TRC’s introduces a new project in Ecuador called the Bermejo Project. TRC funded the acquisition of 500 hectares (1235 acres) of rainforest for this reserve, at the confluence of the Bermejo and San Miguel rivers. The Cofan, an indigenous tribe, protects and oversees this land.
History of the Cofan Indians
In the 16th century, the first Spanish explorers to enter Amazonia from their bases in the Andes encountered a large, well organized, and powerful indigenous nation on the slopes of the foothills. Naming themselves the “Cofa Na’esu A’i”, they entered history as the “Cofanes”—fierce fighters who had campaigned against the Incas along with Andean allies, consummate traders whose networks linked sources deep in the Amazon with mountain and coastal cultures, and politicians who not only managed a city-state system of their own but governed numerous lesser nations around them. Towns were large and well-established, with populations of 2-3000 people, and Spanish estimates of overall numbers run from 15,000 to 50,000. Early contacts were mostly warlike, and Spanish efforts to subjugate the Cofans were less than successful. However, what force could not do, diseases introduced by the Europeans accomplished in a devastating manner. By the early 1900’s less than 400 Cofans roamed a vast and almost empty homeland. Gone were the well-ordered towns. Trade trails were overgrown. Allies were forgotten. Legends survived to describe where Cofans had once lived and thrived, but there were too few people to even conceive of managing what had once been the Cofan Nation’s heritage.
Into this world came modern “explorers”, in the form of the oil companies, in the early years of the 1960s. Discovery of major oil reserves fueled the creation of boom towns. A road linking the Andes with Cofan homelands was finished in 1972, and brought in a tremendous influx of colonists from other parts of Ecuador, seeking lands and resources within the “empty lands” that had once been part of the Cofan heritage. Within a period of twenty years (1964-1984) the Cofan people lost almost their entire territory. Two parcels: Dureno, with 9,500 hectares, and Dovuno, with 5,000 hectares, received titles during these years- a scant 14,500 hectares in total for an entire indigenous nation that had once been master of over 3,000,000 hectares of pristine forests. To add insult to injury, oil spills and other forms of pollution were destroying the rivers, the colonists were felling huge swaths of forests, Colombian oil palm plantations were receiving land grants larger than the Cofan titled areas, and even the sky was being ravaged as gas burn offs created acid rains.
The Bermejo Reserve
As Cofan leaders analyzed the situation during the early years of the 80’s, it became apparent that the only large tracts of Cofan ancestral territories with some level of protection were within the newly created reserves of the National System of Protected Areas (NSPA). However, while these areas had a legal status that technically prohibited colonization, in actuality the Ministry of Environment had no local level clout, and “invasion” by colonist organizations was a daily issue. In the process, both Cofans and the NSPA were losing. The Cofan communities began an aggressive program of creating treaties and agreements that would recognize Cofan ancestral territories within the NSPA, and would in effect “deputize” the Cofans to control these areas at the local level. During the 1990s, these agreements extended Cofan control over approximately 150,000 hectares of reserve lands within two members of the NSPA- the Reserva Ecologica Cayambe-Coca (RECAY) and the Reserva de Producción Faunística de Cuyabeno (RPFC). The system worked well. The Cofan communities were able to provide solid local level enforcement and protection against both colonists and petroleum industry advances, while the dual legal status as both government reserves and indigenous territories added weight at a national level.
During the first years of the 21st century, two new agreements were reached with the Ministry of Environment: the first extending recognition of Cofan ancestral territorial rights over much of the lower part of the RECAY, along with broad management and enforcement powers, and the second creating the legal figure of the Cofan “park guard”, armed with all the powers of the government park guard, but with the specific purpose of controlling, managing, and monitoring Cofan ancestral territories within the NSPA.
But by far the most exciting development of these years was the creation of a completely new reserve, officially part of the NSPA, with all of the legal ramifications of a true member of the system, but under the direct authority, administration, and management of the Cofan Nation. This new reserve was appropriately called the Reserva Ecológica Cofan Bermejo, and encompassed 55,000 hectares of Cofan ancestral territories between the Aguarico and San Miguel Rivers. The Bermejo River, which gives its name to the reserve, is a small river that served for years not only as home for Cofan villagers but also as one of the primary links between the Aguarico and San Miguel river systems.
The Bermejo reserve, in spite of its relatively small size, is one of the most important reserves in Ecuador. A Rapid Biological Inventory done in 2000 with the help of the Field Museum of Chicago pinpointed the northwestern corner of this reserve as possibly the most biodiverse land location on earth, with an estimated 700 bird species, over 3,000 woody plant species, and healthy populations of at least 20 mammals that are considered highly endangered in other regions.
The land acquisition at the confluence of the Bermejo with the San Miguel adds a approximately 500 hectares to the reserve. The acquisition creates a natural boundary all the way to the mouth of the Bermejo River, and with it, a much better control over access by third parties to the reserve. These former farmlands were established in the early days of colonization within the province. However, the owners quickly found out that this area, bordering with Colombia’s Department of Putumayo on the north, was less than comfortable. As Putumayo descended into a battlefield between government and rebel forces during the last years of the 20th century and the first years of this century, it was inevitable that problems would spill over the borders.
Of the 500 hectares, less than 50 hectares was under agricultural use, making it ideal for establishing a natural biological corridor. The owners have moved to what they consider safer regions from the border. Both the rebel and government forces on the Colombian border have strict orders not to bother indigenous groups, but more importantly, the Cofan have been in the region for centuries and plan to be in the region for many more centuries.