Ecuador will open bidding for a major oil project in a jungle nature reserve in June if the poor Andean country does not receive international funding to abandon the proposal, the oil minister said Monday.
The government says a minimum of 350 million U.S. dollars a year from the international community for ten years would ensure that no drilling takes place in the Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha fields located in Yasuní National Park, in Ecuador's northeastern jungle.
The money would compensate Ecuador for income it would have generated by drilling for oil at the site.
The jungle area, which is thought to hold close to a billion barrels of crude, is part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Some environmentalists say the reserve has more varieties of plant life than the United States and Canada combined.
President Rafael Correa has said Ecuador was not asking for the money as "charity" but as a way for the international community to recognize its "shared responsibility" for preserving Yasuní as a major source of biodiversity.
On Monday Ecuadorean Oil Minister Galo Chiriboga told Teleamazonas TV that if the money is not collected by June 15, bidding on the fields will begin the following day.
"Either the international support not to drill is obtained or we go ahead with the auction," he said.
Proponents and Critics
The proposal, announced by Ecuador earlier this year, has been praised by some environmentalists as an innovative way to compensate poor nations for not drilling.
"It's a real pioneer proposal for an oil exporter," Kevin Koenig, of California-based environmental organization Amazon Watch told the Associated Press. "Ecuador is making a sacrifice to try to make this happen."
Ecuadorean environmental group Cedenma said it was skeptical of the government's intentions after Monday's announcement that it may open bidding.
"It again demonstrates to public opinion the government's intentions to cede once again before the (oil drilling interests) who definitively threaten Ecuador's natural ecosystems," the group said in a statement.
Ecuador is South America's fifth-largest oil producer, with a daily production of around a half-million barrels of crude.
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