The People Have Spoken – Save the Yasuni!

(By: María Célleri)

In 2010, current Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa proposed the Yasuni Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini Initiative (ITT); Ecuador would refrain from drilling for oil in the Yasuni National Park if the international community would cover 50% of the economic costs (3.6 billion dollars) in the course of 13 years. Just last year, Correa announced that the Initiative would be terminated because, arguing that the international community had failed to protect the Yasuni. Correa’s decision to terminate the Yasuni ITT Initiative was met with plenty of backlash from both inside and outside the country.

While some expressed their disappointment across media sources, thousands of Ecuadorians flocked to the streets in support of protecting the park and the indigenous communities living there. To read more on the national mobilization in support of the protection of the Yasuni click here.

Almost immediately after Correa’s decision, the environmental-rights group Yasunidos begun their efforts to pass a popular vote referendum. According to the Ecuadorian constitution, Article 104, if 5% of the population denounces a presidential decision, the decision must go up for a popular vote. Hence, Yasunidos set out to collect a total of 600,000 signatures by April of this year. Yasunidos not only collected sufficient signatures, they presented the National Electoral Council with 756,291signatures, far surpassing the legal minimum.

What does this mean? According to the constitution, the decision to drill for oil in the Yasuni would have to go up for popular vote; Ecuadorians will decide what happens with one of their most precious natural resources. In line with Correa’s political agenda of socialism of the 21st century,letting the Ecuadorian community decide would be the most logical move. Supported by various contemporary Latin American leftists governments (Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador), socialism of the 21st century is a political agenda that seeks to undo the economic damages of the neoliberal policies that led the country to a financial crisis at the beginning of the century. Yet, the National Electoral Vote, a major governmental institution, has been delaying the process that would lead to a popular vote, which goes against what the Ecuadorian people seem to want based on the tremendous support of the petition alone.

Napoleon Saltos Galarza, professor at the Universidad Central del Ecuador states that the Initiative opened the door for the country to begin to step out of an economic model, that was based on the idea to ‘rent out’ natural resources to foreign clients. Since colonization this strategy was dominant in the colonized countries. He said that “it was mobilized by a regimen that at that moment needed a progressive image both internally and externally. The exploitation of the ITT is not only about extractivism, but it endangers the lives of undisturbed indigenous communities, it represents the danger of an ethnocide.” He goes on further to claim that PAIS Alliance, “represents a capitalist modernization.” The Alliance is Correa’s political movement, headed by his political agenda of socialist of the 21st century, PAIS promised to work towards state sovereignty and economic relief. Although PAIS Alliance helped Correa win two presidential terms, the nation’s discontent with his politics, once enacted in practice, is evident by both his decreasing vote turn-out during his second presidential election as well as the mass mobilizations against the extraction of oil in the Yasuni.

The signatures were presented to the National Electoral Vote in Quito on April 12th. Yasunidos members delivered boxes of signatures to the appointed government offices, accompanied by hundreds of supporters marching nearly 4 ½ miles (7km). The signatures were received and it was announced that they would be validated beginning that same afternoon. The bureaucratic process of verifying that all signatures met the legal requirements is said to last at least a month. During the counting process, 35 members of Yasunidos are allowed to be present throughout. But, according to Yausunidos representatives, the National Electoral Vote committee in charge of verifying the validity of the signatures has been playing foul. Yasunidos claims that the National Electoral Vote invalidated over 3,000 signatures by opening a box without any Yasunidos representatives present. And that is not all; the box that was jeopardized contained the signatures of Yasunidos organizers, the same ones that worked tirelessly for months to collect the necessary signatures from the general public.

In reference to the work that Yasunidos has accomplished thus far, Saltos Galarza states,“…if a vision of change has been foreclosed from the top, Yasunido’s efforts to call for a vote that stops the exploitation of petroleum and protects biodiversity and the lives of voluntarily-isolated communities has gained wide support and has been able to present that support with 750,000 signatures calling for a Popular Vote. Although the Electoral Council has been placing various barriers to prevent a democratic fact.” We cannot be sure what will ensue, but if the mass mobilizations in August right after the President’s decree to terminate the Initiative are any indication, the Ecuadorian society seems to be against the exploitation of the oil reserves as well as the displacement of the communities living there. Lauded as a progressive Initiative, its termination has reinforced the political commitment of many, organizing for a true democratic country.

María Célleri is a fierce activist-scholar. Raised between Ecuador and New York City, she now resides in California and is pursuing her PhD in Ethnic Studies at the University of California: San Diego. Her work centers on the formation of the GLBTTIQ movement in Ecuador and the Ecuadorian diaspora. Her dream is to live in a feminist, decolonial, anti-capitalist, anti-homo/transphobic world.

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