Ecuador Seeks To Build A Silicon Valley Of Its Own

Ecuador is trying to build a high-tech city, which it hopes will spur a more diverse economy. The tiny South American country is concerned about possibly running out of the natural resources it relies on for most of its revenue.

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Now to Ecuador which is rich in oil and gold deposits. But the country's natural resources may one day run out. So Ecuador is now trying to develop a high-tech economy by building a South American Silicon Valley. John Otis takes us there.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Near the snow-capped Andean peaks of Northern Ecuador workers are constructing a brand-new city from scratch. Plans for this 12,000 acre site include a science and technology park and a world-class research university. There will also be a campus for companies like Microsoft, Cisco Systems and China Telecom that plan to set up shop here. Like Brasilia and other planned cities, it's going up far from other urban centers in an effort to develop Ecuador's interior. This new city of knowledge has been dubbed Yachay, a Quechua Indian word that means to learn. Even as construction continues some classes at the Yachay University have already begun.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I will buy a gift for her. Gift.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right, gift.

OTIS: Yachay is working closely with top American universities such as Stanford and Cal Tech. Kansas State University is providing English professors, like Tyson Umberger. He says, students at Yachay are extremely motivated.

TYSON UMBERGER: It's really refreshing - really rewarding when you're able to walk in and those students are just as eager to talk about the past simple or the presence simple verb tenses as you are. It's really - it's wonderful.

OTIS: Yachay came about after Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa toured Asia. He was impressed by their research and business clusters in South Korea and Singapore and envisioned something similar back home.

RODRIGUEZ: This is the transformation of Ecuador. This is a social transformation.

OTIS: Hector Rodriguez, the general manager of Yachay, says the goal is economic diversification.

RODRIGUEZ: We know that the oil is going to be done in a few years and we cannot just take off all the minerals of the land. We need to get this transformation right now because there is no future for countries like us.

OTIS: But building world-class research facilities can be extremely costly and they usually require academic autonomy to succeed. Critics call Yachay a top-down government enterprise that could become a tool of President Correa's social and economic agenda. Cesar Montufar, who teaches at the state-run Simon Bolivar University in Quito, says Yachay could turn into a city of elites, cut off from the rest of the country - much of which is poor and underdeveloped.

CESAR MONTUFAR: A university is something that grows and develops within an environment. It's part of a country. It's part of a social reality. So you can not bring Ph.D.'s from everywhere in the world, put them in a small town in Ecuador and pretend that from that you can create a successful academic and research project.

OTIS: Opposition politician Martha Roldos claims the billion dollars being spent on Yachay should go to Ecuador's struggling public universities.

MARTHA ROLDOS: All the other universities are underfunded. This university has almost the same funding that all the others together - something is not right.

OTIS: Roldos points out that Correa, who was first elected in 2006, is pushing Ecuador's Congress to scrap presidential term limits so he can be reelected indefinitely. She calls Yachay a grandiose vanity project designed to impress voters.

ROLDOS: It's like an Egyptian Pharaoh. I think they are monuments to them, not to their country.

OTIS: Rodriguez, the general manager of Yachay, denies the government is watering down other universities.

RODRIGUEZ: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: He says, the government has increased the overall budget for higher education. He also claims traditional universities have produced little in the way of scientific publication or patents and that a fresh start is needed. What's more, Rodriguez says Yachay is already reversing the problem of brain-drain, by convincing the countries best and brightest students to stay home rather than study abroad. One of them is 17-year-old Daniela Armijo. She rejected a scholarship to Belgium's top university to study genetic engineering at Yachay.

DANIELA ARMIJO: (Spanish Spoken).

OTIS: We get high quality education here. Our professors hold Ph.Ds. The government is making good on its promises, Armijo tells me. This is where we are building the future of our country. For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

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