Eye on the Amazon

Damage Control in Ecuador

Protest over oil exploration in Yasuní National Park

It has been a tumultuous few weeks in Ecuador since President Rafael Correa's decision to terminate the historic Yasuní-ITT initiative, an innovative plan to preserve one of the most biodiverse swaths of rainforest on the planet. His decision to tap the three oil fields that lie beneath the Yasuni National Park has sparked ongoing protests in cities throughout the country, actions in the U.S. and Canada by Ecuadorians living abroad, and powerful condemnations from CONFENAIE, the confederation of indigenous peoples of Ecuador's Amazon, CONAIE, the national indigenous organization, and the communities affected by Chevron's toxic legacy of oil contamination and rights abuses. It continues to dominate national media, garnering headlines, special coverage, and investigative pieces, as well as social media within Ecuador, with the president himself responding by Twitter to his critics.

Supporters seeking to keep the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini (ITT) oil fields permanently underground are seeking a national referendum to reverse the president's decision, and are awaiting a decision from the Constitutional Court and the National Election Commission. If approved, they would need some 600,000 signatures to get the issue on the ballot for a special election.

The backlash has caught the administration by surprise. It has been more widespread—on the streets and virtually—than they ever imagined. Correa still boasts some of the highest approval ratings of any president in South America, and has presided over the country's longest period of political stability in recent history. But the Yasuní controversy has polarized the country in a way few other issues have since he took power in 2007, and may represent one of the largest threats to his administration and legacy to date.

Faced with the ongoing unrest, Correa has unleashed a barrage of ads and TV spots aimed at convincing the public that his plan to only drill one tenth of one percent of the park is needed to obtain funds for the country's development. Using a map that does not show the other seven oil blocks that already overlap Yasuni National Park, he gives the illusion that 99.9% of the park is untouched. Simultaneously, Correa has launched a counter-offensive on rights that is raising eyebrows for its seeming intent to chill speech and quash protest.

The government response to the outcry over drilling plans of the ITT fields in Yasuni include:

  1. Media Repression: President Correa threatened that if citizens moved forward with a referendum to protect Yasuní, he would introduce a referendum that would force daily newspapers—many of which have criticized his decision to exploit the rainforest—to stop printing. Correa said that the proposed ban on print newspapers was “to save paper and avoid so much indiscriminate logging.”
  2. Massive Police Presence: Weekly protests in the capital city of Quito have been met with police force and repression, prohibiting marches from reaching the presidential plaza, while pro-Correa supporters (many of whom are government employees) have been allowed to enter at will and even set up a sound stage to hold counter-rallies.
  3. Social Media Crackdown: Last week Correa's government introduced a law that would criminalize insults over social networks like Twitter and Facebook. People who dare to criticize the president's policies would receive between six months and two years in prison.
  4. Expelling Students for Protesting: On Monday, the first day of the school year in Ecuador, Minister of Education Augusto Espinosa ratified Correa's request to expel high school students who rally to defend Yasuní-ITT. Youth have been a major contingent in organizing and participating in vigils and marches supporting the preservation of Yasuní.
  5. NGO Crackdown: Before he announced his decision to drill in Yasuní-ITT—perhaps in anticipation of the public outcry—Correa issued a decree that would allow the government to silence and ban non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
  6. Erasing Indigenous Communities from the Map: For the last six years the government highlighted that Yasuní-ITT is home to the last known group of indigenous people still living in voluntary isolation in Ecuador, the “uncontacted” Tagaeri and Taromenane clans, and that avoiding oil extraction of the ITT fields would help protect their lives and wishes to live undisturbed. This was bolstered by a map made by the Ministry of Environment that shows their presence in the southern portion of the ITT oil block. However, now, the Ministry of Justice presented Congress with an altered map in August 2013 that suddenly shows members of the groups living outside the ITT oil block--a movement of some 100 km that some experts say was unlikely to have happened. This would allow the government to drill in Yasuní-ITT without violating Article 57 of its own constitution, which protects both clans from ethnocide. Other experts maintain that there has never been evidence of Tagaeri-Taromenane presence in Block 43, where the ITT fields are, because it's mostly flooded forest and swamp lands. If true, it means that the government used the argument of the presence of both clans to shop the Yasuni-ITT proposal to the world when it was known their presence was not in near ITT, but in fact much closer to existing oil extraction in other oil blocks that overlap the park.
  7. Media Censorship: Media outlets seeking to enter and obtain footage of Yasuní National Park now must meet new requirements for filming, which include handing over a script, footage, and the final work product before it airs publicly.
  8. Intimidating Journalists and Critics: All of the controversy around Yasuni is playing out in the media amid the new Communications Law for press that has been widely criticized as an effort to censor and persecute journalists. Ironically, Correa may have violated this law himself by taking to the airwaves and calling protest singer Jaime Guevara a 'drunk' and a 'drug addict' after an incident when Guevara gave the presidential caravan the finger, prompting Correa to stop his car, get out, and confront him. Guevara is a well-known teetotaler whose only drug use is prescription medication for his epilepsy.

While Correa's measures may be working on some of the nation's citizens – recent polls show 56% of the population supporting the president - a broad and diverse group of Ecuadorians is continuing to defend Yasuní-ITT and the communities that call it home.

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