New Silicon Valley in the Andes: Promise and paradox

special report In the second installment of a four-part series, Crave's Eric Mack delves into the ways Ecuador's ambitious "City of Knowledge" could change Latin America -- and the wider tech world.

These guys can no longer get this big without some help from humans...and renewable energy. Johanna DeBiase

Editor's note: This is part 2 of an exclusive four-part Crave series on Ecuador's plans to transform itself into a new hub of science, technology, and innovation. Read part 1, " Plotting the next Silicon Valley -- you'll never guess where ."

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, Ecuador--There's a small group of solar panels set up next to a giant tortoise hatchery that's currently under renovation here. It wasn't many decades ago that these remarkable gentle giants -- which never stop growing and can live to be 150 and the size of a kitchen table -- didn't need help from humans to survive in their native habitat.

Ironically, it is the other species humans brought with them to this remote volcanic Pacific archipelago that have endangered these tortoises. Dogs, pigs, goats, rats, and even ants all prey on young tortoises here, making it virtually impossible for them to survive their first few years in the wild. Instead, they're raised in facilities like this one near the Charles Darwin Research Station.

There's plenty more paradox to be found on the Ecuadorian mainland.

The great strides made in the last five years toward modernizing this country after decades of instability have largely been financed by Ecuador's significant oil resources. Yet, as the country's socialist president, Rafael Correa, begins his third term in office pushing forward on perhaps its most ambitious project -- a planned city of science and innovation dubbed "Yachay" that aims to be part Silicon Valley, part Dubai, and part Shenzhen, China -- his administration has opted to lock up one of his country's richest oil deposits.

Solar panels help power tortoise breeding centers like this one on the Galapagos Islands. Eric Mack/CNET

Rather than extract the hundreds of millions of barrels of crude beneath Yasuni National Park, one of the world's most biologically diverse rain forests, Ecuador has instead asked the world to pay it to not drill there. The scheme falls somewhere between crowdfunding and ecological blackmail, but demonstrates a certain amount of audaciousness from a government that also defaulted on a huge chunk of its global bonds after declaring the international debt to be illegitimate.

This is the kind of comfort with paradox that is required of a government hoping to force a small and, until recently, backwards developing nation into a leadership position in the world of science and innovation. But after hearing the pitch and seeing the progress, it's clear some important people outside Ecuador are ready to file this Yachay thing under "so crazy, it just might work."

In addition to support from South Korea and CalTech, the Murdoch Developmental Center in North Carolina's research triangle area has expressed interest in a partnership, as have a few European institutions, according to Rene Ramirez, Ecuador's minister of higher education, science, technology, and innovation.

Cynicism and broken promises
Then again, like many other developing nations, Ecuador is no stranger to cynicism and broken promises. Editorials in Ecuador's media have accused Correa of being wasteful with public funds; the daily newspaper La Hora called Yachay a "farce." In response to the first part of this series , Martin Pallares, a former Knight fellow at Stanford University and a journalist for Quito's El Comercio newspaper tweeted this about the project: "Hope it'll happen but I'm afraid no (Silicon) Valley will pop up in a country run by a President who has banished checks/balances."

Correa has had a thorny relationship with the press, bringing defamation suits against muckracking journalists who have criticized the president, including allegations of corruption. A handful of journalists were convicted and received harsh prison sentences, only to be pardoned by Correa. The confrontations between the government and the press landed Ecuador on the Committee to Protect Journalists' most recent "risk list" alongside Syria, Pakistan, and Iran (nearby Brazil also made the list).

And, of course, there's also the aforementioned cold shoulder given to international investors, giving the wider, capitalist world plenty of reason to smirk at such an ambitious project from such a small and relatively isolated nation.

Yet the team behind Yachay seems willing to put in the work to sell their vision to the world, convinced they've got something to offer.

Ecuador's Yasuni National Park Yasuni-ITT

"It is a City of Knowledge in order to build a country of knowledge," Ramirez tells me on a visit to his ministry's office in the capitol of Quito. "Yachay is linked to the areas of knowledge and the strategic industries that we are hoping to develop in Ecuador."

When the team behind Yachay talks about the project, the paradoxes that make up today's Ecuador combine into a more holistic vision in which the contradictions cancel each other out and disappear as if part of an algebra problem. For example, the work done at Yachay will center around a handful of areas, including renewable energy that could (in theory) reduce the temptation to drill the rain forest, preserving its biological treasures to assist in research into another of Yachay's focus areas -- pharmaceuticals.

The idea would be "not only to produce [generic drugs], but mainly to link it to an area where we have a competitive advantage in Ecuador," Ramirez explains. "We have nearby numerous ecosystems which make this country the most megadiverse in the world."

Of course, the mega-biodiversity Ramirez speaks of is of less value if it's spoiled by pollution and other environmental impacts of oil extraction, so he talks not only of developing more clean energy tech at Yachay -- he claims that only 40 percent of Ecuador's energy demand is met by fossil fuels, a number he says will drop to 6 percent by 2020 -- but also of making improvements when it comes to exploiting all those liquefied dinosaurs and other hydrocarbons.

An overview of the Yachay project. Senescyt

The inclusion of both petrochemistry and renewable energy in that list of strategic industries to be pursued at Yachay is less a paradox than it is playing the cards the country's been dealt. And after a series of oil-related accidents in the country -- Chevron has been ordered to pay billions for contaminating remote tracts of the Ecuadorian jungle -- developing more efficient, safer, and cleaner ways of getting at Ecuador's primary source of wealth is also a good public-relations move.

In addition to working on renewables, petrochemistry, and pharmaceuticals, Ramirez hopes Yachay will also push the envelope in developing information technologies and the more far-out domain of nanotechnology.

Potential boost to global competition
While I don't breach the topic with anyone involved with Yachay, it should at least be noted that carbon nanotubes are at the heart of most designs for the construction of a space elevator , and a locale like Ecuador that sits literally on top of the equator is an ideal site for such an experiment.

Likely though, the fruits of Yachay will be a bit more down to earth. Yachay project manager Ramiro Moncayo (you can read much more about him in tomorrow's installment) believes sitting on the Earth's midsection is also pretty handy for producing and refining solar energy technology. But no matter what the sector or technology, having another center for innovation -- particularly the first of its kind on its continent -- is potentially good for global competition, international relations, and ultimately, consumers.

Perhaps most importantly, Yachay promises to help erase more of humanity's paradoxes.

Back on the Galapagos Islands in 2001, most of the facilities -- including the tortoise breeding centers I mentioned earlier -- were mainly powered by diesel fuel. In that year, a diesel tanker ran aground just off one of the islands and spilled more than 200,000 gallons of fuel into a delicate ecosystem. The spill devastated the population of marine iguanas that are unique to the Galapagos and inspired the drive towards renewable power here.

Today, therefore, the life of a newborn tortoise that will likely outlive you, me, and our children relies on a solar panel planted among piles of volcanic rock in this small country. If the vision for Yachay becomes reality, the technology that makes that possible might also be developed and born here as well.

Tomorrow, in part 3 of our series, we meet the main man behind the Yachay project.

 

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