American 'Eco-vigilante' leads indians

January 23, 1994|By Mike Tidwell | Mike Tidwell,Contributing Writer

ZABALO, Ecuador -- Three months ago, Randy Borman, barefoot son of American missionaries, slipped into his Indian tunic and applied streaks of red ceremonial paint to his face. Then he led his band of 35 Cofan Indians on an armed visit to an oil well illegally constructed on their land deep inside Ecuador's Amazon rain forest.

With spears and crude shotguns, the Cofan encircled the well and its crew of startled, hard-hatted workers. Thirty-six hours later, after a tense standoff and extensive negotiations, Mr. Borman had what he wanted: The promise of an environmental '' impact study for the area and a compensatory batch of 60 solar panels to go atop the Cofans' thatch-roof village huts.

Such is the bizarre life and brazen work of Randy Borman, 38 -- self-styled Amazon chief, radical environmentalist, blue-eyed white man living in the dense interior of the world's largest forest.

His life has the stuff of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

Born in a jungle hospital to missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in 1956, he was raised in many respects like a Cofan.

He learned to speak the language with native fluency and to weave baskets and make poison-tipped darts for hunting. He could use a blowgun at age 5 and could spear a wild boar at 10.

When his missionary parents retired from the forest 13 years ago, he stayed behind, taking a Cofan wife and eventually rising to power as paramount chief.

Now, in a campaign that's captured international attention, Mr. Borman and the Cofan have become "eco-vigilantes." They've placed themselves in the vanguard of a battle to preserve part of Ecuador's Amazon rain forest from the potentially catastrophic consequences of oil exploration.

"We were forced into this action by direct threats to our survival," Mr. Borman said of the recent shutdown of the oil well belonging to Petroecuador, the national oil company.

"Unless we take direct action like this," he continued, "we know our forest and way of life will be destroyed by oil companies. It's happened elsewhere and it will happen here."

A traditional life

Mr. Borman lives with 100 Cofan in Zabalo, along the lower Aguarico River 20 miles from the Peruvian border. There is no running water in the village and only occasional electricity from a diesel generator.

The walls of Mr. Borman's small jungle house are made of wood planks instead of tree bark, and the interior holds a two-way radio and an assortment of Western-made tools.

But beyond this, Mr. Borman lives pretty much the traditional life of the Cofan Indians around him. He hunts monkeys and wild boars for food, mends fish nets and collects medicinal herbs with his young sons, Felipe and Federico.

This life could all end in a few short years if oil companies have their way, he said.

Ecuador's multibillion-dollar Amazon petroleum industry -- dominated by U.S. companies -- is widely characterized by ecologists as a direct threat to the stability, and perhaps survival, of the country's Alabama-size rain forest. Every year, hundreds of miles of oil roads bring thousands of new tree-chopping settlers into the forest from the arid Andean highlands.

Already, more than 2.5 million acres of Ecuadorean jungle have been deforested as a consequence of oil operations. Since 1972, more oil has spilled into the Ecuadorean forest from American-built pipelines than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez, according to the Ecuadorean government.

The fear of such destruction spreading to their own, still-pristine expanse of forest in eastern Ecuador prompted Mr. Borman and the Cofan to act on their own.

In September, after numerous protest letters went unanswered by the company, Mr. Borman led a group of Cofan in setting fire to a separate drilling platform built by Petroecuador on Cofan land without permission. The platform, unmanned at the time, was destroyed.

Two years earlier, the Cofan kidnapped for 24 hours and then expelled from their land a 23-man crew of trespassing technicians.

To date, none of the Cofan actions has resulted in bodily harm, and none has precipitated government retaliation.

Most Ecuadorean conservationists, in fact, defend the acts as measures of self-defense. Jose Delgado, a leading rain forest preservationist in Ecuador's Ministry of Agriculture, described the effects of Mr. Borman's activist leadership as nothing short of "historic."

A change in attitude

"For the first time, thanks largely to the Cofan, oil companies in Ecuador are being forced to admit that the rain forest is not a vacant land where they can do whatever they want," Mr. Delgado said.

"People live there with rights and aspirations just as valid as any company wanting a profit."

Not everyone is happy with the implicit threat of injury to people in the Cofan maneuvers. That includes Mr. Borman's younger brother, Ron, a Plymouth Brethren missionary who is working elsewhere in Ecuador.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.