The Challenges They Face

For thousands of years, the Kofan Traditional Authorities (shamans) and their people lived in harmony with their environment, drawing sustenance, shelter, and medicine from the jungle and its rivers. However, some fifty years ago oil was discovered in the northern reaches of their territory, which led not only oil companies and road contractors but wave upon wave of colonists to encroach on their territory. Fifty years later, the Kofan people are isolated in small pockets of Colombia, number at most a couple of thousand, and were recognized in 2009 by the Constitutional Court of Colombia as in danger of extinction.

challengesThe Amazonian Piedmont the Kofan call home is one of the most biodiverse places on earth but that did not stop oil companies such as Texas Petroleum Company (later Texaco, now Chevron) and Ecopetrol from ravaging the environment and opening the floodgates to colonists who took Kofan territory, mowed down the rainforest, and decimated the fish and game. The result is that the Traditional Authorities (the shamans), their communities, and what remains of their forests are fast disappearing.

Because the Traditional Authorities were unable to stop the destruction and were often powerless in the face of new diseases, members of their communities lost respect for them. Equally insidious was the pressure to assimilate and abandon identity and culture, lured often by the “goodies” of the outside world. As their territory and forest was taken from them, the Kofan way of life was destroyed and they were forced from a hunting and gathering, semi-nomadic lifestyle into a monetary-driven market economy that held them in as high regard as mules and as Pablo Neruda wrote “invited them into poverty.” All of this without any modicum of consultation or support, all of this in the span of a generation.

Ignoring the injustices they have had to endure is intrinsically wrong. Allowing them to disappear before our very eyes is not only immoral but also is another piece in the way to our own extinction.

This is because many indigenous peoples like the Kofan hold an important piece to the current challenge of global warming, given that deforestation is a key contributing factor. A forest without the protection of its indigenous people is essentially two-by-fours on their way to our living rooms. As the Director of the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew wrote, “The most efficient way to conserve rain forests is to have them cared for by natives, who will use them with little or no destruction of the ecosystem.”

So we let them disappear at our own peril. And it is simply stupid to allow the shamans’ knowledge to disappear, thereby impoverishing what National Geographic’s Wade Davis calls the Ethnosphere.

For a more thorough description of the challenges faced by the Kofan in Colombia, focusing on the history of Santa Rosa del Guamuéz and the struggle over oil and militarization, please see this article we published in South Atlantic Quarterly:

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