Ecuador Environmentalists say they have collected enough signatures to force a referendum on the question of whether the Yasuní National Park in the Amazon should be opened to further oil exploration.
Since late February, referendum supporters, or Yasunidos, as they are called, have been out in force collecting signitures. Although they covered the entire country, they concentrated on the large cities of Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca.
President Rafael Correa has promised that any oil earnings from the park would be used for poverty alleviation and that oil production will cause minimal environmental damage.
But critics say one of the world’s most biodiverse areas could be severely damaged.
“With these signatures we are certain that the popular consultation vote will go ahead,” Carla Espin, a Yasunidos told reporters in Quito.
The signatures, which came from as far away as Australia, Mexico and Europe, still need to be validated by the Ecuadorian electoral authorities. Government officials say there are questions about whether the wording of the petition will be acceptable as well as about the legitimacy of the signatures collected.
It would then be up to the Constitutional Court to authorize a referendum on the issue.
Limited oil exploitation has been taking place in parts of Yasuní, which covers nearly 10,000 sq km (3,860 sq miles), since the 1970s.
But last year President Rafael Correa abandoned a conservation plan that would have seen rich nations pay Ecuador not to drill in previously untouched parts of the park.
Correa said the initiative had attracted only a fraction of the $3.6 billion it had aimed to raise, leaving Ecuador with no choice but go ahead with drilling. Oil is the country’s main export.
There were protests in Quito against his decision.
The park supports a huge variety of wildlife, including unique species of birds, monkeys and amphibians.
It is also home to the Huaorani and other indigenous people who had virtually no contact with the outside world until recent decades.
Yasuni oilfields hold an estimated 846 million barrels of crude, 20 percent of Ecuador’s reserves.
Credit: BBC News, www.bbc.com; Photo captions: Yasuni and area map