Eye on the Amazon

Ecuadorian Government Seeks to Quash Legitimate Yasuní Referendum

The people have spoken The world is watching. Let them vote!

Ecuadorian Government Seeks to Quash Legitimate Yasuní Referendum


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Ecuador captured world headlines with what was a truly revolutionary idea in 2007: It would keep 800 million barrels of crude – the country's largest oil reserve – permanently in the ground if the world would help foot the bill. Given the global concern about climate change and the importance of the Amazon in regulating Earth's systems, wouldn't many nations want to step in and help out a country with one of the highest rates of biodiversity and endemism, yet trapped in a cycle of resource curse-style debt and dependency on fossil fuels? (Spoiler alert: No).

Fast forward seven years. The world didn't step up. Annex 1 countries recoiled at paying a country for "not doing" something and shunned the pioneering initiative. According to the most recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report and highlighted in an article by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone and Christopher Hayes recently in The Nation, we must keep some two-thirds of the planet's known oil reserves in the ground if we want to keep the climate even close to the two degrees Celsius scientists estimate is needed to avoid catastrophic climate meltdown. So why are we looking to dig up more?

Somewhat surprising is that groups that would appear to be natural allies, the ones you would think would have at least given the Yasuní-ITT initiative the benefit of the doubt, have instead ridiculed it. Someone from IUCN whined, "It's like having an empty pool and asking people to jump in." Remember Ralph from the Simpsons? Sounded a bit like that.

Other bureaucrats and professional naysayers were foaming at the mouth to tear it down. Many of the BiNGOs (big NGOs) balked, and skepticism festered at foundations and international financial institutions. Really?! Because there's a better plan – or any plan for that matter – adopted and promoted by a government as policy that involves keeping its largest oil reserve permanently in the ground? That's the equivalent of Canada now saying, "Actually, we're going keep all those tar sands in the ground. Sorry about that whole KXL pipeline kerfuffle."

Wire services and conservative periodicals, whipped into frenzy by the rise of the left in South America (remember the new "Axis of Evil" – Chavez, Morales, and Ecuador's Correa?), calling it a "ransom." Germany, after several years of flirting with the proposal, ultimately declined to support it, ending the courtship with the cruel statement, "We don't want a line of countries outside our door asking to be paid to keep their oil in the ground." The U.S., who never even signed the Kyoto Protocol and has been perhaps the largest obstructionist in climate talks, would barely acknowledge that the proposal existed.

Granted, the proposal was far from perfect and certainly the cart was before the horse on details, as well as political and financial guarantees. Bipolar environmental policy within Ecuador proposed keeping the oil in the ground in one small area, yet opening up the rest of its Amazon to drilling also hurt the initiative, and rightfully led to questions of carbon leakage. And President Correa didn't help himself, seemingly blind to the fact that his populist, nationalist rhetoric didn't work well while trying to raise some $4.5 billion from the world during one of the worst economic crisis in recent history.

But then what? Was Ecuador supposed to just turn off the spigot tomorrow, with oil accounting for 64% of its export earnings? And what about the Global North's historic responsibility for climate change? Ecuador wasn't asking for donations. They were asking for co-responsibility. Shared but differentiated. The North, via industrial revolution, its position as leader in CO2 emission (second only to China) and a lifestyle that's rapidly sending the planet to a quick and embarrassing, self inflicted doom, has all the responsibility and selfish interest in helping a country like Ecuador and its luscious CO2 absorbing forests get off oil. So it seems like a no brainer to keep a massive amount of it that, by geologic bad luck, happens to sit under a Yosemite or Yellowstone-like National Park in the ground. It was a twofer – avoid emissions by not consuming the crude, and reduce emissions by not cutting trees above ground to make way for drilling equipment and infrastructure. And, with those trees still standing, allow greater CO2 absorption. Technically, it was a threefer.

Gutting the Most Biodiverse Place on the Planet

But that's just the climate angle. Biodiversity-wise, Yasuní has the highest number of tree, insect, birds, and mammal species per hectare on the planet. The park is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and experts believe it to be one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. That could be because – according to one theory dubbed the Pleistocene Refuge Theory – during the ice age, there was less die off of species in the area due to the area's mountainous geography. Essentially, the nooks and crannies of Ecuador's rugged, mountainous Amazonian landscape – as opposed to say, flat Amazon Basin – allowed for species to survive the ice age and then flourish.

