'Gringo chief' Randy Borman helps Ecuador's Cofan Indians survive, thrive

Borman, 54, is described by those who know him as an energetic, almost frenetic administrator who over 30 years has helped spearhead the revival of a people buffeted by encroaching settlers and oil companies.

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By Juan Forero
Monday, June 21, 2010

PIZARRAS, ECUADOR -- On a recent day, the man known as the Gringo Chief wore a traditional black smock and a necklace strung with jaguar and wild boar's teeth, perfectly suitable for the Cofan Indian ceremony marking the acquisition of yet another slice of rain forest.

With his fellow Cofan listening, Randy Borman gave a speech celebrating the latest accomplishment for a native people intent on taking back their vast ancestral lands. He spoke flawless Cofan, and no one dwelled on his unusual background: an American born to missionaries who grew up to become the Cofan's most prominent, influential leader.

The blue-eyed, gray-haired Borman, 54, is described by those who know him as an energetic, almost frenetic administrator who over 30 years has helped spearhead the revival of a people buffeted by encroaching settlers and oil companies.

Along the way, he has won respect for his ability to hunt monkeys with a blowgun and spend weeks trudging through an unforgiving jungle.

But fellow Cofan say his most lasting accomplishment has been helping the Cofan acquire so much territory that they now manage a swath nearly the size of Delaware. Their success, say those knowledgeable about native peoples in the Amazon, is a model for other indigenous groups.

(U.N. Ambassador of Goodwill Angelina Jolie visits Ecuador)

"His body, his skin, all that is gringo, but Mr. Randy's heart is Cofan," said Roberto Aguinda, 39, who oversees a network of Cofan park guards who patrol the community's reserves. "He manages both worlds, the Cofan and that of his parents. But when he is here in the community, he knows more about this life than the Cofan themselves."

Surviving . . . and thriving

Across South America, Indian tribes are increasingly confronted by miners, ranchers, farmers, and the roads and power-generating dams that always seem to accompany them. A few groups remain "un-contacted," having never come face to face with outsiders. Some are fading fast, but a few are thriving, controlling territories as large as countries.

(Map of the lands controlled by the Cofan Indian nation)

Among the most unusual are the Cofan, who retain many of their traditions but have embraced aspects of the outside world that elders think ensure a bright future for the community.

That includes counting on an ethnic outsider, Borman, who as chief of territories oversees land management and the funding needed to pay for it. It also means building alliances with Ecuadoran government officials and sending Cofan youths to private schools in Quito, the capital, and universities in the United States to mold strong leaders adept in various cultures.

The strategy has paid off: The Cofan manage six times the land they controlled in the early 1990s, which is particularly impressive because they are not a large community. There are 1,200 of them in Ecuador and 500 across the border in Colombia.


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