An anonymous British donor is funding a project which may help clean up the bespoiled landscape.

American biologists Jess Work, Brian Page and Ecuadorian fungus expert, Ricardo Viteri, are working to develop a mushroom that can 'eat' the toxic components in the soil and help reclaim the land.

The process, supported by American charity, The Cloud Institute is called mycoremediation.

It was pioneered in the US by mushroom advocate Paul Stamets who believes fungus could have a role to play in helping restore land damaged by pollution.

"Mushrooms are the world's great recyclers," said Miss Work. "They eat trash!

"Something they really love to eat is wood but wood and oil are made of the same thing, carbon. We know in the lab they will eat petroleum, we want to find them the best environment in the field. The question isn't 'does it work' it's about maximising effects.

"The decontamination task here is huge."

The technology they're developing isn't entirely new. Last November it was used in the clean up operation following the San Francisco oil spill but this is the first time it's been attempted in the tropics.

"We want to take it out of the lab and into the jungle!" said Miss Work.

In a shed just a few yards from one of the many oil pipelines which criss-cross Ecuador's jungle and which has brought so much misery to it's indigenous people, the team is cultivating oyster mushrooms.

"Oyster mushrooms are particularly versatile and aggressive," said Mr Page.

"We're starting with them but we want to find mushrooms which naturally like oil. If we could develop a strain of mushroom whose particular ecological niche was oil pollution and nothing else, that would be our dream!"

He added: "You can't just put the mushrooms in the oil and expect a miracle," he says, "You need to feed them too. We find sawdust is very good and also human hair.

"We had a hair delivery this morning and we have high hopes for it. It's very absorbent and the mushrooms love it. We're also doing trials with sugar cane husk, coconut shell and banana leaves."

Ricardo Viteri, the third party in the project, explained how the fungus breaks down the oil: "We define life by how it eats," he said.

"Mushrooms secrete enzymes to digest food outside their bodies, and then absorb the nutrients that the digestion process releases.

"The same enzyme mushrooms use to digest lignin, a main component of wood, is used to digest petroleum."

Mr Viteri is keen to point out that this is, at best, not a cure and that thousands of square hectares of polluted jungle cannot be restored.

"We're afraid people will think this is a miracle solution which it isn't," he said,

"We can't do anything about the oil pits in their raw state. Nothing in nature can deal with that but what we can do is make the soil resuseable after the bulk has been removed. Then people could regenerate their own 'patch'.

"This would be an amazing thing for the people here, to be able to remediate their own land."

The trio are currently keeping a low profile, unwilling to reveal their plans until the project is ready.

"We want to perfect our technique before we roll it out," said Miss Work. "We don't want to make promises and then not deliver."