Randall Borman

Internationally Known Amazon Conservationist Named Waubonsee “Fab 40”

Randall Borman, seen here in 1998 receiving the Field Museum’s Parker-Gentry Award for Excellence in Conservation Biology, has successfully led the indigenous Cofan tribe of Ecuador to preserve their heritage and environment. Waubonsee Community College is proud to honor him as one of the college’s “Fabulous 40” alumni.
Sugar Grove — It is a long way from St. Charles, Ill., to the Amazon basin of Ecuador — about 3,000 miles as the crow flies. While to the outside observer, Randall Borman looks like any other Fox Valley resident, he is infinitely more at home in the rain forests of Ecuador. Borman has spent his life living with and leading the indigenous Cofan tribe of Ecuador, helping fight the dual threats to their culture — environmental destruction and economic ruin. Waubonsee Community College is proud to honor him as one of the college’s “Fabulous 40” alumni.

As part of the college’s yearlong 40th anniversary celebration, Waubonsee is honoring 40 alumni and students who embody the mission, vision and values of the college. These individuals represent the diversity of Waubonsee’s students and the college district, as well as the diversity of the college’s mission as a comprehensive community college.

Borman’s life story is tied to the history of the Cofan. At one time, prior to European contact hundreds of years ago, the Cofan numbered more than 15,000. Over time, European colonists and more recently, oil companies, pushed further and further into the Cofan territory, bringing disease, environmental destruction, and cultural downfall. By the time Borman’s parents came to the jungle, the Cofan’s numbers had dwindled to only 1,500.

Borman has been connected to Ecuador and the Cofan literally since his birth. His parents were missionaries who were living with the Cofan since the early 1950s. They came to the Cofan to learn their language so that they could translate the New Testament into Cofan. Born in the Ecuadorian rainforest, Borman would straddle the line between the western world and the Cofan indigenous culture. His education was western-based, but he was raised as one of the Cofan, learning their language and customs.

“I grew up loving the outdoors, hunting, hiking, exploring the rain forest and the mountains,” he said. “Growing up in two cultures seemed relatively natural. I was used to the idea of being a Cofan in the forest and a missionary kid with an American background in school, for example.  Adjusting to the US was rough, however!”

After graduating from the Alliance Academy in Quito, Ecuador, in 1973, Borman spent a year at Michigan State University. After his freshman year, he returned to the Ecuadorian rain forest and the Cofan for eight months.

“I found my Cofan people facing the massive invasion of our territories,” he said. “This began what has become a lifelong fight to regain control over as much of our territories as possible and to develop mechanisms that will allow us to conserve and maintain them.”

Borman would return to the United States and enroll at Waubonsee. His father was from the Geneva-St. Charles area and he would live in St. Charles while a student at Waubonsee, riding his bike to class each day and working at St. Charles’ Merry-Go-Round Nursery.

“I returned for the year at Waubonsee, which was a true highlight in my formal education,” he said. “I found most of the instructors to be very hands-on type people, which was a tremendous relief after the time in Michigan State.”

At Waubonsee, Borman was an active student; he took karate and went on ride-alongs with the Aurora police for class assignments. He would also serve as news editor of the student newspaper, Insight, and adopted some unconventional tactics to spur readership.

“I enjoyed journalism tremendously, and the editorial writing was fun,” he said. “I would write an editorial, for example, concerning student apathy, and then write a letter to the editor completely rebutting the original editorial; then sit back to listen to everyone’s comments.  Although I always signed both editorials and letters with my own name, I don’t think anyone outside of our newsroom ever stumbled onto the fact that the same person was writing both sides of the story.”

With his credits from Michigan State and Advanced Placement credits he earned in high school, Borman graduated from Waubonsee with an associate degree in just one year. He then returned to Ecuador to work on helping the Cofan retain land rights. He would also study at Universidad Catolica in Quito to learn Spanish in order to better represent the Cofan with the Spanish-speaking government.

“On a purely material level, we as a people faced an almost total loss of territory, massive pollution from oil companies, and a tremendous cultural clash as we tried to deal with the Ecuadorian world without even any Spanish to back us,” he said. “By 1974, the Cofans were down to nothing. We began to fight for our rights then, having to learn Spanish, learning how to deal with the government bureaucracies to get our first land titles and develop our economic possibilities.”

Drawing on his Waubonsee experience and education, Borman’s understanding of the power of the press was vital to advancing the interests of the Cofan.

“We actively fought new exploration attempts by oil companies to a stand still in the 1990s, even as we expanded our land base and developed first-of-their-kind treaties with the Ministry of Environment,” he said.

This literal fight for survival took place against incredible odds, and Borman led the Cofan to unprecedented success.

