09/29/2014 12:04 EDT | Updated 11/29/2014 05:59 EST

The Plastic-Eating Mushroom Of The Amazon And Ecuador's Development Dilemma

We've all felt like a mushroom at one point; kept in the dark and fed on s--t. But the humble fungus has taken on a noble role in the fight against the burgeoning global waste crisis. Oyster mushrooms feed on cellulose, the main material used in disposable diapers. The mushrooms have enzymes that break down cellulose, which is why they make for artsy pictures growing on dead trees in the forest. That property also makes them ideal for a less esthetically pleasing role: breaking down soiled disposable diapers in landfills. Cultivating oyster mushrooms on the gooey poop packages breaks down 90 per cent of the diaper in two months. Within four, they are rich soil. Mushrooms can also break down uranium and diesel-contaminated soil. Plastic is by far the worst waste offender. In the 100 years since it was invented, plastic has gone from being a wondrous time-saving material to a modern-day scourge, clogging our landfills, killing marine birds and animals and swirling in our oceans in massive garbage gyres the size of countries. When Yale University students found Pestalotiopsis microspor in the rainforests of Ecuador two years ago, they discovered the first fungus that not only has a voracious appetite for plastic, but can thrive in an oxygen-starved environment, like landfills. Yale is waiting for permission from Ecuador to continue research.

The wondrous plastic-eating mushroom defines Ecuador's development dilemma. Caught between the Scylla of wholesale rainforest destruction for oil wealth and the Charybdis of endless generations of grinding poverty for preserving the rainforest for free, the leaders of an extremely poor country like Ecuador probably have a hard time feeling altruistic. Hundreds of corporations have made billions of dollars from products that were sourced from things like the Amazon fungus with a taste for plastic. The cure for cancer is undoubtedly waiting in the Amazon in the toenails of some bright-blue tree frog, or the slimy underside of some exotic, insect-eating bush or another. It's obvious that the Amazon must be fiercely protected from destruction. I think multinational companies, particularly pharmaceuticals, who have made hundreds of millions of dollars from products based on the natural treasures of the Amazon, have a vested interest in preserving the rainforest, but I hold out scant hope that they will act. I firmly believe there is a solution out there and I invite readers with philosophical or economics training to write my Facebook page with their solutions on how to compensate Amazon countries for preserving the Amazon so they don't have to rely on rapacious development. I will give full credit and try to pass your ideas on to the right agencies.

The lure of oil wealth in Ecuador has divided two sisters who were inseparable as kids in the remote community of Sana Isla on Ecuador's Napo River. Two generations ago, the Kishwa tribe of Sana Isla were still using blowpipes and had only recently made contact with the outside world. The tiny community is in one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth. Scientists say a single hectare in this part of the Amazon contains a wider variety of life than in all of North America. The country's biggest oil company, Petroamazonas, made an offer in 2011 to start seismic surveys in their homeland. Blanca Tapuy and her sister Innes were at loggerheads over the offer, with Blanca saying she is willing to die to stop its advances and Innes passionately asserting that petrodollars are vital for the future of the community, which numbers only 422 residents on 43,000 hectares. Many had to paddle along the Napo river or hike through the jungle to attend community meetings on the divisive, heartbreaking issue. In January 2013, Petroamazonas finally backed down.

In November 2012, Ecuador tried to auction off a huge swath of pristine Amazonian rainforest -- Ecuador's last remaining tract of virgin rainforest -- but encountered fierce protests at home and around the world. Potential investors were put off by the furour and the deal died. The Rainforest Action Network estimates that between 2000 and 2010 there were 539 oil spills in Ecuador -- almost one a week. The seven indigenous groups who live on the land were furious that they hadn't been consulted on the auction. Ecuador actually has a secretary of hydrocarbons and Andres Donoso Fabara sneered, "these guys [indigenous tribespeople who've lived in the Amazon for thousands of years] with a political agenda, they are not thinking about development or about fighting against poverty." He reminded everyone in March 2013 that "we are entitled by law, if we wanted, to go in by force and do some activities even if they are against them."

This is an excerpt from Trevor Greene's new, self-published book, co-written with Mike Velemirovich, There Is No Planet B: Promise And Peril On Our Warming World. Available at;