As the Critical Geography Collective of Ecuador, we are writing to request your solidarity as geographers or as other academics and intellectuals for the continuing popular movement in Ecuador to keep the oil in the ground in Yasuni National Park.
Just last week, this movement for Yasuni – an area of extremely high biodiversity in the country's Amazon region and the home of numerous indigenous peoples – entered a critical new phase.
You may recall that the Yasuni initiative originated from Ecuadorian civil society as a key element of campaigning for a transition to a post-petroleum civilization. The proposal was then somewhat reluctantly taken up by the new government of President Rafael Correa, who transformed it into a purely economic proposition to foreign governments: compensate us for the revenue we would lose by not exploiting the oil, or we will go ahead. When this compensation was not forthcoming, Correa duly announced that he was opening Yasuni for exploitation (oil companies had already been quietly moving in, with government approval, to prepare the ground).
Emboldened by polls indicating that a very large majority of Ecuador's population opposed drilling in Yasuni, the popular movement then embarked on a campaign to collect the more than half-million signatures required to force a public referendum on the issue, whose result the government would have to abide by under Ecuadorian law. Hundreds of young people joined the signature drive under the banner of the YASunidos (www.yasunidos.org), or "United for Yasuní," a civil society collective of environmentalists and indigenous leaders. The whole country became re-galvanized around the issue.
In response, the government redoubled its efforts to repress critics of extraction in Yasuni. Newspapers were threatened; police were ordered to harrass or silence demonstrators; dissident students were threatened with expulsion from their schools; an NGO was closed under a new decree facilitating the banning of civil society organizations; new restrictions were placed on reporting from Yasuni; and the Tagaeri and Taromenane indigenous clans living in voluntary isolation, who had been protected from ethnocide under the 2008 Constitution, were erased from maps of Yasuni. The Constitutional Court meanwhile delayed a final ruling on the constitutionality of the referendum question, and the government unleashed a barrage of expensive pro-oil television spots and advertisements.
As the signature campaign gathered pace, the adminstration of President Correa, together with local municipalities, sought to restrict where signatures could be collected. In addition, the government launched its own pro-drilling signature-gathering effort, using graphic material nearly identical to that employed by the YASunidos in order to confuse citizens into thinking they were signing their names in favour of defending Yasuni.
Yet on 12 April, the YASunidos triumphed over all these obstacles, marching 3,000-strong to the National Electoral Commission in Quito to deliver 55 boxes containing 756,291 signatures – 172,000 more than the number required to mandate a referendum. The signatories said "Yes" to the following question: "Are you in favor of leaving oil in the ground in Block 43/Yasuní-ITT indefinitely?" As required, the signatures were accompanied by supporting documentation including the photocopied identity documents of each of 1,426 signature gatherers. The first box was delivered by Alicia Cahuilla, the Vice President of the Waorani nationality, and two Waorani men. Cahuilla had traveled for more than seven hours with a delegation of more than a dozen Waorani from the community of Ñoneno via canoe to the oil frontier town of Coca along the Napo River and then seven additional hours on a bus to Quito.
Backed into a corner, the government then shifted tactics. In a visit to the Electoral Commission on 16 April, YASunidos discovered that the seals of various boxes had been broken and their tops removed. The boxes had been supposed to be opened only in front of a monitoring team trained by the Electoral Commission and organized by the YASunidos to oversee the 30-day counting process.
The as-yet unknown agents who broke the seals of the boxes violated the chain of custody designed to ensure a transparent and non-partisan counting process, throwing the viability of the whole exercise into doubt. Crucially, unknown agents also removed the photocopied identity documents of 151 key signature gatherers, potentially invalidating each of the signatures that the 151 had collected. The number of signatures thereby invalidated is likely to be well over 100,000 – enough to transform the referendum campaign from a stunning victory into a narrow defeat.
As YASunidos members called on the Electoral Commission to explain why the chain of custody of the signatures had been broken, the Ecuadorian military began to remove boxes of signatures from Electoral Commission headquarters. The military's removal trucks were blocked for hours by enraged YASunidos, but finally succeeded in taking away the boxes of signatures to a site at the former national airport, where counting and verifying will supposedly begin.
Assuming that the anonymous saboteurs have done their job, it now appears likely that enough signatures will be nullified for the government to be able to avoid a referendum. The Yasuni movement is thus entering yet another phase, in which YASunidos may well see their numbers swelled by ordinary citizens outraged at the assaults on democracy that have characterized the last few months.
It is in this context that we are circulating the attached letter for international signatures. As geographers, we feel particularly called on to refute the government's claim that exploitation of the oil in Yasuni would affect only 0.1 per cent of the Yasuni territory, and our letter concentrates on this issue.
If you can support the letter, please send your signature to geografiacriticaecuador@gmail.
com – including first and
last names, and, if you can, the name of your institution or a book you have
For more information, please see the complete document on the Collective: http://
geografiacriticaecuador.files. wordpress.com/2014/04/ colectivo-geografia-critica- en-defensa-del-yasuni.pdf
and an account of its work on Yasuni:http://