Ecuador vows to push Yasuni jungle protection plan

QUITO Fri Dec 30, 2011 1:37pm EST

Ecuadorean Mayer Rodriguez, 68, gestures on a suspension bridge over a giant tree at the Yasuni National Park September 9, 2010. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

Ecuadorean Mayer Rodriguez, 68, gestures on a suspension bridge over a giant tree at the Yasuni National Park September 9, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Guillermo Granja

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QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador vowed on Friday to press ahead with a plan to shield the Yasuni reserve in the Amazon jungle from oil companies after international donors pledged more than $100 million in exchange for the government not permitting exploration.

OPEC-member Ecuador says that by not extracting the heavy oil under Yasuni, some 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will not be released into the atmosphere and a jungle area with more tree species than North America will be better protected.

Ecuador is highly dependent on oil exports for economic growth. Leftist President Rafael Correa sought to put pressure on donors, saying that unless they chipped in to protect Yasuni, his cash-strapped government would draw up a plan for oil extraction.

Launched in mid-2010, the Yasuni project was lauded by foreign governments and environmental groups as an innovative way to fight global warming.

But Ecuador's government has struggled to turn that excitement into hard cash given the global downturn. Correa had warned the area would be tapped unless donors agreed to contribute at least $100 million before the end of the year.

"We announce that the target for the Yasuni, the $100 million, has been met ... The president extended the deadline of course," said Ivonne Baki, the head of the Yasuni project.

Foreign governments, individuals and foundations have agreed to contribute nearly $117 million but Ecuador needs to continue raising money to meet its $3.6 billion target by 2024.

Baki said the project could be called off if they fail to raise an additional $580 million by the end of 2013.

"We know there is a global economic crisis but, with the environmental crisis, unless we do something right now it will be too late and it will be much worse than the economic crisis," Baki said.

The funds would be used to develop renewable energy projects, as well as for conservation, reforestation and poverty-reduction efforts in the Amazon. It is Ecuador's poorest region despite the area's vast oil wealth.

The Yasuni initiative applies to three untapped oil blocks collectively known as the ITT that hold 20 percent of Ecuador's heavy crude reserves.

Yasuni as a whole covers an area of 982,000 hectares and is home to a huge array of birds, monkeys and other wildlife including jaguars, giant armadillos and pink-colored dolphins.

(Reporting By Alexandra Valencia; Writing by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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