Located on the flanks of the Andes at approximately 600 meters in elevation, Sinangoe encompasses a distinctive climate and geology, fostering unique biological communities where plant and animal communities from the lowland forests connect with Andean flora and fauna. Though they obtained legal title as a community in 1994, it wasn't until 2002 that Cofán came to an agreement with the Ministry of Environment for rights to use over 250,000 hectares of their ancestral territories within the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve.
In 2022, the Constitutional (Supreme) Court of Ecuador, which is the country's most influential judicial body, ruled that Indigenous communities have the ultimate authority to make decisions regarding oil, mining, and other extractive operations that impact their territories. This is the first time that such a recognition has been made, and it establishes one of the world's most potent legal precedents on the universally recognized right of Indigenous peoples to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. This legal tool is critical for the survival of Indigenous communities and the preservation of vast expanses of forests and highly diverse ecosystems.
The Court's decision arose from a lawsuit filed by the Cofán community of Sinangoe in 2018, which resulted in the nullification of 52 gold-mining concessions granted by the government. Sinangoe hosted the Court's first-ever hearing in Indigenous territory in the Amazon on November 15, 2021. The judgment signifies that Ecuador's highest court supports the right of all Indigenous peoples to make final decisions regarding extractive projects that might impact more than 23 million acres of Indigenous lands and forests across the country.
Located along the Aguarico River, Zábalo totals over 142,000 hectares and is located within the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. Zábalo was founded in the early 1980s by a group of Dureno residents who sought to escape the dramatic ecological and social changes impacting Dureno, including resource scarcity and regular contact with colonists. Zábalo did not receive official property rights until 1992 when they signed a co-management agreement with the Ministry of Environment. Due to their experience in Dureno, Zábalo residents developed a sophisticated resource management system to manage their resources collectively. As a result, Zábalo residents steward rich biological diversity: species richness measures of several biological groups in Zábalo are among the highest on the planet. These species are dispersed across diverse forest and wetland ecosystems, including extensive blackwater rivers and lake systems, swamps, and huge expanses of intact forests where Zábalo residents prohibit hunting. Zábalo residents continue to hunt, fish, and gather daily, and they maintain agricultural fields along the Aguarico River.
In the early 1980s, a group of residents from Dureno relocated to establish the community of Zábalo. As a process of dramatic landscape transformation isolated their territory, resources important to their subsistence livelihood became scarcer. In response, a small group of residents from Dureno relocated to Zábalo, a traditional hunting area, where they were able to secure legal property rights through a co-management agreement with the government. With this move, they utilized their biocultural heritage to develop institutions to tsampima coiraye (care for the environment) in order to avoid the fate of Dureno. Built upon rich knowledge and practices developed over millennia, this institution has dynamically structured Cofán subsistence for the past 40 years. Today, it includes is a complex set of rules and restrictions that range from prohibited areas to limited takes and seasons. It also represents a form of adaptive management: each year community members revise the rules, supporting their positions with reflections from daily subsistence. In addition to this resource use institution, the Cofán have also been successful in excluding outsiders from entering their territory, be it through acts of resistance or park guards who patrol current territorial boundaries. The Cofán of Zábalo, for example, created strategies to patrol and defend their territory. Cofán park guards regularly patrol the territory of Zábalo, maintaining boundary trails and a permanent presence in guard stations located at the boundaries of their territory. Overall, the Cofán have developed diverse intuitions in order to maintain their lands and livelihoods.