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RAIN FOREST MAN : Randy Borman, Chief of the Cofan Indians, Rejected the Modern World for the Jungle and the Hope of Saving His People.

March 21, 1993|JACK EPSTEIN | Jack Epstein, a free-lance writer based in Rio de Janeiro, is a contributor to the Pacific News Service and the San Francisco Chronicle.

TWO DOZEN OIL PROSPECTORS WERE HACKING a trail through the deep Ecuadorean jungle just off the shores of the Aguarico River when they found themselves surrounded by a group of Cofan Indians. Gripping their machetes, the Ecuadoreans prepared for the worst. During the previous five years, various tribes of Amazon Indians had beaten or killed several prospectors trespassing on their land, and these oilmen had not bothered to get permission from the Cofans to carry out seismic studies.

But the Indians, dark and sturdy in their T-shirts and shorts, merely stood quietly until a blond, blue-eyed man emerged from their ranks and addressed the intruders in flawless Spanish. "We have nothing against you personally," he said, "but you can't stay here." The white man then ordered his followers to detain the oilmen and bring them by canoe to Zabalo, their village. The oilmen, outnumbered and relieved that they were not going to be beaten, went quietly.

Once in Zabalo, the white man gave them a long lecture on how oil drilling has harmed the ecology of the rain forest and spelled out the Cofans' tribal rights, which include the right to see environmental impact studies before any seismic studies are conducted. He then radioed the prospectors' employer, Petroecuador, Ecuador's national oil company, and said: "I have your men here. Tell them to leave." The next day, the prospectors left for the capital city of Quito, 300 miles away.

As the oilmen were to find out, the husky white stranger is Randy Borman, founder of Zabalo and chief of a tribe of 100 Cofan. The son of American missionaries, Borman rejected the modern world, choosing to remain in the rain forest and fight to protect his people, the smallest and least-known tribe in the Amazon.

Before the Spanish conquest, the Cofan numbered nearly 20,000, Borman says. But smallpox, whooping cough and measles eventually cut the population to less than 1,000, spread between Ecuador and Colombia. And now these few survivors stand nearly helpless against oil companies determined to advance into their traditional land.

Borman, born and raised with the Cofan, is a tricultural hybrid. He speaks English, Spanish and Cofan and holds American and Ecuadorean passports. In a fundamentally racist society that still considers tribal peoples inferior, his white skin opens doors that have been routinely shut to indigenous leaders demanding their land rights. With a Westernized political savvy, he has been able to lobby politicians and the media, gain public support for the Cofan and provide the tribe with a steady income from, ironically enough, tourism.

As the oil firms, which have come to Ecuador from the United States, Europe and Argentina, sweep along rain-forest tributaries, they have made Borman's mission urgent. For tribes throughout the Amazon, the stakes are as high as survival: Oil discoveries are inevitably followed by roads that bring in thousands of migrant settlers, devastating the forest and all that lives there. Borman is almost single-handedly trying to prevent that by fighting for a people who have accepted him as their liaison with an increasingly threatening outside world.

"It is rare that somebody leaves everything to work for others," says Luis Macas, president of the Confederation of Indian Natives of Ecuador, a group of 24 Ecuadorean Indian federations. "They should give him the Nobel Prize."

TO GET TO CHIRITZA, THE LAST DIRT ROAD before Zabalo, a colleague and I leave Quito to board a C-130 transport plane for a 30-minute flight over the Andes. Then we ride a bus for two hours over a bumpy, dusty highway before hitching a five-hour ride down the Aguarico on a motorized canoe filled with eco-tourists from the United States and Europe munching Hershey bars from box lunches. The trip takes us through scenes from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," calling to mind the "rioting invasion of soundless life" that he described--an endless green wall of palms, ferns, strangler figs, vines and towering mimosa trees casting giant shadows. Flashes of lighting and rainbow arches along the river at dusk make the rain forest seem like a luminous painting.

The two of us part company with the tourists and travel the final hour to Zabalo by motorboat. When we arrive after dark, about 10 villagers crowd around, amused at our clumsy sloshing through the riverbank mud. Most are barefoot women and children who wear casual Western clothes--T-shirts and shorts, cotton dresses. One middle-aged man greets us in halting Spanish. He is broad-faced, with splayed toes, and dressed in a traditional ondiccuje , a cotton tunic. As fireflies buzz around us, he asks if we have come to live in their village. When we tell him that we have come to see Borman, he smiles and says Borman is off hunting.

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