Years after oil production began in Yasuní National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon, voters may have a chance to stop it.
On Wednesday, Ecuador’s Contentious Electoral Court ordered the National Electoral Council (CNE) to declare valid the signatures collected by environmental groups in 2014 that would have forced a popular referendum to ban oil production in the Yasuní, called by one biologist “the most biodiverse place on earth.”
The referendum question will now go to the Constitutional Court for review and, if approved, to voters.
A coalition of indigenous and environmental activists, known as 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,” said Antonella Calle, Yasunidos spokeswoman. “The polls showed a large majority of people wanted to protect the Yasuní and in 2019 the new CNE members admitted fraud was committed by Correa’s government to stop the consultation.” For more about Correa’s fight with the Yasunidos, click here.
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 the 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. It was also why the people voted overwhelmingly to deny him the chance to run again for president.”
Although other Yasunidos agree Correa used fraud to stop the referendum, they point out all recent governments have pushed oil drilling in the Amazon. “Moreno and Lasso continued the oil policies in the jungle and you can be certain Lasso will oppose a popular consultation on the issue,” says environmental activist Manai Prado. “Oil exploitation began 50 years ago and nothing has changed since then. All the presidents say we must sacrifice our natural heritage for economic purposes.”
For Alicia Cahuiya, a member of the Waorani nation and part of the Yasunidos collective, oil production in the Yasuní is a personal matter. “This is the place of my ancestors,” she says. “It is sacred ground that has been violated for the greed of the government and rich oil companies. Yes, we want to stop it now but a great amount of damage has already been done.”
Silvi Bonilla, a lawyer for the Yasunido, admits a popular vote to stop oil production in the Yasuní would create a crisis for the government. “Today, almost 10% of the country’s oil revenue is generated in Yasuní blocks and the government has signed long-term contracts with oil companies for production,” she says. “It would face billions of dollars in damages if companies are forced to stop pumping and leave the area.”
She adds: “We are thrilled that the court now accepts the fact that fraud was committed to stop the original referendum and we are hopeful the people of Ecuador will finally have a chance to preserve the Yasuní. On the other hand, isn’t it a shame the matter didn’t go to voters eight years ago. Consider the trouble it would have saved.”