Environmentalists Have Signatures for Referendum on Ecuador Oil Development

Experts Say Move Could Set Precedent for Future Disputes Between Environmentalists, Government and Industry

A coalition opposed to a new oil development in a national park in Ecuador's Amazon rain forest say they have collected enough signatures to force a referendum on the activity, which experts say could set a precedent for future disputes between environmentalists, the government and industry.

"We have collected the required signatures plus an additional 30% to avoid any problem with validation. The process has been a success," said Fernando Fajardo, a spokesman for the coalition from Ecuador's Sucumbios province. "We will not waver in the defense of life and the rights of nature."

The announcement by the coalition, which includes Indigenous people, environmentalists, nongovernment organizations and regular citizens, comes eight months after President Rafael Correa abandoned a plan to leave underground about 900 million barrels of oil in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini or ITT block.

In 2007, Mr. Correa's government launched the so-called Yasuni-ITT initiative, which would have left the ITT block untouched if the international community came up with $3.6 billion in compensation. However, the campaign brought in just $13.3 million from donors, which led the government to abandon the initiative.

The ITT block has 20% of the country's total oil reserves. The government has said it would generate about $18 billion in revenue, which could be spent on poverty reduction programs, schools, roads, hospitals and other basic services, especially in the Amazon region, which is among the poorest areas in the country.

In August 2013, after announcing plans to develop the ITT oil block, Mr. Correa said that environmentalists should collect signatures if they wanted a referendum on the issue. "Do not be lazy," Mr. Correa said at the time. "Collect signatures for a referendum."

Environmentalists formed a coalition called YasUnidos, which has over the last six months been collecting signatures throughout the country and from Ecuadoreans living abroad.

The law required them to collect 584,000 signatures, which is equivalent to 5% of the electorate, to force a referendum on the issue.

On Saturday, YasUnidos delivered over 756,000 signatures to the National Electoral Council backing its request to call for a referendum on whether "the Ecuadorean government should keep the crude in the IT, known as block 43, underground indefinitely?"

The National Electoral Council said it would have to validate the signatures and send the proposed referendum question to Ecuador's Constitutional Court to rule on its constitutionality.

Rene Mauge, a member of the Electoral Court, said Monday that the process to verify signatures will start on Tuesday or Wednesday and could take about 15 days.

YasUnidos members delivered the signatures after marching from central Quito to the National Electoral Council, while holding signs saying "I want water, I want rivers, I want jungle, I don't want oil wells."

Demonstrators included Indigenous people from Ñoneno, a remote Waorani community in the amazon, who traveled seven hours by canoe and more than a day by car to reach Quito.

The YasUnidos campaign against the ITT oil development was also supported by a number of celebrities, including Oscar winning actor Jared Leto, among others.

A portion of the ITT oil block is located in the Yasuni National Park, considered by scientists to be one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. It is also home to two uncontacted tribes, the Tagaeri and Taromenane.

The government has said that no more than 0.01% of the Yasuni National Park, which has one million hectares, will be affected. It says that the ITT's development will be carried out with best practices and technology to minimize the impact on the environment.

Indigenous people living in the Amazon say the government's assurances aren't enough. "More than 40 years of the oil industry has not benefited us," said Alicia Kawiya, vice president of the Waorani Indigenous Federation. "We do not need revenues from oil, we do not need oil activity. We have everything to live in our land."

The Waorani community includes about 3,600 people from four Amazonian provinces, including a good number of them living in the Yasuni National Park. They say their territory must constantly face the threat of oil development and colonization from outsiders.

"We are not against the government, but the government should listen to our voice, the voice of the forest," said Ms. Kawiya, who has been one of the most prominent Indigenous leaders opposed to the ITT's development.

At least six other Indigenous nationalities from Ecuador's Amazon have also opposed new oil activity in the Amazon region.

Experts say that if a referendum is approved for ITT it could set a precedent for environmentalists to take on several other mining and oil projects in the country. YasUnidos have already said that they plan to push for changes to Ecuador's policies in the extractive industries.

Ecuador is the smallest OPEC member and currently produces about 550,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The government wants to expand oil activity to the border with Peru and has also said it is committed to begin some large-scale mining production projects in 2015 or 2016.

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