks, bars, prostitutes, open sewers, garbage piled on muddy streets and the omnipresent stench of crude.

Traditional Cofan hunting grounds became oil-well sites or settlements for poor farmers who had traveled in on the new roads. The roar of helicopters and the racket of chain saws and trucks plying up and down new roads scared away game. Black caiman and the harpy eagle were hunted into near extinction by the new colonizers. Many Cofan men passively turned to subsistence farming of coffee; others became so demoralized without their traditional hunting areas that they spent the day drinking trago , a sugar-cane rum. Tribal women turned to prostitution or selling trinkets. Borman describes the scene as a “direct cultural attack.”

“We were getting run over, and it was happening to me as well,” Borman recalls. “We were scared. We didn’t know how to handle the outside world.”

The Borman family tried to persuade the Cofan to reject the outside culture that brought smoking, drinking and prostitution. Borman contends that in 25 years Texaco has done hardly a thing to compensate the tribe for its intrusion. However, Yorick Fonseca of Texaco’s Latin America/ West Africa Division, says the oil company “always tries to be good corporate citizens,” and that in 1990 it footed the bill for the extension of running water to a Quito neighborhood that had none. “Ultimately, it’s the government that determines what the developers may and may not do.”

Borman attended middle and high school at the Christian Missionary Alliance Academy in Quito. There he became close friends with Swanson, another missionary offspring who shared Borman’s feeling of being “out of place” in Western culture.

“When we came out of the jungle, we felt lost,” Swanson remembers. "(At the academy) we were expected to practice team sports, flirt, go out with North American girls. We weren’t too good at that. And Randy saw the white culture as being crass and meaningless.” The two friends spent hours in the surrounding Andes tracking rabbit and partridge.

After high school, Borman moved to the United States to study at Michigan State University. During the next several years, he spent time in his parents’ hometowns: St. Charles, Ill., and Pasadena, Calif. In Pasadena, friends teased him because he couldn’t drive. “My best friends were Chicanos,” he says. “They shared my feeling of not belonging to their parents’ culture or the culture they were raised in.”

He found the United States an over-regulated, overcautious civilization where “they will put up a fence around a dangerous area to protect people from getting hurt,” he says. “In Cofan society, people know where they shouldn’t go. They don’t need a sign to be responsible for themselves.”

He decided that he was a “Cofan before anything else” and longed to return to its consensus-gathering culture. “Say you are walking on a trail, and you see what you think are wild pig tracks,” he explains. “You never just go ahead and make a decision without getting two or three other opinions. That applies to politics as well. Most important, in Cofan society, you are master of your time. You are master of your own destiny.” He dropped out of Michigan State after his freshman year.

Back in Ecuador, Borman decided to try again at an American college, but after a year, at the age of 20, he returned to the jungle for good. He says his transformation into a Cofan might have occurred simply because he was “a pseudo-American male without a driver’s license and not being able to get away,” or because of his feeling “a sense of duty” to the Cofan.

None who knew Randy were startled when he rejected Western civilization. “Randy is more Cofan than white,” says close friend Maritza Hamann, who teaches writing at Santa Barbara City College. “He would die if he left them.”

Swanson, however, views Borman’s decision differently. “For Randy, it’s basically a transformation of the role of a Wycliffe missionary, even though his mission is connected to cultural survival. He has the same missionary zeal as his parents.”

While Borman’s parents channeled their zeal into translating the New Testament into Cofan, a project they finished in 1980, Borman began the long process of gaining land titles for Cofan living in the Dureno area (they were eventually awarded 37,000 acres, he says). He also began working as a jungle guide for REI and an Israeli tour company, motoring foreigners up and down the Aguarico. The river trips gave him a way to start scouting out potential settlements deeper into the jungle. In 1984, he finally coaxed about 60 Cofan to move away from the roads, the colonists and the oil companies and return to their traditional way of life.

They relocated 60 miles east, five hours by outboard motorized canoe, to the place he called Zabalo. There, they returned to hunting for howler monkey, caiman and wild boar, to spear-fishing and to treating their ills with some 200 medicinal plants. Borman was elected chief of the four-man village council in 1984 because “I brought the village security.”

In 1982, he established a thriving business of guiding foreign tourists through the rain forest with Cofan guides. That year, Borman created a joint venture between the community and a Quito-based tourist agency called Transturi. Even before they built their own permanent homes, the Cofan erected several “tourist huts” to accommodate visitors.

