For Immediate Release
Major Victory in Effort to Limit Oil Drilling in Ecuadorian Amazon
Supporters gather 750,000+ signatures to qualify for referendum to defend Yasuní National Park
Quito, Ecuador - Despite tremendous odds, supporters of a pioneering effort to keep Ecuador's largest oil reserve permanently in the ground have gathered more than enough signatures to qualify for a national vote on the issue in a special election.
On Saturday, over 3,000 people from Yasunidos or "United for Yasuní,"a civil society collective of environmentalists and indigenous leaders, marched to the National Electoral Commission in Quito. They delivered 55 boxes containing 756,291 signatures – 172,000 more than the required number – saying "Yes" to the following question: "Are you in favor of leaving oil in the ground in Block 43/Yasuní-ITT indefinitely?"
The first box was delivered by Alicia Cahuilla, the Vice President of the Waorani nationality, and two Waorani men. Cahuilla traveled with a delegation of more than a dozen Waorani from the community of Ñoneno for 7 hours via canoe to the oil frontier town of Coca along the Napo River and then a 5-hour bus trip to Quito.
Cahuilla said, "We came from very far away to the capital to insist on the popular referendum for all Ecuadorians to vote for Yasuní. We all need a clean and healthy Yasuní for our children and our future. The Waorani and Taromenane, have clean water and a healthy life. We do not want the forest to die."
Ecuador's constitution requires 5% of its roughly 14 million people to sign to force a special election vote, which could be called as early as July 2014. The National Electoral Commission has 30 days to verify the signatures.
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In August of last year, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa abandoned its revolutionary plan which had sought to keep the ITT (Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini) oil fields permanently in the ground in exchange for international financial contributions to help offset the country's forgone revenues. When donations failed to materialize, he authorized drilling. In response, thousands of Ecuadorians have taken to the streets to collect signatures and defend Yasuní ITT, the most biodiverse and culturally fragile part of Yasuní National Park, an area of extremely high biodiversity located in the Amazon region of Ecuador. The park was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989 and contains what are thought to be the greatest number of plant and animal species anywhere on the planet including one of the biggest populations of jaguars. It is also home to numerous indigenous peoples including two nomadic Waorani clans, the Tagaeri and Taromenane, who shun contact with the outside world.
Over the 6 months that Yasunidos had to collect signatures, members of the collective reported repression and intimidation from the government and supporters of drilling. The Correa administration and local municipalities sought to restrict where signatures could be collected, and launched its own pro-drilling signature gathering effort that had little public support, but copied Yasunidos’ materials to confuse citizens trying to sign in favor of defending Yasuní.
President Correa challenged Yasuní supporters to get the needed signatures in a national television address after announcing drilling plans. "If you want a referendum, don't be lazy, go get the signature," he told the nation. Now, the government is in the uncomfortable position that the issue may indeed be up for a vote. However, the Constitutional Court is yet to issue a final ruling on the constitutionality of the question, which could render the referendum effort moot. If it moves forward, a yes vote to keep the oil in the ground would complicate the government's relationship with China, with whom they appeared to reach a gentleman's agreement offering Chinese firms access to the crude as early as 2009 according to an internal government document.
Yasunidos has organized a group of observers to accompany the process of signature verification by the National Electoral Commission, which is appointed by the government. "You are going to see a scenario not unlike the state of Florida in the 2000 elections," said Kevin Koenig, Ecuador Program Director at Amazon Watch. We hope the National Electoral Commission will be non-partisan and exercise objectively during this democratic process." Members of the Commission were criticized for making public statements about the petition forms being used by Yasunidos and the veracity of the signatures while they were still being gathered. Byzantine rules govern the collection of signatures – they must have been signed only in blue ink and within the limits of the signature box. Any folds, creases, or stains will disqualify the entire signature page.
Correa has maintained that the funds from drilling of the ITT fields are needed to provide basic services to Ecuador's poor. "Of course we want to see poverty reduction and improvement of basic services like potable water for all of Ecuador," said Esperanza Martinez, president of Acción Ecologica, the leading Ecuadorian grassroots environmental group. "But there are a myriad of other ways this government can finance those public works. The development vs. environment discourse of President Correa is the same, tired business-as-usual argument that every president here has used since oil was first discovered. There is nothing 'revolutionary' about Ecuador trying to drill its way to prosperity. We've been doing that for half a century to no avail."
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