'Gringo Chief' Rules Swath Of Ecuador Jungle

The Amazon rain forest is filled with indigenous communities that have limited contact with the outside world. But the Cofan, who administer a territory nearly the size of Delaware, are a bit different. One of their leaders is a blue-eyed, gray-haired American known as "The Gringo Chief."

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In the Amazon, there are indigenous communities that have never had contact with the outside world. Others are fading fast. A few control swaths of jungle as big as countries. And here's one Indian nation that stands out despite its small numbers, the Cofan of northern Ecuador. They administer a territory nearly the size of Delaware, and their most prominent leader is a blue-eyed, gray-haired American known as "The Gringo Chief."

NPR's Juan Forero has this story from the jungles of northern Ecuador.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JUAN FORERO: In a jungle clearing, dozens of Cofan Indians are celebrating. They've added 108 acres to their expanding territory and built a new headquarters.

Randy Borman is the Cofan's chief of territories. And from the new headquarters, he tells his fellow Cofan they'll oversee the management of one of the world's most ecologically diverse corners.

RANDY BORMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: He speaks in flawless Cofan and is dressed in a traditional black smock, wearing a necklace laced with jaguar and wild boar's teeth. Borman engineered this latest land acquisition, and he has many others. That's brought nearly 1,700 square miles of rainforest into the Cofan's domain.

Borman's a 54-year-old chief who has successfully straddled two vastly different cultures. One is the globalized, go-go world where money talks, and then there's this world.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAINFOREST)

FORERO: A primeval forest, one inhabited by jaguars, Andean bears and wild boars. It's the world of the Cofan. Up hard-charging rivers, they live in villages of thatched-roofed, wood-plank homes and grow plantains and yucca.

Like their ancestors, they also catch monster catfish and hunt wooly monkeys. Borman says the Cofan are regaining control over their ancestral lands.

BORMAN: We can't have titles, but what we do have are agreements, (speaking foreign language) they're called, that recognize first of all ancestral territorial rights over these lands.

FORERO: The challenges facing the Cofan are daunting, from oil companies to settlers to miners. But standing before the raging Aguarico River, Borman sees endless reasons for saving and marketing the Cofan's greatest treasure.

BORMAN: There'd be at least 600 species of birds, 40 species of large mammals, one of the highest densities of amphibians in the world. You know, all the way around, it's just an incredibly diverse ecosystem.

FORERO: Borman was born just east of here, son of Bub and Bobbie Borman, American missionaries who came here in the '50s. As a boy, he learned to hunt with a blowgun tipped with curare. When he left for college in Michigan, he could've left forever, but he never really considered it.

BORMAN: I don't think I ever had a major doubt that, you know, my home community was here and that my home culture was the Cofan culture.

FORERO: Now, he spends much of his time in Zabalo, a community deep in the forest and accessible only by boat. Borman married a Cofan and the couple has three boys. Centuries ago, the Cofan nation was three times the size of Massachusetts. By the 1970s, only a few hundred were left and settlers were pouring in.

BORMAN: We even had situations where people were kicked out of their houses, kicked off of their fields.

FORERO: Led by Borman, the Cofan began organizing into a strong, activist, political force, and they began to acquire land. By the early 1990s, they controlled 300 square miles. Now, they have five times as much.

Borman and Cofan guards cut through an overgrown plot recently bought by the Cofan.

(SOUNDBITE OF HACKING THE BUSH)

BORMAN: This is one of the (foreign language spoken) that we're buying back from the colonists.

FORERO: To manage the land, the Cofans spend half a million dollars a year on park rangers who make sure outsiders stay out. The funding comes from American foundations and the U.S. government, entities that Borman understands.

Grants, though, don't last forever. Borman says the solution is to prod wealthy countries and investors to pay the Cofan to protect the forest. In fact, Borman says, it's the only long-range solution to safeguard the Cofan way of life.

BORMAN: It's a way of life that revolves around a physical world of forest, but it also revolves around a social world and it's a complex that is very, very attractive.

FORERO: Juan Forero, NPR News.

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