Today, Wilderness Travel of Berkeley, Calif., pays Borman and the Cofan to take tourists on a nine-day jungle trip and give them “a deep insider understanding of Amazon ecosystems and culture, with Randy as our guide; past trip members (in the hundreds) refer to him as a latter-day Tarzan,” according to the firm’s brochures.

Borman justifies his development of local tourism by saying that under his program, the Cofan don’t have to sell themselves with fake dances for visitors. Instead, he says, they preserve their culture by using their encyclopedic knowledge of medicinal plants and jungle lore.

That includes the making and selling of souvenir blowguns. Since the Cofan now hunt with shotguns rather than the traditional poison darts, he believes they could have lost altogether the art of making blowguns.

He is proudest of having trained tribe members to lead foreigners on exploratory walks into the jungle. “Rather than bring people to see the Cofan, we bring them to see the rain forest with the Cofan as guides. It’s like a sociology experiment with the Cofan as scientific Sherpas,” he says.

WHEN OUR BOUNDARY-TRAIL team finally reaches a clearing by the river’s edge, Borman drops off the volunteers, who disappear into the jungle to begin hacking their way through with machetes. We continue down the river with Roberto, a 20-year-old Zabalo resident, heading for the other end of the trail. Borman’s plan is to cut our way in and meet the others later in the day. Like most Cofan, Roberto seems shy and reticent. But when asked about Borman and his projects for the tribe, he smiles. “It’s natural that I follow him. He raised me.”

Twenty minutes later, we reach the opposite end of the boundary and begin the trek into the rain forest. While Roberto and Borman cut through the underbrush, my colleague and I lag behind in the knee-deep slime, nervously watching hanging vines for signs of the 30-foot anacondas that are said to inhabit the area. A thin, hot rain soaks our clothes. After two kilometers and more than an hour of sloshing in the mud, my companion inquires shyly as to when the ordeal might end. “We only have eight kilometers to go,” Borman says, as though he were describing a stroll in the park.

With machetes, the Cofan mark off several kilometers that day before calling it quits near dusk. We return to Zabalo and stretch our aching joints on Borman’s veranda, which--with an inventory of soda, cookies, matches, soap and pharmaceuticals--is the village’s only store. His home is a resort compared to the other huts in the village. The two main bedrooms have picture-size windows overlooking the rain forest through screens that turn back nightly mosquito assaults. Propane gas runs the village’s only refrigerator, and Borman’s private generator powers Zabalo’s only CD player.

On this muggy August night, Borman sits atop a large, metal school desk and listens to the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” He wears an ondiccuje and has beaded bracelets on both wrists. A well-stocked English library, including a copy of “Robinson Crusoe” and books on jungle botany and first aid, occupies shelves near a battery-powered shortwave radio. A monkey femur hangs from the ceiling on a rope and serves as a hook for a hammock. A photograph of his parents stands near the skull of a wild pig. As we talk, he cradles his 4-year-old son, Felipe, while his wife, Amelia, cares for 1-year-old Frederic and cooks dinner.

Before Borman’s marriage in 1987, he was considered a prize catch by tribal women and their parents. He had fallen in love twice with American daughters of missionaries, but neither woman was prepared to follow him into the jungle. Marrying Amelia Quenama, a soft-spoken woman with a broad knowledge of medicinal plants and jungle ecology, tied him to the tribe for good.

“Randy married late in life because he wanted a woman who was willing to spend the rest of her life with the Cofan,” says his friend Maritza Hamann. “His commitment to the Cofan comes above any relationship.”

An Ecuadorean journalist once asked Borman whether his biracial marriage was difficult. “I don’t think so,” he answered with characteristic nonchalance. Quenama, however, said she found it strange at first. “He’s a gringo, and before I married him, his eyes scared me,” she told the writer. “But after we were married, I came to consider him a Cofan.”

Borman is an intensely private person, but he loves to talk politics and once even lectured the late Abbie Hoffman, the rabble-rousing yippie, on Third World debt when the latter visited Ecuador in 1985. He admires rugged independence and has praise for the Colombian guerrillas upriver who stopped jungle colonizers from catching fish with dynamite. “They solved that problem,” he says with a smile. “Do that now and you get shot.

“We have clean air, hunting, fishing, a good diet,” he adds. “People are physically fit and live into their 70s and 80s. There is a lot of leisure time. Kids have an easy, free existence. That is what we are trying to save.”

Although he waxes eloquent about the rain forest, Borman admits that not all in Zabalo is ideal. He chafes to see the Cofan drunk on homemade yucca beer, called Tsetse’pa, and has tried to teach them moderation during village fiestas. He hates the summer hordes of gnats and worries over the lack of adequate schools. At times he despairs at the steady degradation by oil spills of the once-pristine Aguarico River. “We now drink only rainwater,” he says, “and that has had a negative effect on our teeth since rainwater doesn’t have any minerals.”

