One of the key issues in relation to Indigenous peoples’ well-being is the extent to which government undermines their sovereignty. While the notion of government sovereignty lies at the heart of the States model of government, this sovereignty has largely become illusionary with the growth of economic development.
The concept of sovereignty, once relatively uncontested, has recently become a major bone of contention within international law in support of Indigenous peoples’ rights. But what is the meaning of sovereignty? After much research on the subject I find it prudent to mention two main views of it (a) the general perception is that the concept of sovereignty as it is thought of today, is linked to a monopoly of power by the nation-state, and (b) renowned scholar Stephen Krasner eloquently described the concept of sovereignty as “organized hypocrisy’’. He further described four ways that the term “sovereignty” has been used:
domestic sovereignty, referring to the organization of public authority within a state and to the level of effective control exercised by those holding authority; interdependence sovereignty, referring to the ability of public authorities to control transborder movements; international legal sovereignty, referring to the mutual recognition of states or other entities; and Westphalian sovereignty, referring to the exclusion of external actors from domestic authority configurations.
From the above, it could be understood that it is hard to surmise any general principle of “sovereignty,” and that various understandings of such context will originate depending on one’s worldviews.
I now describe you what ‘sovereignty’ means from the Cofan Amazonian of Ecuador. Until recently, limited information about the existence of the Cofan people was available, and to my great surprise one of my students from Brown University is a Cofan leader. Cofan Indigenous leader Hugo Lucitante signed up to the ‘International Indigenous Studies’ course that I taught in January to May 2017. In this course, I had the privilege to meet Indigenous students from North America and around the world.
My aim was to take them through an exciting learning journey to explore international Indigenous perspectives, experiences and historical impacts of Indigenous peoples around the world in a contemporary global environment.
It was during one of our group conversations about how Indigenous peoples living in settler colonial societies, for example, Maori of Aotearoa – New Zealand and Quechua people of Peru deal with the notion of sovereignty to preserve their knowledge systems and sovereignty, that Hugo raised his hand and told us:
My name is Hugo Lucitante, I am a Cofan. Do you know who are the Cofan people? We nodded in unspoken understanding!
Hugo then explained to us that the Cofan are the guardians of the ‘Aguarico river’ that runs through their ancestral Amazonian territory in the Sucumbios Providence northeast of Ecuador, borders with Southern Colombia, and only one hour away from the Peruvian Amazonia. It would not surprise me if we find Cofan relatives in Peru and Colombia after all we share the same cosmovision of honouring Mother Earth – said Hugo. We are a small population of approximately 2,000 comparable to 16,000 when the Spaniards invaded us in the 16th century. Yes, we are a small group but we are determined to preserve our ancestral territory and we are one of the very few Amazonian ethnic groups that widely speak our native language.
Hugo’s comments above were then extended in subsequent essays in which he described how the notion of sovereignty based on ‘power and control’ in his home country of Ecuador was a new concept for him. In his view, sovereignty is a foreign concept for him because he comes from a collectivist society in which the well-being of Cofan members is expressed in the reciprocal respectful relationship with all community members humans and non-humans (rivers, mountains, and spiritual deities). I was fascinated by the loving way in which Hugo described his homeland. He also expressed concerning well-being issues being faced by Cofan people such as water contamination affecting their health and food security caused by oil spills, and also their constant battle against the encroachment of ancestral land by oil companies.
At the end of our last seminar, Hugo came and gave me a beautiful ‘Cofan beaded necklace’ handmade by his Cofan grandmother. Pic on the right.
It is made of colourful feathers and chambira palm fiber (a palm native to the Western parts of the Amazon rainforest vegetation in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia). Such beautiful gift was a symbol of unity between Indigenous peoples and also served as a formal invitation from Hugo’s community to come and visit them.
I kindly accepted his invitation and earlier this month, I embarked on a journey to visit Hugo’s ancestral territory specifically to the still-remote communities of Zabalo and Dureno. On 7th July 2007, I arrived in Quito and from there I continued to Lago Agrio (8 hours by bus from Quito). Lago Agrio is a border Amazonian town with Colombia, and Peru so lots going on! It is also a great stop to try some exotic fruits, great coffee and foremost meet up with Hugo who will lead the way to the Cofan people. From Lago Agrio, Hugo, his wife, three years old daughter, and myself travelled by canoe down the Cuyabeno lakes and into the Aguarico River.
Travelling down the sacred Aguarico River to get to the pristine Amazonian territory of the Cofan nation was a unique experience! During this trip, I met many Cofan people and also elders Lorenzo and Mauricio who are regarded highly by their peers for their active and warrior approach against the transformational pressures brought on by modern industrial development in their rain forest environment. In effect, it is their self-determination as peoples of the land that has led them to confront the government and oil companies for decades in defence of their ‘sovereignty’ rights as Indigenous peoples and thereby well-being.
In the early 80s with the intensification of oil drilling, the wildlife surrounding Cofan ancestral territories started to disappear, and environmental, social and economic issues started to emerged! Just to mention a few issues: Texaco dumped thousands of gallons of post-drilling wastewater into the rainforest, oil spills contaminating their ancestral land, and polluting their rivers threatens the health, food security and well-being of their community members. Because their rivers were contaminated fish started to die, oils spills expanded into the rainforest causing for the plant life to die and subsequently native birds either migrated for survival or simply died, and the same sad destiny was faced by the wild animals such as monkeys and tapir.
At present times, the Cofan people live in the epicentre of the oil exploration industry putting their future in doubt (see map below). Dureno is one of the largest Cofan communities is in constant threat of the global thirst for oil companies that keeps attracting corporate giants into their jungle region. In response to such threat, the Cofan are asserting their rights in the contemporary environmental and political system.
How this minority ethnic group is doing it? I tell you how:
- They refuse to accept the Ecuadorian governments’ orders to consent oil drilling in their pristine lands.
- Preserving their language: Cofan is widely spoken in all their main communities.
- Preserving their unique traditional costumes, rituals and beliefs, and in doing so they are asserting their cultural identity.
- Empowering and educating community members to become leaders and stewards of the land, and the environment. Hugo Lucitante an American and Latin American concentrator at the prestigious Brown University is a key example of it.
- Working along with trustworthy academics to develop innovative strategies to protect their culture, and environmental assets. For example, anthropologist Michael Cepek has been working with Cofan people to develop and document innovative strategies in support of their cultural and environmental preservation.
Last but not least, they are currently working to bring back some of the traditional foods, and diversify their diets. I observed that they have a very limited choice of foods consisting mainly of banana, fish and monkeys. Hugo and I, are working together on a ‘Food security/sovereignty’ project to revitalise Cofan’s agricultural system. In doing so, the Cofan people are taking back control of their well-being, and affirming that sovereignty is not an illusion!