The park is also home to the Waorani indigenous group and two isolated clans that have shunned contact with the outside world. Recent conflict between the groups has underscored the sensitivity of the area. While it's still too early to tell whether massacres and assassinations between the Waorani and the Tagaeri and Taramonane are related to increasing pressure on Yasuní (there are seven oil blocks that overlap the park, with several new ones on the southern border recently tendered), if there were ever a time to use the precautionary principle, this is it.

Pulling the Plug

In August 2013, with the reality that the initiative had only garnered $13 million in cash donations (though including debt cancelations and in-kind donations the number was closer to $336 million), Correa pulled the plug. In an emotional press conference with hundreds of Yasuní supporters rallying outside the Presidential Palace, he announced Presidential Decree 84, authorizing drilling. After a tumultuous few weeks of outrage and street protests, Correa doubled down on and dared supporters of the initiative to gather enough signatures to force a national plebiscite. "Don't be lazy," he said. "Go out and get the signatures."

In an Orwellian foreshadowing of things to come, the Constitutional Court – which is supposed to first approve the language and text of the question that civil society will consider on the petition – somehow avoided deciding, telling Yasuní supporters to gather the signatures first, a clear signal the government was concerned and would keep an ace in the hole just in case.

Six months later up sprung Yasunídos (United for Yasuní), a collective who would plow forth to achieve the unthinkable. They obtained some 750k signatures, nearly 200k signatures more than the required 5% of the population to force a national referendum and take the decision out of Correa's hands. This in the face of government intimidation and up against a sleek, savvy, and well funded PR campaign by the government's political party complete with weekly TV addresses where Correa ridiculed, trivialized and laughed at their efforts, using the ages old argument of environment vs. development and decrying poverty as "the worst human rights violation."

Opinion polls now show some 73% of the population in favor of keeping the oil in the ground. So it's not surprising to see that the Correa administration is afraid to let the referendum question go to a vote, particularly after the last elections where his party lost control of Quito and failed to win in the country’s other major cities despite having an approval rating of some 70% according to some polls.

The Role of China

One reason the government may be afraid to allow the issue to go to a vote is that the money may already have been spent. Or at least promised and earmarked. As the initiative was shopped around the world, internal documents show that at least a gentleman’s agreement to allow Chinese companies to drill the ITT fields was in play. Loans have indebted Ecuador to China to the tune of $9 billion, much of which must be paid in crude.

However, it isn't up to Correa to allow or not allow the issue to go to a vote. Ironically, Yasunídos is in fact using the same constitution that he and his party rewrote in 2008, which guarantees a referendum option. In fact, Correa himself has used the referendum to get himself reelected, and to eliminate bull fighting and casinos. But according to Ecuadorian law, a president can call a referendum without the obligation to obtain at least 5% of the electorate.

So civil society has done what seemed to be the impossible – they got 7% of the electorate to sign a petition in favor of permanently leaving the oil under ITT fields in the ground. And Correa and his appointees are doing everything they can to avoid a vote. They have discarded some 250k signatures and growing based on byzantine rules and discrepancies that they withheld explaining until after the deadline to submit the signatures had passed. So with ever-moving goalposts, entire signatures forms are being thrown out for the type of paper, smudges, pen color, you name it. This is Ecuador's version of Florida in 2000, with every ballot and hanging chad scrutinized and politicized, with voter intent falling by the wayside.

And, in the same way Correa's hotheadedness and accidental honesty helped doom the Yasuní-ITT initiative, he's been slowly foreshadowing what appears to be the foregone the fate of the referendum. In theory, the executive branch should have no sway or influence over the National Election Commission. But on April 28th he stated, "In the short run, I don't see us going to a referendum." And a week earlier, in some kind of Wizard of Oz moment, "I'm not going to fall into the trap of a consultation," as if it were his decision. (It quite certainly is not.) Correa’s legacy is on the line, as is Ecuador's democracy.

One might only imagine where we would be if the Yasuní-ITT initiative had been successful some seven years ago. But thanks to the tireless grassroots efforts of Yasunídos, Ecuador could again capture the world's imagination and lead the way toward a post-carbon future by keeping the ITT fields permanently underground – a model that needs to be replicated and catch fire if we are to avoid that ominous two degree Celsius rise in temperature.

But now that the idea of the initiative is back in the hands of civil society thanks to the Yasunídos, it may fall victim to an egregious example of government overreach and voter suppression. That's bad for Ecuador and for the world.

The people have spoken The world is watching. Let them vote!

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