Yasuní: The petitions are in, now comes the waiting game…

YASunidos claim they have easily surpassed the required amount of signatures calling for a referendum on the future of Yasuní, but they will take around a month to be verified.

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Members of the YASunidos collective deliver signatures to the National Electoral Council, on April 12th. Photo courtesy of Ecuavisa.

The April 12th deadline has come and gone, and the campaign to save Ecuador’s Amazonian Yasuní National Park from further oil development has apparently succeeded in collecting enough signatures to trigger a referendum on President Rafael Correa’s plans to extract oil from the mega-biodiverse Yasuní-ITT block. YASunidos, the collective in charge of the campaign, handed over their form sheets to the National Electoral Council (CNE) the day before the deadline, and claim to have gathered between 750,000 and 850,000 signatures, way beyond the 583,000 required by electoral law.

YASunidos initially declared, before handing in the signatures, that 727,947 people had signed the petition, but they later updated this figure to 756,291. However, as confirmed by the CNE, they had handed over 107,088 folders, and given that each folder contains eight signatures, the final count may be as high as 856,704; this is considered unlikely, though, given that a CNE official has stated that not all of the folders were completely full.

Earlier on in the week, a separate campaign had also handed over their signatures to the CNE. The Frente de Defensa Total de la Amazonía (Front for the Defence of the Amazon), which is hoping for a referendum asking Ecuadoreans if they want a moratorium on all extractive operations in the country’s Amazonian regions, submitted some 584,000 signatures to the authorities, meeting a deadline that was slightly earlier than that of YASunidos. Verification of the signatures has now begun, but it will be a month or so before the results of either campaign are known, according to the CNE, meaning that activists now face a long waiting game before the next phase of their campaign: approval of the proposed referendum question and organisation of the poll itself.

Activists in Quito celebrate the successful conclusion of the YASunidos campaign to gather enough signatures to trigger a referendum on the future of Yasuní-ITT. Photo courtesy of El Universo.

Shortly before the deadline, on April 3rd, members of YASunidos and the Centro de Derechos Económicos y Sociales (CDES – Centre for Economic and Social Rights), an Ecuadorean human rights group, entered the National Assembly in an attempt to get parliamentarians to sign the petition, although they were stopped by security officers before they could reach the Assembly members. This came in the wake of reported sightings of members of uncontacted indigenous groups near the parts of Yasuní where oil exploration and operations are taking place. A local missionary chief, José Miguel Goldaráz, told the Ecuadorean daily El Comercio that oil workers in Block 31 – the oil concession next door to the Yasuní-ITT block – had “come running out terrified because they saw nude indigenous people walking around there”. President Correa had initially pledged that operations would be halted if there were any sightings of isolated Tagaeri or Taromenane tribes in the area.

“In the case of any sighting of people from tribes in voluntary isolation, [the government] will suspend activities until the application of policies, protocols and codes of conduct that protect the rights of these peoples to life and self-determination”, states the declaration of the bill that was eventually approved last October. According to Eduardo Pichilingue, director of the CDES, the recent evidence is strong enough to warrant this promise being kept, and he called on Correa and his government to respect the rights of these uncontacted tribes and to “not be complicit in an ethnocide”.

Experts fear that contact between these indigenous communities and oil workers or other ‘outsiders’ would be fatal for them, as their lack of immunity to modern diseases would place them at considerable risk of epidemics, potentially decimating their populations as occurred when Europeans first arrived in the New World some 500 years ago. Oil works would also be likely to severely harm the livelihoods of indigenous groups, by damaging the ecosystems they depend on through deforestation and driving out wildlife, as well as the obvious threat of oil contamination such as has notoriously happened in other parts of Ecuador.

Yasuní National Park. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Despite the many threats to their campaign, YASunidos have said they are confident that they have complied with all the requirements set out to them by the CNE when their campaign was launched back in October. The collective set themselves a deadline for collecting signatures one week before the official date, so that they could verify their own forms and ensure that there were no mistakes or irregularities before handing them over to electoral authorities. According to several of their spokespersons, they took special care to count the signatures and form numbers against official citizen registry data, meaning that they believe the ‘margin of error’ between the number of forms they have submitted and the number that will be deemed valid will be “minimal”.

However, they are taking no chances, with suggestions that the CNE, under heavy pressure from the Correa government, will be looking for any excuse to invalidate YASunidos signatures and leave them short of the 583,000 target, even if they do claim to have collected several hundred thousand more signatures than the minimum required. According to YASunidos member Elena Gálvez, the collective is looking into whether or not they can organise “observation teams, both national and international, so that the verification of signatures by the CNE can be monitored”. Suggestions that such a step is necessary to ensure impartiality in the verification process only serves to underline the tension between anti- and pro-extraction advocates, and the fear emanating from the YASunidos team that the CNE will still find reason to announce in a month’s time that they had failed to submit enough ‘valid’ signatures – contrary to their own claims – means that after six months of frantic campaigning, what follows is likely to be an arduous, seemingly never-ending, waiting game.

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