Anger and frustration boiled over outside Ecuador's National Electoral Commission (CNE) on April 30th, as efforts by environmental activists to prevent oil development in the Yasuní National Park appeared to founder on the decisions of the bureaucrats inside. "The CNE is so transparent that it won't even let us see the names of the persons or their badges," said Pedro Bermeo, one of the activists outside.

Last month, a grassroots group of environmentalists called Yasunidos (its name merging Yasuní and “unidos”, the Spanish word for "united") had handed in close to 800,000 signatures demanding a referendum on whether to prohibit oil-drilling in the eastern corner of the park, an area known as Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) or oil block 43. The constitution demands valid signatures equivalent to 5% of the electoral roll, a comparatively high figure, as a minimum threshold for the calling of referendums. Yasunidos needed 584,116. "To collect signatures amounting to close to 7% of the electoral roll is impressive in any society," says Jorge León, a political scientist.

The activists' campaign was triggered by the decision in August of President Rafael Correa to drop a plan to keep the oil underground indefinitely in exchange for local and international funding. With not enough aid forthcoming, Mr Correa claimed that "the world has failed us". The ITT's oil is crucial to help the smallest OPEC country escape poverty, he said, adding that only "one-thousandth" of the park would be affected by extraction of the heavy crude oil, which is thought to amount to close to a billion barrels, or 20% of Ecuador's reserves. The Spanish oil company Repsol and two Chinese-owned companies already extract tens of thousands of barrels a day elsewhere inside the park. Congress, which is dominated by Alianza País, the president's political movement, nodded through the change in plans, tacking on its retroactive approval for the adjacent block 31, which is also inside the park. Evidence of the presence of uncontacted rainforest tribes, which the administration had previously advertised, disappeared from the maps that Congress approved.

Many Ecuadoreans however had by then warmed to Mr Correa's original, greener plan. They would prefer to protect the area, which lies in Ecuador's eastern Amazon and is home to perhaps the densest population of jaguars anywhere. Perfiles de Opinión, a polling firm, says that 73% favour a referendum. The Constitutional Court, which vets referendum questions, asked the CNE, which is, in theory at least, an independent body, to verify the signatures. Mr Correa, a self-declared socialist revolutionary, has said he would trounce opponents of ITT development, but calls the Yasunidos "rock-throwers" and predicted that at least 30% of the signatures would turn out to be false.

Less than a day after the president on April 28th said that "at least in the short term, the calling of a referendum isn't in our plans," CNE president Domingo Paredes tweeted that the body won't include in its count more than 9,000 forms holding close to a third of the signatures. Among other reasons, it disqualified forms for smudges, the wrong thickness of paper, and missing copies of identity cards, the great fetish of Ecuadorean bureaucrats. That leaves Yasunidos with a surplus of less than 15,000 signatures. With verification procedures still under way, many now expect that number to fall below the requisite threshold to force a referendum.

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