Race to save Ecuador's 'lungs of the world' park

Napo river, Ecuador The Napo River in Ecuador, an Amazon tributary, runs for 1,075km (668 miles)

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The Yasuni National Park, known as "the lungs of the world" and one of the most bio-diverse places on earth, is under threat from oil drilling. The race is on to find the funds required to develop new sustainable energy programmes that would leave the oil - and the forest - untouched.

In the early light of dawn, the Napo River, running swiftly from its headwaters in the high Andes, swirled powerfully past the bow of our motorised canoe.

Suddenly, a dense cloud of green parrots swooped down from the canopy of the jungle and in a cackling din started scooping tiny beakfuls from the exposed muddy bank.

The heavy mineral rich clay, the birds seem to know, is an antidote to the toxins present in the seeds of the forest which are a major part of their daily diets.

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As if on cue at 07:30 local time, as the first rays of the sun touched the water, they took flight and were gone and one of the most wonderful spectacles of Amazonian Ecuador was over.

We were drifting on the fringes of the Yasuni National Park, which has more plant species in its million hectares (3,860 sq miles) of swamps, jungle and marsh, than the entirety of North America.

The pygmy marmoset - the world's smallest monkey - sloths and giant otters are among many other threatened species to find home in the park.

There are also some 300 members of the last nomadic hunter-gatherers on earth, who choose to live in total isolation as they have for thousands of years.

Fund-raising mission

It was a strange thought that people who have no concept of modern life could be watching us from the impenetrable jungle close by.

Start Quote

The Yasuni ITT fund will save biodiversity, isolated tribal communities, and prevent millions of tons of carbon going into the atmosphere”

End Quote Eduardo Pichilingue Save Yasuni campaigner

In Quito, Ecuador's capital, I talked to Yvonne Baki, the government special envoy who now heads the Yasuni fund-raising mission to save the forest from oil drilling.

Wasn't it strange to expect the global community to pay Ecuadoreans not to despoil one their most valuable natural assets? I asked Ms Baki.

"Yasuni and the Amazon are the lungs of the world," she told me.

"The Yasuni fund will be used to finance reforestation, develop new sources of alternative energy and other strategic sustainable development programs.

"Now we've opened it to everyone in the world, from private individuals to corporations, as well as national governments. We are not a rich country, yet in one day here we raised $3m - most of it from ordinary people.

"This is a unique project - what other country even thinks of leaving its oil wealth in the ground?" Ms Baki continued.

The clock though is still ticking for Yasuni.

The government initially demanded that $100m (£64m) had to be donated by the end of December 2011. If not oil drilling would get the green light.

The deadline has been put back but Rocque Sevilla, a former politician and conservationist who was the first director of the Yasuni Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini (ITT) project, thinks that the world is not yet ready for such an innovative concept.

Cash contributions

"It is perfectly achievable if we give enough time to the industrialised countries to understand the huge advance in international environmental policy that the ITT project represents," Mr Sevilla said.

"We in Ecuador too have to understand that, with the rich alternative sources of energy we have, from hydro-electricity to solar power, we can use far less oil," Mr Sevilla concluded.

Macaw parrot The majority of macaw parrot species in Yasuni park are now endangered

Small yellow boxes for donors to give cash contributions are now in place in Ecuadorean post offices and government offices. Marco Toscano, a friend who drove me to Quito's airport to catch the plane to the jungle region, told me he would stop by on the way home to put $100 into the fund.

"Many people in Ecuador had no idea about the importance of Yasuni. Now many of us are determined to help in any way we can," Mr Toscano said.

In the bustling oil town of Coca, on the banks of the Napo river, I meet Eduardo Pichilingue, who has worked monitoring the uncontacted tribes of Yasuni.

For him it is simply a matter of payback time.

"There are areas of Ecuadorean Amazonia which have already been ruined by oil exploitation," Mr Pichilingue said as I boarded my canoe.

"The Yasuni ITT fund will save biodiversity, isolated tribal communities, and prevent millions of tons of carbon going into the atmosphere. I think the world really owes us this," Mr Pichilingue continued.

Two hours downstream from Coca, I land on the edge of the Yasuni park. There the Curi Muyu co-operative run by Kichwa Indian women demonstrates to visitors how tribal people can live in total harmony with the jungle.

Antonia Aguinda, a small vibrant woman, shows me a fine earthenware bowl which she made and fired in the simple kiln at the centre of the cool thatched living space.

"The oil business is bad for us," Ms Aguinda said.

"Some people get jobs and money - some don't. It divides us against each other. And how long will oil last - maybe 10 years?

"If we can save Yasuni then we all will have work and can continue to share this beautiful place with people from far away."

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