Indigenous people, environment groups and others hoping to force a national referendum on whether one of the world’s most biodiverse regions should be exploited by oil companies fear that the Ecuadorean government is manipulating the results of a petition in order to support the president.
Ecuador’s proposal to leave an 846m barrels of oil in the ground under the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) area of the Yasuni national park in the Amazonian rainforest and ask the world to compensate it with half its monetary value was hailed as a revolutionary new conservation idea when it was agreed by President Rafael Correa in 2007.
But when only around $300m had been formally pledged by August 2013, Correa reversed his decision, saying the estimated $7bn that the country could eventually earn from the oil was needed to alleviate poverty.
However, Correa accepted that under Ecuador’s constitution, a referendum would be triggered if 5% of the country, or 584,000 people, signed a petition within nine months. To the surprise of the authorities, a loose alliance of civil society groups calling themselves the YASunidos, claimed two weeks ago to have secured more than enough signatures.
“When we officially handed over almost 760,000 signatures on 12 April, we knew we had gained more than enough signatures legally needed. Sadly the National Electoral Council (CNE) manipulated [some] parts of the materials we submitted. The box containing the IDs of all the collectors required to verify each page of signatures, was illegally opened by the CNE without our presence and the IDs of many signature collectors have mysteriously disappeared,” said Josephine Koch, an activist working with the alliance.
Kevin Koenig, Ecuador programme director of Amazon Watch, said: “It is extremely troubling to see these kinds of irregularities so soon into the verification process. It calls into question whether the CNE can indeed be objective and non-partisan. The eyes of the world are watching – this is a critical moment for Ecuador’s democracy and the credibility of Correa’s administration.”
The YASunidos now fear that the government is using technicalities to eliminate many of the signatures that an army of more than 1,000 volunteers collected from the internet, social media and public meetings.
“It is very alarming, because missing or illegible IDs could cause the invalidation of hundreds of thousands of signatures. Also, the verification of signatures began without observers of the Yasunidos alliance. This is a serious violation of the constitution and a fraud to the Ecuadorian citizens. We are outraged about the untransparent and undemocratic methods being used to avoid a national referendum against the government’s plans,” Koch said.
Credit: The Guardian, www.theguardian.com; Photo caption: The Yasuni nature preserve.