Hugo Lucitante & Women of Kofán

STORY BY EMILY MARTLAND 
PHOTOS BY HUGO LUCITANTE & JOSH SONDOCK

The Kofán people live in the Amazonian Rainforest, along the Ecuador-Colombia border.  Once numbered around 30,000 people, exposure to diseases brought over by European colonialists and later environmental degradation greatly reduced their numbers.  Today, the Kofán population reaches only about 2,000, divided between the Ecuadorian and Colombian sides of the border.  The discovery of oil in the 1960s further challenged the Kofán way of life, as large, multi-national oil companies encroached further and further upon Kofán land in the search for profit.  Beyond seizing Kofán land, the oil companies destroyed jungles and polluted rivers, devastating ecosystems in which the Kofán had previously found food.  Today, for the Kofán, it’s a “fight for survival,” Hugo Lucitante explains, as the community works to gain land titles and negotiate with multinational oil corporations, seeking “alternative ways” to “survive into the future.”

A sophomore at Brown University, Hugo was born in the Kofán community Zábalo.  One of about twelve Kofán communities, Zábalo is the farthest from the nearest town, requiring a drive of roughly ten hours. When Hugo was a child, the Kofán people participated in a community-led tourism project, selling their jewelry and handicrafts.  Hugo remembers “being taught to make jewelry, bracelets, and necklaces,” in a process that involved everyone in the community, both parents and children.  However, the drug wars in Colombia and the resulting kidnappings led to travel advisories and bans that all but ended the tourist trade by the early 2000s.

As a result, the Kofán community needs to find new forms of income, new ways of surviving.  As Hugo describes it, “times have changed” and “kids have to go to school” so the community can have “people who have college, professional titles to help with the survival of the Kofán people.”  However, with the greatly-reduced tourist trade and the loss of Kofán land, it can be extremely difficult to find the money necessary to send children to school.  Although the people in the community continue to have the traditional knowledge they have held for generations, there remains the matter of “finding a market,” creating “a platform or website” to reach the wider international community.  

Today, for the Kofán, it’s a “fight for survival” ... seeking “alternative ways” to “survive into the future.”

Hugo himself left Zábalo for the first time in 1997, at age ten.  Due to the poorly maintained roads, his journey to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, took over twelve hours.  As a result of Quito’s high altitude, the city was low in oxygen and freezing cold.  Arriving in Quito, Hugo remembers being shocked by the size of the city and the number of people present.  From the Ecuadorian capital, Hugo flew to Seattle, Washington, where he would begin school.  

Used to speaking his native language of Kofán, in Seattle, Hugo needed to learn English.  As he remembers, “the language took about six months.”  Originally he spent his time observing, listening to everything, until he began to understand.  Two years later, at age twelve, Hugo spoke in front of the United Nations at the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum.  

The invitation to the United Nations came about as a result of a middle school teacher who had a connection to the UN.  Hugo still considers his experience at the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum as a “wake up call,” the first event that really made him think about the way the Kofán were represented in the international community and the possibilities for getting the Kofán story to a broader audience.  After speaking at the UN, throughout high school, Hugo organized fundraisers, collecting “anything from school supplies to some medicine” to send back to the Kofán community.  After high school, Hugo was elected to serve as the Community Development Organizer for the Kofán Federation, a political body that represents the twelve Kofán communities.  With the Federation, Hugo had the opportunity to experience the political system, learning about indigenous movements and the struggles faced by such organizations to sustain themselves.  

Hugo has continued his work in support of the Kofán while at Brown, founding the Kofán-Brown Students Alliance, both to raise awareness about the Kofán people and to help interested Brown Students get involved.  Hugo emphasizes that, within the alliance, there is space for a “very broad group of students,” including people interested in health or environmental issues, as well as engineers who can help brainstorm alternative means of transportation, given the remote nature of Kofán land.  Furthermore, as a member of the Royce Fellowship, Hugo is working on the Kofán Heritage Project, a research project in which he compares the accounts of Spanish colonizers with the memories held by the Kofán people themselves, in an effort to reconstruct what really happened and ultimately bring the voice of the Kofán people to an international audience.

(Proceeds from shop sales will go towards the Kofán artists.)