Saving Yasuni

A na Alban, Ecuador's former environment minister, now her country's ambassador in London, had explained before we left England: "Now that the election campaign has started, the vice-president, Lenin Moreno, becomes president for the duration of the campaign. He is planning to make a televised address to the nation from the Amazon region in the last week of the campaign and we hope to meet him there. This will be his last national broadcast before he retires. He is not standing for re-election."

Apart from the ambassador, my fellow guest on the trip is Genoveva Casanova, director of Spain's Casa de Alba Foundation and honorary ambassador for the UN High Commission on Refugees. Alban urges us both to hurry, so we duck under the still-whirring rotors and make our way to the front of the crowd, where seats have been reserved for us.

The president has obviously been well-briefed, because he pauses in his fluent oration long enough to greet each of us by name as we take our seats. The cameraman has clearly been briefed, too, because he zooms in on us as our names are mentioned and, when we look up, we can see our own faces on a giant screen. We can also glimpse behind us the serried ranks of Quechua people who have come in from Añangu and the surrounding area for what, for them, must be the event of a lifetime.

Man of inspiration
Moreno, the man siting just a few feet from me with a microphone in his hand and a warm smile on his face, is one of the most remarkable men in South American politics. Born in 1953, he was pursuing a successful career as a businessman in Quito when, in 1998, he was the victim of a car-jacking. Shot in the back and confined to a wheelchair ever since, he came to terms with his disability and took up a political career, being inaugurated as vice-president in 2006. Much of his energies have been devoted to improving the lives of the disabled in Ecuador and, boy, did they need improving.

Wheelchair ramps have sprung up across Ecuador. People with severe disabilities now receive $300 monthly stipends from the government. And Moreno has helped draw up a law that compels Ecuadorian companies to set aside at least 4 per cent of jobs for people with disabilities. He recently pledged that the government would reach out to all disabled people who needed help. That, he said, amounted to a revolution.

Last year, Moreno was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. More than two-and-a-half million signatures were collected endorsing him, and 180 countries signalled their support. In the event, the prize was awarded to the European Union — a decision greeted on most sides with distinctly underwhelming enthusiasm.

One of the reasons we have all gathered in the remote heart of the rainforest this February morning is undoubtedly Moreno's wish to demonstrate that his disability is not going to prevent him from going wherever he is needed and doing whatever he has to do. And that includes going to the Amazon. In a sense, he is returning to his roots: he was born and raised in the Amazon, at Nuevo Rocafuerte on the Ecuador-Peru border. Coming back to the Amazon to give the last speech of his career (for now at least) is obviously of great personal and symbolic significance.

As the president speaks, I can't help thinking of my own first visit to the Amazon, more than 50 years ago. In 1959, I spent part of my "gap year" in South America, hitchhiking across the continent through Brasil, Bolivia and Peru. On the way back I decided to visit Brasilia, Brasil's new capital, which was then being constructed in the Amazon. The country's then-president, Juscelino Kubitschek, was quite clear about his intentions: Brasil's, he told the world on many occasions, was to open up its vast Amazon region to development.

Preserve for generations
I have to admit that at the time I had been quite attracted by the notion. I managed to cadge a lift on a lorry going up the long dirt road from Campo Grande in the south-west, all the way to Brasilia, about 550 miles to the north-east. Not surprisingly, after a few days I attracted the attention of the authorities, who asked me whether I would mind being flown on a military plane to Rio. It was more a command than a suggestion. And they weren't going to charge me for the trip.

How things have changed, I was reflecting, just over half a century later. Here was the president of another Amazonian country telling his audience something quite revolutionary — that vast tracts of jungle should not be opened up for exploration and exploitation. On the contrary, they should be preserved — for the benefit of Ecuador, for the benefit of the Ecuadorian region as a whole. (Stanley Johnson/The Independent)


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