“I have spent most of my life fighting for indigenous rights and the conservation of our rain forests,” he said. “At present we control over 1,000,000 acres of some of the best quality rain forests in the world, with the highest levels of biodiversity found on the planet. We have established a solid conservation force, with 60 trained Cofans doing the patrolling and management of these forests. Since the late 1960s any number of articles and books have suggested that the Cofans were doomed to extinction and acculturation. The fact that the culture and its lands are strong and in good shape is something I am very proud of, and I like to think I have helped make that happen.”

Borman has served as executive director of Fundación para la Sobrevivencia del Pueblo Cofan, president of Cofan Survival Fund, president of Instituto para la Conservación y Capacitación Ambiental (ICCA), and last but not least, Dirigente (roughly translatable as chief) de Tierras (Territories) for the Cofan Federation of Ecuador.

One of the keys to the economic success of the Cofan has come from Borman’s innovative development of ecotourism, the first to do so in the region and a worldwide leader in the field. He received the José Tobar Award for his work in community ecotourism by the Ministerio de Turismo de Ecuador.

“Ecotourism sort of just happened,” he said. “We got into ecotourism as a way of making a living while handling the community work, as of 1978.  I continued to do ecotourism with a group of my Cofan friends until 1998, still do an occasional special request trip.”

Another key to the survival of the Cofan, outside of securing their land rights, was Borman’s commitment to environmentalism and conservation. He supported this with additional scientific education and field work. He completed apprenticeships in herpetology with Dr. Charles Fugler of Auburn University, in ethnobotany with Dr. Homer Pinkley and Dr. Wade Davis of Harvard University, and in ornithology with Dr. David Pearson and Dr. Dan Tallman.

“We formed Cofan Survival Fund, and developed our conservation programs to go for long-term control and management of our territories, and in the years since, have dedicated most of our time to conservation work,” he said.

Borman is a world-renowned expert on the flora and fauna of the Ecuadorian rain forest in the Amazonian basin, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. His environmental and conservation efforts have gone far beyond merely saving thousands of acres of rain forest. Specific groundbreaking projects have helped repopulate endangered river turtle populations and utilize conservation and wildlife management techniques within the Cofan’s day-to-day life. One such project substitutes fiberglass canoe construction for the traditional dug-out canoes, which require mature trees to construct.

For his excellence in both biology and conservation, Borman has received three significant awards. In 1995, he was awarded the Friends of the United Nations 50th Anniversary Award in Forestry and Renewable Resources. In 1997, he received the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Award for Conservation Excellence. And in 1998, Chicago’s Field Museum gave Borman the Parker-Gentry Award for Excellence in Conservation Biology. He continues to conduct field studies and rapid biological inventories for the Field Museum.

Borman’s story has been told to an international audience through a variety of media. The book, “Amazon Stranger: A Rainforest Chief Battles Big Oil,” by Mike Tidwell, highlights Borman’s successful efforts to preserve the Cofan culture and territories. He has also been featured in Life magazine, by CBS news, on the A&E network, and in a number of other international newspaper, magazine and television features. He frequently consults on television programs featuring the Ecuadorian rain forest.

With Borman’s nontraditional background, it is no surprise that how he met his wife, Amelia Quenama de Borman, is quite a story. Borman lived next to cousins of Amelia, whom she happened to be visiting when a major earthquake hit the region in March 1987. Transportation was essentially halted, so she had to stay for a month, which provided the circumstances for the two to fall in love.

“We were married in July of the same year, so it didn't take us that long to figure out we were meant for each other,” he said.

Borman and his wife now have three sons. Felipe is currently studying at Knox College in Galesburg. Federico and Joshua are students at Borman’s alma mater, the Alliance Academy in Quito. Their sons are all trilingual, speaking Cofan, English and Spanish. In Quito, Borman provides housing for Cofan youth who are pursuing their education there.

Although Borman and his wife now live in Quito, he regularly returns to the jungle and the various Cofan communities. He has a second home in Zabalo, Ecuador, where he spent much of the past three decades. Borman’s commute is extreme to say the least. He makes weekly trips into the jungle for meetings and work projects. This includes a five-hour drive from Quito to Lago Agrio, where the headquarters of the Cofan community is located, then another six hours by motorized river canoe to his home in Zabalo.

“I knew my life was going to be very different from the average US resident, and I knew I would return to work in Ecuador, but I didn't have any way of knowing all the ways life would turn during the past decades,” he said. “I think I probably have done more than I ever expected.”

In spite of his constant battles through the years, Borman remains optimistic for the future of the Cofan and the environment.

“For Ecuador? For the Amazon? There are lots of wild cards,” Borman said. “We're here in 2007 against all predictions and some pretty incredible odds. I think we've got a future. A lot depends on the next generation and the level of education they get. Ecuador is likewise hanging in there, and I think we'll probably pull off saving at least our part of the Amazon for the long haul. Global warming, future water wars, etc. notwithstanding!”