From the Frontline of the Battle for a Referendum

(Versión en Español aqui).“Do you agree that the Ecuadorian government should keep the crude in the ITT, known as block 43, underground indefinitely?”

This is the question that will be put to a national referendum in Ecuador if 584,000 valid signatures are collected before the deadline of 12th April 2014.

For those new to this blog, ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) refers to oil fields within the Yasuní National Park. After abandoning an initiative to save Yasuní from oil exploitation, in October 2013 the Ecuadorian government announced drilling plans within the Park, which is not only a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and the most ecologically diverse spot on the planet, but home to the last two indigenous tribes in Ecuador living in voluntary isolation.

In response, civil society came together to call for a national referendum, which is constitutionally guaranteed if 5% of registered voters request it by signing a petition.

YasunidosThe signature collection effort has been led by YASunidos, a collective whose name is a word play of ‘Yasuní’ and ‘unidos’, Spanish for ‘united’. This alliance has quickly become a national movement, consisting of different environmental, animal protection, feminist and indigenous groups as well as individual volunteers.

YASunidos this morning (10th April) announced that they have so far collected 727,947 signatures, but the battle is not yet won. Whilst only 584,000 signatures are needed, the government has set extremely stringent rules on the validity of signatures, meaning that many will be rejected.

When we handed in the signatures we had collected, it was heartbreaking to see that the pile of invalid forms was thicker than the pile of valid ones. Hundreds of thousands of people who signed the petition in good faith will have their voice ignored because there is a smudge on the signature form, someone has signed outside the box, used the wrong colour ink, or the paper has been folded.

It is going to be an anxious wait to find out whether enough valid signatures have been collected. The aim was to collect 1 million signatures to allow a sufficient margin for error.

In addition to the rules about validity, the government is thwarting the signature collection in other ways. As well as attempting to discredit YASunidos by levelling accusations of violence at its members, the government is using intimidation tactics against them. Last month, a signature collector was detained and beaten after giving a thumbs down sign to the Presidential motorcade as it passed.

We’d met briefly with YASunidos during our December trip to Quito and we returned to interview Ivonne Yanez, a member of the collective and a founder of one of Latin America’s most well respected environmental groups, Acción Ecológica. For the last 20 years, Acción Ecológica has been a key player in the struggle against oil and mining exploitation in Ecuador, through tactics of nonviolent direct action and supporting local communities.

We spoke with Ivonne about the importance and challenges of the Yasuni signature collection and how, apart from signing the petition, Ecuadorians can support the struggle against oil exploitation in the Amazon.

 

It’s not just Yasuni which is under threat of oil exploitation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In fact, a much bigger disaster is looming. With the XI Oil Round, the Ecuadorian government is in the process of auctioning off all the country’s remaining virgin rainforest, 8 million acres, to oil companies. Indigenous communities have vowed to resist the advance of oil companies into their ancestral territories. We spoke to Ivonne about this resistance and how non-indigenous people can also resist.

 

We finished by asking Ivonne the question which we put to everyone: “How can people all over the world support the struggle to save the Amazon from oil exploitation?”. This is what she had to say:

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