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Stolen information may derail Yasuni drilling referendum PDF Print E-mail

Environmental activists in Ecuador are accusing the country's National Electoral Council of breaking into sealed boxes to interfere with completed petitions that call for a referendum on oil drilling in the Amazonian region of Yasuní. The environmentalists had spent six months collecting signatures to oppose Rafael Correa's plans to extract oil from the Yasuní-ITT oil field in the eastern portion of the country.

The petitions handed to the Council on 12 April included 757,623 signatures, exceeding by more than 100,000 the number needed to trigger a national referendum and halt the drilling. However, on April 16, officials found that the boxes containing the identity numbers of those who had collected the signatures were opened without the presence of delegates from the YASunidos environmental movement. Environmentalists claim the identity details of 100 signature collectors were missing, which could potentially invalidate all the signatures collected by those activists.

On April 18, crowds formed outside the Electoral Council demanding that the signature verification process be halted until agreed-upon procedures were in place. But amidst the disorder, the petitions were taken by the military to a former airport for processing.

An accord has now been reached between the Electoral Council and YASunidos that allows for a joint committee to resolve problems, and for video recording of the validation process. However, only one Yasunido observer is allowed per 10 computers, and the workers from the Electoral Council could allegedly easily skew the results.

"[All the workers] have to do to nullify a signature is to push F7," said Mette Orup, a representative of the YASunidos. "Also the observers are subject to humiliation and derision, they are laughed in their faces when they try to object to nullification, which is their right to do so."

Environmentalists had voiced concern about the Electoral Council before the completed petitions were submitted, with the Council's president Domingo Paredes reemphasising the government's widely criticized claim that oil extraction would only impact 0.01 percent of the Yasuní-ITT area. Paredes has also claimed that signatures could be disqualified from consideration due to formatting issues, including the weight of the paper on which they are collected.

Rafael Correa says extracting the oil of Yasuní is the only way to fight poverty, and describes the referendum campaign as a "trick" and a form of politicking deployed by his opponents. Correa has boosted public spending while drawing heavily on Chinese loans, which are repaid through oil deals. Ecuador owed China $4.63 billion as of December 2013, and exports nearly 90 percent of its oil to the Asian nation.

Esperanza Martinez, head of Accion Ecologica, Ecuador's leading environmental NGO, says the Yasuní case is "pushing a finger inside a wound, into a subject which reveals a fundamental contradiction in the government." Despite Correa's earlier courting of environmental and indigenous groups, and his declarations that Ecuador would seek to leave the oil underground to preserve biodiversity and protect some of the world's last un-contacted indigenous groups, Martinez says the country's executive has always intended to drill in the area and is unlikely to confront arguments against it.

The National Electoral Council has 30 days to verify the signatures. If the required tally is met, a date will then be set for the nationwide vote. However, as the identity details of the 100 signature collectors remain missing, the status the signatures will remain in limbo, threatening to derail efforts to save one of Ecuador's most important wild places.