Court allows popular vote to end oil production in Yasuní; It could cost the government billions

May 11, 2023 | 19 comments

The Yasunidos Collective celebrated Tuesday’s Constitutional Court decision allowing a popular referendum that could end oil production in the Yasuní National Park.

The court decision is a major victory for environmentalists whose 2014 campaign for a Yasuní anti-drilling referendum was stopped by the government. Subsequent investigations determined that the administration of former president Rafael Correa coerced the National Elections Council to invalidate hundreds of thousands of signed petitions that would have forced a public vote.

A river in the Yasuní National Park in Ecuador’s Amazon region.

A former Energy Minister deputy director warns that a “yes” referendum vote on the Yasuní question would be “completely disastrous” for Ecuador’s economy.

The question that will be presented on the ballot, according to the court decision, is: “Do you agree that the Ecuadorian government keeps ITT crude, known as block 43 in Yasuní National Park, indefinitely underground? Yes or No.”

In the case of a “yes” victory, the court gives the government one year to end oil production and testing in Block 43 of the Yasuní, and to make contractual arrangement for compensating companies working in the area.

Although the Yasunidos expressed pleasure that the question will finally go to voters, they said illegal action of the government to derail its first attempt has caused “great damage to the world’s most biodiverse region” and remediation and payment to oil contractors could cost billions of dollars in revenue. “If the government of Rafael Correa had allowed the democratic process to take its course, it would have been forced to find other avenues of revenue and the Amazonia would have been protected,” said Yasunidos spokesman Pedro Bermeo.

Gustavo Trujillo, deputy Energy Minister director during the Lenin Moreno administration, criticized the court’s decision, claiming it could cause “irreparable damage” to the country. “We depend on the revenue from Block 43 to fund our schools, our hospitals and our infrastructure,” he said. “It is true that illegal action prevented the original referendum but it is the officials who ordered that action who should pay the price, not the people of Ecuador.”

He added that Block 43 produces more than 15% of Ecuador’s oil and that the park holds the country’s largest oil reserves.

After Correa’s announcement in 2013 that oil drilling would begin in Yasuní, the Yasunidos collected more than 750,000 signatures within 15 days in early 2014, far more than enough to put the issue on the ballot. CNE, however, rejected more than 60% of the names on a variety grounds, including that some signatures were collected on paper that did not meet size and color requirements.

“The CNE was under [former president Rafael] Correa’s thumb and he knew he would lose the referendum and be embarrassed,” say Yasunidos Antonella Calle. “The polls showed a large majority of people wanted to protect the Yasuní and in 2019 former CNE members admitted fraud was committed by Correa’s government to stop the consultation.”

According to Calle, Correa’s role in stopping the referendum was key to his loss of popularity and his decision not to seek reelection in 2017. “His actions regarding Yasuní meant he lost support not only of environmentalists but of everyone who believed in honest government. It was one of the reasons he would have been defeated in the next election.”

Although Correa used fraud to stop the referendum, Yasunidos say subsequent governments have also pushed oil drilling in the Amazon, extending the damage. “[President Lenin] Moreno and [President Guillermo] Lasso continued the same oil policies in the Amazon and we hold them accountable as well,” says environmental activist Manai Prado. “Oil exploitation in Ecuador began 50 years ago and nothing has changed since then. All the presidents say we must sacrifice our natural heritage for economic purposes.”

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