The Cofan people are an indigenous tribe who reside mainly along the large rivers that run through northeastern Ecuador and southeastern Colombia. Native to the region, the Cofan are well known for being capable hunters and fishers as well as their practice of subsistence agriculture. The indigenous people are also famous for spearheading efforts to shield their lands from the effects of encroachment by oil, mining and colonial interests.
The Cofan refer to themselves as the “A’i,” derived from the A’ingae language commonly spoken among the indigenous people. According to recent statistics, around 60-percent of natives are fluent in this language. The indigenous group is also well versed in Spanish and intermarriage with both Secoya and Siona indigenous peoples have given the Cofan a large degree of bilingualism.
Throughout their lengthy existence, the Cofan have kept their culture and beliefs alive through a variety of means. These indigenous people were able to resist overwhelming pressure to conform themselves and their culture to fit Western sensibilities. The result is an authentic and uncompromised culture that is rich in art and heritage. The Cofan are well known for their artistic abilities, a positive trait the indigenous people capitalize on to promote and generate support for their cause.
Shamanism plays a critical role in the indigenous Cofan culture. The yage ceremony, also known as the ayahuasca, allows Cofan tribe members to communicate with their ancestors in search of knowledge and advice. During the ceremony, tribe members consume a concoction made from hallucinogenic plant extracts to physically and mentally purge the body. This way, Shamans can easily undergo “transformations” into animals and communicate with the spirit world. This religious influence is also readily visible in the various works of art produced by the indigenous people.
There are currently estimated to be approximately 2,100 Cofan indigenous people within their traditional homelands. Approximately 1,600 ethnic tribe members currently residing within the Ecuadorian territory and approximately 500 to 700 currently reside in Columbia. These numbers are far cry from the estimated 15,000 Cofan who lived during the mid-16th century. Spanish conquest decimated the majority of Cofan natives, while modern threats such as disease, violence and displacement caused by oil, logging and mining exploration have been instrumental in reducing both the land and population of the Cofan.
The Cofan has spearheaded efforts to set aside areas of the rain forest while ensuring legal protection for various indigenous communities. Various communities are also hard at work to create local school infrastructure for their young, in addition to other humanitarian efforts. As a result of the devastation brought on by oil exploration and mining, the Cofan sought and eventually gained control of nearly 4,000 square kilometers of rain forest. Along with this important area, the Cofan people also occupy and control the Cofan Bermejo Ecological Reserve, a 510 square kilometer reserve. Due to the political instability of neighboring Colombia and the difficulties it presents for travel, tourists often steer clear of the area, prompting the Cofan to export much of their artistic items abroad.
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