Cofan Ranger Pizarras Station
Ever wonder how Cofan rangers manage to protect over 1 million acres of biodiverse, pristine forest? One of their most important tactics is to build ranger stations in strategic areas, and use them during their month-long stints in the field.
The first of these stations, Pizarras Station, was built in 2005 and is still in use almost 10 years later.
The Cofan Nation has aggressively sought to reclaim control of its ancestral territories during the past two decades. Treaties with Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment, gaining land titles and actual property purchase are all strategies we’ve applied in the process of regaining rights to approximately 430,000 hectares (1,000,000 acres, or about the size of Delaware) of mountains, montane forests, and lowland tropical jungles. To manage this legacy, the Cofan Nation, working through Cofan Survival Fund, established the Cofan Ranger Program in 2003.
The Cofan rangers are a trained group of Cofan men and women who work continuously to patrol and monitor Cofan territories, maintaining boundary trails, confronting invaders, monitoring water and ecosystem quality, and enforcing both environmental and community regulations. Equipped with radios, GPS, and other modern tools, rangers spend a month at a time in the field, carrying out their various tasks and serving as the “front line” for conservation of Cofan territories. Originally, the rangers worked as patrols—five-person teams who camped on the trail and responded to threats in Cofan territories wherever they occurred. However, team administrators quickly realized certain areas were constant points of friction, and merited a much more permanent presence than patrols provided.
The Pizarras Station is located on the south bank of the Aguarico River on the northern border of Cayambe-Coca National Park. Built in 2005 by Cofan Survival Fund, it was the first of several similar permanent stations established to control and monitor friction points within Cofan ancestral territories and protect the area from would-be settlers, miners, commercial hunters and fishers and lumbermen. Puerto Libre, a mestizo town established in the mid 1900s, is directly across the river from the site, and despite both Ministry of Environment and Cofan legal rights to the area, individuals and organized businesses represent a constant threat to the area’s integrity. The station was thus created to serve as a solid and permanent residence for at least two full-time Cofan rangers, and to present a clear image of official protection to those thinking about entering the territory without permission.
Capuchin monkey at Pizarras station
Pizarras directly controls over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of forest, and includes the watershed of several small rivers as well as the Cofanes and Aguarico Rivers. Despite this formidable mandate, it generally takes only two people per month to maintain the status quo. Once a year, a patrol will spend a month in the area to clear boundary trails and help with local activities.
Logistics for visiting Pizarras Station is very straightforward. By car you can arrive to Puerto Libre, and about one kilometer past Puerto Libre a sign indicates the entrance to the Pizarras site. A short drive on a secondary gravel road through a couple of cow pastures puts you at the edge of the Aguarico. After parking your car, move down to the river and call the station located directly across the river, at which point the rangers will paddle across to pick you up.
From the station, trails fan out to provide access for the daily patrols of the station managers. The trail following the Aguarico—constantly in use to keep miners at bay—features incredible views of the river; a cave with resident nests of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock; frequent chances to see monkeys, toucans, and other local wildlife; and sport fishing for dorados, a famous game fish, if the river is low. Other trails lead up into the mountains. A three-day hike leads to the Rio Cofanes via high cloud forest passes where spider monkeys, Spectacled Bears, and other rare mammals abound. Going downriver, one catches a third trail which takes you in to the fabled Ccuccono, a small river renowned for its millions of fish. Tapirs, giant otters, and even a mystery animal as of yet still not identified add to the excitement of this area.
Cock of the Rock, by Alvaro del Campo
Baby tapir, by Leo Gomez
The station was designed for both impressiveness and for low-maintenance. While the normal staff of a station is only two rangers, it’s not unusual for a station to be a temporary home for one or two full patrols. Likewise, stations serve as camps for visitors from the Ministry of Environment, donors, scientists, and other legitimate guests. Because of this, we built the buildings spacious, with plenty of room for sleeping bags.
The station’s loft, a second story protected by a galvanized iron roof, serves as the ideal way for patrols coming in from camps on boundary trails or working in the mountains to dry clothes and equipment in a climate where rain is a constant.
Cement posts and foundations speak to the need for permanence. In the rain forest, the first and most vulnerable part of a house is always the posts—subject to moisture, direct contact with the soil, and the bacteria, fungi, insects and other menaces, no wood lasts more than ten or 15 years in the ground. So while it’s not even something most outsiders would even notice, concrete foundations speak very strongly to local people of permanence and strength.
A frame construction with planed wood combines with paint to make a similar statement. Use of already fallen trees or trees which are at risk—lightning struck, hollow, or otherwise compromised—means a low environmental impact.
Aguarico River at Pizarras
Since Pizarras’ establishment, commercial hunting and fishing activities in the area have virtually ceased, farming settlers have stopped all activities, and lumbering is a thing of the past. However, gold miners continue to pressure the area, sneaking across using inner tubes to pan and escaping when a ranger appears. With the present high price of gold, this is a problem that won’t disappear, but Cofan rangers have been able to minimize its environmental impacts.
During its first years, Pizarras Station was subject to multiple attacks from the neighboring mestizo communities and from commercial interests resentful of being monitored and excluded. These included armed attacks. One in particular demonstrates how the rangers work and how threats are handled:
At the time, Roberto Aguinda, head of CSF’s activities in Sucumbios, and Randy Borman, CSF director, were in Peru for meetings involving several different indigenous organizations and NGOs. They were eating dinner when they received a cellphone call from the Pizarras Station team. In Cofan, the rangers told them that a group of six armed men had just crossed the river, and were sneaking up on the station. They told the rangers to get out and sneak our boat across the river to the mestizo side and wait while they made more calls.
From Lima, Peru, they called the military command post at Lumbaqui, the closest Ecuadorian armed forces to Pizarras, and within five minutes, an armed patrol was on its way. Meanwhile, our rangers had crossed the river and were waiting, and 45 minutes after our rangers called Randy and Roberto, a military patrol armed to the teeth was in position. The would-be attackers had by then moved up to the house and were yelling for the rangers to come out and preparing to set fire to the station. The military patrol moved in at that point; the assailants fled, leaving their guns and machetes behind. Two were captured and held for questioning, although political ties eventually resulted in their release. But none of that particular group has threatened the area again.
Most of our stations have become relatively peaceful assignments during the past three years. The “bad old days” of people shooting at our rangers from across the river or trying to force their way in to clear fields or cut down trees are gone, and instead, there is a respectful attitude which reflects an acceptance that there will be rules and regulations and that these Cofan lands are truly off-limits for extractive activities.
However, we recognize very clearly that this peace is fragile. At our Gueppi station in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, for example, it took only two weeks of ranger absence for commercial hunters to invade. This applies to all of our stations, and especially one facing as many constant threats as Pizarras. Without this station, we would quickly lose control of the region, with miners, lumbermen, hunters, fishers, and settlers moving in rapidly.
At present, we operate four full time and three part time stations. We hope to increase our coverage to include three new sites during the coming years 2013-2014, with a pledge for funding from Off the Mat, Into the World for a new station in Rio Cofanes Territory.We hope to acquire more funding to be able to keep full-time teams in all ten of these key locations. At stake is the health of over 430,000 hectares of pristine and well-cared for rain forests, mountains, and highlands.