ENVIRONMENTALISTS CALL THE Ecuadorean Amazon region one of the world’s richest biological areas, a 32-million acre expanse that hosts eight jungle tribes, tens of thousands of plant species and hundreds of species of birds, fish and mammals. Each year, about 2.4% of the country’s tropical forests are chopped down.

According to “Amazon Crude,” a book published by the National Resources Defense Council, construction of roads by oil companies has already opened at least 2.5 million acres of Ecuador’s rain-forest wilderness to colonization by impoverished farmers. Meanwhile, each day, oil production pits dump 4.3 million gallons of toxic production waste and treatment chemicals into rivers and streams. In 20 years, pipeline ruptures alone have discharged more than 16.8 million gallons of crude into Amazon river-ways.

Petroecuador insists, however, that new development will be cleaner than it has been in past years. “Environmental consciousness is still new to Ecuador,” Petroecuador spokeswoman Fabiola Navarro said in a recent interview, pointing out that the government spent a record $6 million in 1992 on environmental safeguards.

Nonetheless, considerable pressures remain for Ecuador to extract its oil as quickly as possible. The choice of oil or environment is an agonizing one for this nation of 10.7 million, besieged by a $12-billion debt. Oil is the country’s lifeblood, its only hope to avoid bankruptcy. It brings in about $1 billion a year, 40% or so of the nation’s export earnings. Still, new supplies must be found if the nation’s oil is not to be depleted by the year 2005, leaving Ecuador with the no-win option of trying to pay its huge debt with bananas and shrimp. Lacking the necessary technology to find and develop new reserves, Ecuador’s new government of Sixto Duran Ballen, a free-market advocate trained in the United States, has increasingly opened the door to international oil firms.

Though Indians number only about 25% of Ecuador’s population, they have been more vocal in the past several years in demanding their rights. In June, 1990, thousands, angry over land disputes, paralyzed the nation by blocking highways with boulders and tree trunks and by occupying private farms. The “Great Uprising” paved the way for the first formal dialogue between the government and indigenous groups from the Amazon.

Nearly two years later, about 2,500 Amazon Indian activists--including Borman and other Cofan--marched for 12 days to protest the destruction of their rain-forest homes by oil companies and colonists. After the protesters camped out in a city park for three weeks, then-president Rodrigo Borja responded in May, 1991, by giving three other jungle tribes land titles to 4,305 square miles.

“The Indian land situation is a time bomb,” says Maria Elena Jervis, executive director of Antisana, a Quito-based environmental group. “All the tribes want deeds and are continuing to confront the colonists.”

In August, the local press reported, a major oil spill contaminated the water and food supply of some 25 indigenous communities living along the Rio Napo. Ten major Indian groups met for three days in Limoncocha. They voted to declare war on oil exploration unless the government developed a plan to save their communities.

Even if President Duran Ballen is not eager to negotiate, the oil firms may force him to do so. “I’m sure Occidental and Arco aren’t looking forward to Indians shooting poison darts and arrows,” says Glenn Switkes, who monitors events in Ecuador for the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network. “And they can’t afford to allow strong-arm tactics. It won’t wash with the American people or Congress.”

Of the two philosophical approaches--to deal or not to deal--Borman prefers the latter; he distrusts government and corporate goodwill. His attitude is a far cry from that of his parents’ missionary organization, which has been criticized throughout Latin American for collaborating with oil companies to pacify indigenous peoples.

“Wycliffe missionaries teach native peoples to obey the established order and not rock the boat,” says anthropologist Scott Robinson, a Cofan expert who teaches at Mexico City’s Metropolitan University. “Randy is doing things his parents would have never considered.”

Borman prefers the pacifist approach, and justifies the Wycliffe track record by saying it was designed to avoid bloodshed. His favorite technique at the moment is to tie up the oil firms with legal restrictions. He has won the government’s assurance that Zabalo residents will have the right to study all environmental-impact studies submitted by the companies. Mean- while, six Cofan will patrol the land as paid park rangers.

If that doesn’t keep oil-company roads out, Borman warns, other, more extreme approaches would follow. He likens his tribe’s problems to an American phenomenon. “The situation here is strikingly similar to the United States’ westward expansion. Indians are being shoved off their lands for development, and colonists are seeking a new life,” he says. “History shows that you have to combat them.”