In a major example of how the rich world countries are refusing to put their money where their mouth is on climate change, a major U.N.-backed initiative that would have kept fossil fuels underground in the pristine forests of Ecuador has collapsed.

Between Thursday and Friday, as Defence Ministers of three countries sharing the Amazon region — Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador — were discussing plans to improve monitoring of the world’s biggest rainforest, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced that his country was giving up a conservation scheme that would have paid the country not to drill for oil in the Amazon’s previously untouched parts of Yasuni National Park — the most diverse natural zone in the world.

The far-reaching decision that would lead to the demise of the planet’s most creative and ambitious approach to biodiversity conservation, social development and climate change immediately sparked a fiery debate on the future of the world’s biggest eco-system, with Mr. Correa blaming the rich nations for failing to support the scheme to attract donations for Ecuador.

At a news conference on Friday, Mr. Correa said the initiative had attracted only a fraction of the cash it had aimed to raise.

With only $13 million so far in actual donations, he said he had been forced to abandon the fund as “the world has failed us”.

“It was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change,” said Mr. Correa, who had launched the scheme in 2010 with the aim of raising $3.6 billion, almost 50 per cent of the value of the reserves in the park’s Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil field, over 13 years.

At that time, the ITT Initiative, as the project is known, was welcomed as an alternative to the efforts of the United Nations to deal with climate change and biodiversity loss as it promised to the keep carbon in the ground in a 2,00,000- hectare corner of the park and, in the process, help to redistribute wealth from rich nations to the developing world and wildlife.

Lip service

But in the past two years, the leaders of developed countries often paid lip service to the project and Hollywood stars appeared for photo-ops in the jungles with thick vines, exotic plants, rare birds and endangered reptiles, but Ecuador’s pleas for funds to stave off local economic pressures fell on deaf ears, even as developing nations like Indonesia and Chile donated a few million dollars to the project.

On Friday, hundreds of people gathered in Quito to protest against Mr. Correa’s decision, but there was no visible anger against the rich countries whose non-cooperation actually led to the scheme’s failure.

Now, a coalition of environmental and indigenous groups is vowing to keep the Ecuadorean government and oil companies out of the area, which is home to at least two isolated tribes. “The government doesn’t have the right to dissolve the Yasuni-ITT Initiative because this doesn't belong to them,” said Esperanza Martinez, the president of the Accion Ecologica environmental group.

“The initiative was a proposal that came from civil society.”

Protests

The debate may turn into angry protests as the groups are planning a series of marches as well as legislative actions to rescue the project. Humberto Cholango, the president of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, has said his group would do “whatever is necessary” to block oil exploration in the area. The Ecuadorean President’s assurance that the oil exploration would leave most of the park untouched, affecting less that one per cent of its area, has done little to douse the anger of environmental activists.

In the region, the collapse of the fund is being seen as a major setback in fight against climate change and efforts to save the Amazon rainforest. Ecuador, which is also home to the Galapagos Islands, is the only country in the world to have recognised the rights of nature in its Constitution.