Ecuador: Campaign to save Yasuní-ITT making steady progress, but faces new threats

The campaign to force a citizens’ referendum on blocking the government’s plans continues apace, but any eventual success – still far from guaranteed – would remain under threat from rival pro-extraction campaigns.

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Activists form the words “Yasuní Lives” in a clearing in Yasuní National Park; but the question of whether Yasuní-ITT will continue to live without oil exploration remains unanswered.

Way back in October when I first started this blog, I wrote about the Yasuní-ITT initiative, which had sought to keep almost a billion barrels of crude oil in the ground under the Ecuadorean Amazon in exchange for financial cooperation from global society, but which seemingly failed after President Rafael Correa pulled the plug on the initiative, citing a lack of support from the rest of the world and opting for his government’s “Plan B” of extracting the oil. Civil society groups and opponents of Correa’s plans vowed to fight the u-turn to the end, and though it has been a while since Ecuador’s Assembly approved of Correa’s plans and the campaign to save Yasuní-ITT began in earnest, all has been relatively quiet on this particular front. However, with less than two months to go until the timeframe expires for activists to gather the necessary signatures to trigger a national referendum on the issue, things are heating up again and the controversial subject is slowly coming back to the fore.

The civil society organisation charged with gathering 580,000 signatures – equivalent to 5% of Ecuador’s electorate – in order to force a referendum on the government’s plans to develop the ITT oilfields is YASunidos (a play on the name of the threatened national park, Yasuní, and the Spanish unidos meaning ‘united’). They say that so far they have collected around 150,000 signatures, over three months of touring the country in a detailed process of gathering and certifying the signatures as per the requirements laid upon them by the country’s Electoral Council. While they need to bump up this average rate if they are to collect the remaining 430,000 signatures over the next two months, they say that the rate is now up around the 4,000-a-day mark, and that “8 out of 10 people” they encounter support their campaign.

Furthermore, one of the country’s foremost indigenous organisations, Ecuarunari, are considering filing a case with the country’s Constitutional Court arguing that the government’s plans to drill for oil in the uniquely biodiverse Yasuní-ITT block are illegal, given that they run against constitutional clauses to protect the integrity of the country’s indigenous peoples, as well as to protect ‘the rights of Mother Nature’. This is not the first such instance of civil attempts to stop the government in its tracks via legal means, after an ex-magistrate filed a similar case in front of the Constitutional Court in September, although he received little response.

A volunteer collects signatures for YASunidos. Photo courtesy of El País.

However, the road ahead for YASunidos and others is far from clear. For as much as they claim that the rate of signature collections is rising by the day, it needs to double in order to meet the end of March deadline. In addition to this, among the optimism expressed by campaign leaders can also be found hints of pessimism, with YASunidos having admitted earlier on in their campaign that they have encountered many people who have supported them and opposed the drilling for oil, but who have still refused to sign up through fear of reprisals on the part of government officials. “We’ve heard of cases where in universities, especially public ones, people have been threatened with sanctions and told that [the YASunidos campaign] is just propaganda”, lamented Patricio Chávez, one of many volunteers and campaigners representing YASunidos. This comes against a backdrop where the charismatic Correa, who remains immensely popular among a majority of Ecuadoreans, has launched into a fierce publicity campaign to convince public opinion – once overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the oil underground – to come over to his side of the argument and support his plans, arguing that those who oppose drilling for oil are also opposed to social development and economic prosperity for Ecuador. He has also attempted to tap into patriotic and anti-Western sentiments by claiming that activists fighting to save Yasuní-ITT are being bankrolled by Western institutions and governments who don’t want Ecuador to develop. On this last point the opposite appears to be true, with YASunidos and their allies in the Frente Total de Defensa de la Amazonía (Front for the Defence of the Amazon) expressing concern over a lack of funds to keep their months-long campaign, fuelled mainly by the work of hundreds of volunteers, running.

Furthermore, even if the campaign is successful in collecting the required number of signatures, resulting in a nationwide referendum which then results in a majority of Ecuadoreans voicing their rejection of the government’s plans, there could be another contradictory stumbling block a little further down the road. On 16 January the Electoral Council gave the green light to a rival campaign led by Amazonian council leaders aligned to President Correa’s Alianza País (AP) party, which now has the same 180-day timeframe as YASunidos to collect its 580,000 signatures calling for a national referendum in support of the government’s plans. If this campaign were to be successful and result in a positive result in any ensuing referendum after a first one calling for the government’s plans to be scrapped, there could follow a confusing and bitter legal battle over which campaign and referendum result holds sway over the other. The end result could be that the fate of the Yasuní-ITT block becomes locked in a process of legal toing and froing, as is the case with Ecuador’s other noteworthy dispute currently in play, that of the Chevron-Texaco Lago Agrio oil spill and the question of whether Chevron is liable to pay billions of dollars in damages to affected residents.

Yasuní National Park. Photo courtesy of TexacoTóxico.