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“Do you agree that the Ecuadorean government should keep the crude in the ITT, known as block 43, underground indefinitely?”

This is the question that will be put to a national referendum in Ecuador if 584,000 signatures are collected (5% of registered voters in a country of 15 million people) before the deadline of 12th April 2014. Over 50% of the signatures required, have been collected so far but a concerted effort will be needed to meet the target over the next month.

The collection of signatures is being led by YASunidos, a newly formed alliance of groups seeking to overturn president Rafael Correa’s abandonment of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative which is a proposal to leave crude oil unexploited in the Ecuadorian Amazon, in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil fields in the Yasuní National Park, thus protecting one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth as well as indigenous peoples who live within the park.

I have been following the Yasuni-ITT Initiative since I first heard about it in 2007 and was devastated to hear the announcement of its annulment in August last year – see here for my response then, and more detailed information about the Initiative: Yasuní-ITT Initiative to be scrapped.

Lacking Spanish language skills, not on the electoral role in Ecuador, and feeling impotent in London, I spoke with Josephine Koch from YASunidos about their campaign to collect signatures and what we can do to support Ecuadorians to sign on for this critically important referendum.

Tell us a bit about YASunidos and how the alliance formed after Correa’s announcement

JK: After president Correa cancelled the Yasuní ITT-Initiative on 16 August 2013, people started to demonstrate in many parts of the country. Despite this, the national parliament, where Correa’s Alianza País holds an absolute majority, approved the president’s oil exploitation plans in October of the same year – without consulting Ecuadorian citizens.

Flashmob, protest in front of the National Assembly
Flashmob, protest in front of the National Assembly
In response, civil society came together to call for a national referendum and founded YASunidos – a word play of Yasuní and ‘unidos’, Spanish for, ‘united’. This alliance has quickly become a national movement, consisting of different environmental, animal protection, feminist, and indigenous groups as well as individual volunteers of all ages and social backgrounds. United, we share the goal to save both the pristine jungle of the Yasuní, and its indigenous peoples in order to take one step further toward a society without oil exploitation. The Yasuní-ITT Proposal, to leave 900 million barrels of oil underground, is a concrete expression of the Andean concept of ‘Buen Vivir’, or Sumak Kawsay in the Kichwa language, a holistic proposal for ‘good living’ in harmony with nature, and an alternative to Ecuador’s expanding extractivist model for national development.

According to opinion polls in Ecuador’s major cities, 85% of Ecuadorians supported the Yasuní-ITT Initiative and over 60% are in favour of a referendum about oil exploitation.

March of the women from the Amazon, Quito, October 2013
March of the women from the Amazon, Quito, October 2013

What is happening now?

JK: Since mid October last year, we’ve organised brigades of signature collectors in all provinces of the country. Hundreds of volunteers are dedicating their free time to protect one of the most biodiverse places on earth and some of the last indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in the Amazon. In every big city we have established collection points where the people can sign or handover filled-in forms. We have also been spreading the message through public talks at universities and schools as well as giving interviews in the media.

Collecting signatures in Carolina park, Quito
Collecting signatures in Carolina park, Quito
On our website, anyone can download and print out the forms, and social media channels like facebook and twitter are playing an important role in spreading the word about the call for a referendum and the importance of the Yasuní. These networks are vitally important for us because of the lack of independent public information about the Yasuní as well as the counter-campaign of the government. It has been the case that public servants, students and poorer people have been reluctant to sign because of fear that they’ll lose their jobs, scholarships or state social benefits. Just recently, a member organisation of the YASunidos movement was unjustly alleged to have been part of violent protests and was closed down by a state ministry.

However, we are spurred on by the support we have been receiving. When we are collecting signatures on the streets there are always passers-by who congratulate us and motivate us to continue. At least every third person that we ask for a signature signs. We have still one month to go and we feel very positive about reaching 600,000 signatures before the deadline in April.

Shut down of the Pachamama Foundation, Quito, December 2013
Shut down of the Pachamama Foundation, Quito, December 2013

How can we support this campaign in the UK/Europe (and elsewhere)?

JK: Firstly, we need the Yasuní campaign and the YASunidos’ goal to bring about a referendum to maintain its visibility and to gain attention in the international media, and for support from organisations and individuals. And of course, right now, what we really need in order to reach our goal of 600,000 signatures is some financial help. Although it is a constitutional right to collect signatures to convoke a national referendum, we have to find money to pay for the printing of thousands of signature forms and dozens of pens. The production of informational material and the visits of YASunidos brigades in the provinces also costs money. We can’t count on any money from the state and are hugely dependent on donations and on the support from the people of other countries. Therefore we appreciate every donation!

An easy way to do that for anyone overseas is through the public charity Global Greengrants Fund:
Support YASunidos!

Foreigners cannot sign the petition for the referendum, but they can sign the open letter to President Correa on AVAAZ and send a clear message that there are many people in the world that care about the Yasuní and its inhabitants:
Save Yasuní, the Last Wonder of the Amazon!

Ecuadorian citizens abroad can download, print out and fill the signature form here:

We are also happy to receive solidarity signs like photos from abroad to motivate us and show the Ecuadorians that they are not alone. We aim to continue to campaign once we have secured a referendum. What happens here in Ecuador is historically significant, because what is at stake is nothing less than a revolutionary move toward a post-oil society. Moreover, this is a civil society-led campaign to defend both the rights of nature and the rights of indigenous people. The Yasuní-ITT Initiative offered the international community the possibility to share the responsibility to save the climate by protecting the lungs of this planet. This referendum is therefore not only a national issue; the Yasuní is already a worldwide symbol for the urgent need for a different relationship with the planet and a new direction for a post-oil world.

It’ll be a close fight, but we can win it.


Josephine Koch is part of YASunidos’ international commission and involved in coordinating signature collections in Quito and the provinces. She studied political science and sociology in Germany and has worked as a project coordinador in small NGOs in the field of environment and climate protection. She is interested in the new leftist-ecological movements and ideas of the Buen Vivir in Latin America and moved to Ecuador in May 2013.

Photos by Josephine Koch



Tags: indigenous cultures, news, social justice, Sustainability

Category: News, Spotlight, Sustainability

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