Toronto Star reporter Brett Popplewell went to Ecuador on a fellowship awarded by the Canadian Newspaper Association and funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.

By Brett Popplewell

RIO VERDE, ECUADOR—Officially, Canadian citizens aren’t supposed to come here.

Foreign Affairs Canada calls Ecuador’s 600 km border with Colombia a haven for guerrilla revolutionaries and dangerous drug traffickers, a place where criminals are known for violent kidnappings, armed assaults and extortion.

Ecuador’s northern borders have long suffered from a divestment – both domestic and international – due to the spill over of hostilities between the neighbouring Colombian government and FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

In nearby towns like San Lorenzo and Borbon, naked children run in the streets with stomachs bloated from parasites consumed in the drinking water. Women routinely wash their family’s laundry along the banks of the Rio Cayapa, while their children swim metres away in rainbow coloured water, the work of men who pour open barrels of gasoline into canisters over their heads without a funnel.

Front teeth are an unaffordable luxury for many of the subsistence banana and cacao farmers who work on the lands in this region, most of them doing so without any documented proof of ownership for the farms upon which they and their parents were born.

For the past three years the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has invested $5-million into the region to “better the lives of 18,000 families.”

In February, Canada’s International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda announced that CIDA will focus its attention on just 20 countries post 2010. Ecuador and several other countries didn’t make the new shortlist.

“We’re not abandoning any countries,” Oda said at the time. “What we’re saying is we’ve selected 20 countries in which we will focus our programming.”

Ecuador, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Nicaragua and Guyana have all been removed from the agency’s funding list while Peru, Colombia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Gaza, the West Bank and many Caribbean islands remain.

CIDA says it prioritized its recipient countries based on those countries’ needs for what CIDA calls its new priorities: Increasing Food Security; Securing a future for Children and Youth; and Stimulating Sustainable Economic Growth.

But not everyone in the field of international aid can understand the agency’s process of deciding which countries should continue to receive funding.

“The shortlist of countries doesn’t qualify to any rational set of criteria,” says Amir Attaran, a professor at the University of Ottawa who has conducted research on Canadian aid in Afghanistan.

“It is not by any means the poorest or best governed countries that are receiving our aid. It is not the countries where CIDA or Canada has the deepest connections. I really don’t know what it is and they won’t explain it.”

Attaran’s not the first person to criticize CIDA’s effectiveness. A 2008 Senate report criticized the $3-billion agency as slow, top heavy, “ineffective, costly and overly bureaucratic.”

Glen Pearson, the Liberal critic for international development, says: “the biggest complaint about CIDA has been for years that it is a shut-up house, that it is so secretive all the time.”

When pressed for information about the rural development project in northern Ecuador, CIDA was not able to disclose more than 683 words on the $5-million project in question that came incomplete with no breakdown for what was being done with the Canadian money or any geographic understanding for where in Ecuador the money was being spent.

Further requests to be placed in touch with a CIDA representative in Ecuador were never fulfilled, and calls to the Canadian Embassy in Quito were never answered, nor returned.

Though CIDA is not forthcoming with much information about the project, the United Nations Development Program, which funnels Canadian aid money through to the Ecuadorian Cooperation and Development Fund (FECD), a foundation that was founded using $13-million worth of Canadian foreign aid money, can detail the geographic intricacies of where the money is going and to what end.

According to the UNDP, 60 percent of the $5-million Canada is spending in northern Ecuador goes to constructing storage facilities for cacao, basic training of chocolate farmers, construction of ecotourism lodges and materials to promote ecotourism in some of the most ecologically diverse and untouched regions of South America.

The rest of the money is getting lost in administrative support.

In Rio Verde, $250,000 spent on the ground along the Ecuadorian-Colombian border has helped to organize 1,300 subsistence farmers into global exporters of organic chocolate.

It’s the small contributions that have bettered the lives of people like Vincente Gacedo, 64, a toothless cacao farmer who has lived near the banks of the undrinkable Rio Verde his entire life.

Gacedo used to dry his cacao on the paved road near his farm. He’d then pack it on the back of a donkey and travel an entire day to a distant processing plant that would undercut him for his troubles.

“There wasn’t any incentive to even try to sell the cacao,” he says.

With $38,000 worth of Canadian aid money, the locals constructed a one room storage facility that can ferment and process 40,000,000 lbs of cacao a year giving $12,000,000 in profits to be split among 1,300 farmers like Gacedo.

“Having a system in place that’s fair is good motivation to farm for a living, instead of just for our own food,” Gacedo said.

But with Canadian aid money disappearing from the region, Gacedo and others aren’t exactly sure what will happen to the project that has served them so well.

“We recognize that Canada’s contribution is coming to an end,” says Patricio Galarza, who oversees the rural development project for the Ecuadorian government.

But he also says he’s not sure where exactly the project will get the funding needed to sustain it indefinitely.