The Cofán Leadership Development Program
Deep in the Amazon basin of Ecuador, the youngest generations of the Cofán tribe already have a vast store of traditional indigenous knowledge about the rhythms and resources of their home, the rain forest. In addition to the secrets of the forest, they are also acutely aware of the very real danger for their culture and surroundings. Their grandparents lived through the contamination of their rivers and land from oil exploitation, and their parents witnessed the destructive forces accompanying the roads that destroyed the trees to transport the oil. These young people have also heard the stories of how their relatives fought to preserve their land and culture, and they have seen firsthand the conservation efforts that current Cofán leaders have initiated.
While Cofán children have the tremendous benefit of learning cultural and forest-based knowledge, they have almost no chance to learn Western skills, and will be severely handicapped in their abilities to deal with the next generation of pressures that will be placed upon the Cofan people and their territories. We will face either assimilation or continued manipulation at the hands of outside entities. We are very aware the Ranger program and other conservation programs cannot survive unless we can develop an educated Cofán leadership capable of taking on not only conservation initiatives but the overall communication of the Cofán people with the outside world.
Fourteen years ago, the Cofán Survival Fund allocated some of its resources toward the education of a young Cofán, sending him to school in Quito. Based on the success of his experience, which developed into the Cofán Leadership Development Program (LDP), the program has continually expanded to include more Cofán children each year.
Through the LDP we are opting for superior education for our young people, in hopes that our culture can both achieve independence and stability in its relation with the outside world in the future. The goal for the LDP is not merely to establish a system by which students learn to read and write. Rather, we intend to develop a generation of highly-educated people graduated from superior educations in the best and most recognized schools, including university training. This means a generation of well-educated youth—people who can make themselves heard, not only as indigenous leaders, but also as highly capable and recognized individuals, regardless of their cultural background. No more middle men, no more beneficent organizations deciding what is best for a people.
You may be asking, aren’t there schools closer to Cofán communities? Why bypass the local public education system? The reasons are many. The local schools are inadequate, usually one teacher in one room teaching up to 30 children of all ages. The teachers are mediocre, usually not highly educated themselves. We have had teachers that did not speak the native language. In the Cofán community of Zábalo, only 15 of the 36 school-aged kids make it to school on a regular basis. Many of the children have to paddle 2 hours upriver to get to school, a journey that many parents view as not worth the danger. The community lacks the funds for gasoline for the motorized canoe that could pick these children up.
FSC established a "Cofán Center" in Quito, where children from various Cofán communities stay in a Cofán cultural environment while studying in good schools in Quito and returning to their homes during vacation. The idea is to foster trilingual (Cofán, Spanish, and English) students who will finish their schooling with as many options open to them as possible, and the tools to lead the Cofán Nation into the future.
The superior education we are looking for is currently available only in the two major cities of the country: Quito and Guayaquil. The majority of the Cofán see Quito as easily accessible, with buses and planes making travel between the two cities easy. Therefore, the idea of placing children in Quito schools is comfortable to most Cofán parents. These parents are confident that the education their children are receiving is the best available, and are willing to let them study outside of the community because they know that these children are simultaneously being cared for in a Cofán environment and remain part of a Cofán community.
All of the involved actors—CSF's leadership, parents, and the educational institutions and their teachers—are very aware of the delicate balance between the absolute need for an excellent education and the tremendous danger of culture loss, especially as the students are taught lessons in "national culture" at Quito schools. The Quito Cofán Center, however, represents a middle ground between Quito schools and home communities. At the Center, Cofán foods are served, Cofán values and forms of social interaction are followed, and Cofán is the language of everyday life (except, of course, when doing homework or attending classes!). On the other hand, residing in Quito ensures access to an array of educational opportunities and resources. Moreover, it is much easier to find internationally trained teachers willing to live in the city, rather than in the Amazon rainforest.
Costs of private education are prohibitive for families coming from marginalized communities that remain primarily removed the formal economy. We need outside support to ensure our children are able to remain in schools that will truly teach them what they need to be able to lead the next generation of Cofán. Our major priority for the LDP is to find funding for scholarships for these children and others in the coming years. It is critical that we be able to offer those students who have begun our program the chance to continue in the schools where they have entered this formative process, and our hope is to offer the opportunity to increasing numbers of young Cofán. Every contribution counts, small or large.
Future indigenous leaders
The Cofán people of today continue to fight hard to protect and conserve their territory, and we now manage approximately 1,000,000 acres of forest. The culture is at-risk of disappearing unless the Cofán of the future are truly capable of handling that charge. These future Cofán leaders will have the management of some of the world's finest rainforest areas in their charge, along with a priceless heritage of understanding and interaction with those areas.
Several of the first young Cofáns to participate in the project have already returned to their communities as Cofán Park Rangers, contributing to the conservation of their land.
The only way indigenous groups such as the Cofán can survive—and thrive—in the modern world is to possess all of the knowledge that that world offers while remaining, in both thought and action, indigenous.
Copyright 2013 - Cofan Survival Fund 501(c)3 nonprofit in the USA
Fundación para la Sobreviviencia del Pueblo Cofán in Ecuador