Some are born great, Shakespeare famously wrote, others achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust on them. Conservation leader Randy Borman, you could argue, is all of the above.
Borman was born only months before his parents, missionaries and linguists, ventured into the Ecuadorian rainforest to live among the Cofán Indians. While not necessarily an auspicious start, it set in motion a life that over five decades has helped shaped the Cofán community into a model for success in the struggle for biodiversity conservation and indigenous land rights.
That struggle achieved an important milestone in 2007 with the historic signing by the Ecuadorian government of a deed granting the Cofán title to the 75,000-acre Río Cofánes Territory. These ancestral Cofán lands shelter one of the most ecologically significant montane forests in the world and are important for the survival of the Cofán.
Keeping these and other forests standing is also a critical part of the solution to global climate change, the greatest threat to the long-term health of the Earth and all the life it sustains.
The effort was led by the Federación de Indígenas de la Nacionalidad Cofán del Ecuador (FEINCE) and the Fundación para la Sobrevivencia Cofán, with assistance from The Nature Conservancy. It received critical financial backing from CI’s Global Conservation Fund that supports the creation, expansion and long-term management of protected areas, including indigenous lands such as the Río Cofánes Territory.
It was a major victory for Borman and the Cofán people but hardly the first. In total, Borman has helped to establish or enhance protection of more than 1 million acres of biologically important rainforest.
“His dedication, and ability to lead and organize the Cofán have resulted in extraordinary achievements for the Cofán and the environment, and certainly place him among the most influential and inspirational conservation leaders of our time,” says CI Chief Economist Dick Rice.
Borman’s passion for the survival of Cofán culture germinated while growing up in Cofán communities in the rainforest. He says the time spent with the Cofán “anchored me, and taught me how to understand and respect the forest and its people.” At the same time, his American parents instilled Western values and taught him English, enabling him to forge a unique knowledge base that proved critical when the modern world closed in.
And that wasn’t long in coming. In the 1960s, large oil companies began drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon with devastating consequences for the environment. Visiting a drilling platform at the time Borman observed, “an amazing scene of industrial destruction. A stream below the site was red with drilling mud and full of dead fish. … Recently accessed crude petroleum had been flushed out over the back side of the hill.”
When Borman returned to the Cofáns after finishing his education in the United States he found the community and environment in tatters. In response, he tapped his intimate knowledge of both Cofán and Western cultures to lead a series of conservation initiatives that have rewritten the rulebook with regard to indigenous control of ancestral lands.
These include launching one of the first-ever community-run ecotourism companies, successfully fending off intrusions by the oil industry, and securing shared management of protected areas for the Cofán. He also created a highly successful turtle rescue project, and pioneered a Cofán park guard program.
“Randy is a person who knows and understands the Cofán culture very well, and thus he understands the needs of the Cofán people,” says Roberto Aguinda, president of the Dureno Cofán Community. “He recognizes how important it is to conserve the Cofán Nation so that its rich culture isn’t lost.”
Borman has held numerous leadership positions within the Cofán community, including FEINCE director of territories since 2000 and president of FEINCE’s predecessor, the Organización Indígena Nacionalidad Cofán del Ecuador.
Gaining title of the Río Cofánes Territory marks the latest chapter and a critical stepping stone. Says Borman: “For the Cofán people, this pristine territory is something they can truly call their own, where they can make their own rules and live their own lives.”
Randy Borman has been featured in major magazines and on television in the United States and throughout the world. Awards include the Parker/Gentry Award for Conservation Biology, the WWF Conservation Award and the Friends of the UN 50th Anniversary Award.