Denying the referendum means that a progressive government, when forced to seriously discuss its appetite for petroleum or mining, must shed its clothes and reveal its most intimate mercantile thoughts. Public debates on oil exploration in the Amazon promoted through public referendum could raise discussion about issues much more far-reaching than the government’s petroleum strategy. There would rapidly also be discussion about development, government practices, etc., revealing their contradictions.
Also see this related article from Upside Down World: Ecuador: ¡Lo Logramos! Despite All Odds, Activists Present Signatures Needed to Save Yasuní
Denying the referendum will have enormous impacts on the quality of democracy, the protection or lack of the right to participate in governance, and will give a green light to unopposed oil exploration.
Source: Plan V
The National Electoral Council in Ecuador has announced that a sufficient number of signatures was not gathered in order to call for a public referendum concerning oil exploration in the Yasuní park. This decision will have enormous impacts. It has been interpreted by many as a step backwards for democracy. This decision has been called out, rightly so, as not only a hindrance of public expression, but also for the manner in which the decision was made, referring to unusual bureaucratic and administrative practices.
The prevailing appetite for the money gushing out of the ITT oil exploration fields has also been pointed out. I don’t discount these reasons. But getting exploration up and running will take some time and would hardly benefit the current administration. Others will say that doesn’t matter, that this is really part of a re-election effort, and that financial profits will be used to sustain the government into the next cycle. This extreme view, however, has yet to be confirmed.
I am sure that various analysts will delve into these questions, and that’s why I prefer to explore other points of view that are directly related to the current state of affairs and reflect more urgent needs.
Firstly, it is important to keep in mind the intention to continue seeking bids for oil field concessions. In these negotiations, corporate heads demand firm investment conditions, in order to ensure that the blocks they acquire can be effectively exploited. But these assurances would crumble in light of the possibility of a people’s referendum that could prevent oil exploration in any corner of the country. There’s no lack of executives who fear, or claim to, that if there is a vote for a moratorium in the Yasuní, that other votes could follow for other locations in the Amazon. Likewise, the government’s difficulties in the recent round of petroleum negotiations over the Southeast have not gone unnoticed. So, in order to clear the way for new oil negotiations, the government needs to reassert complete control over what it offers, and that implies stopping plebiscites that might place conditions on that control.
The needs to control and discipline
Secondly, it must be noted that the mobilization in defense of the Yasuní was enormous, and the role played by new collectives, especially the Yasunidos, has had great impact. New forms of political expression were in evidence, youth activism was reborn, and more horizontal structures were created, making them more difficult to co-opt. To put it bluntly: There were examples of an independent people’s mobilization that was not under the government’s or any political party’s control. Furthermore, all of their issues pointed to the essence of the Correa administration’s development strategy, debating its extractivism, and demanding compliance with the ecological mandates set forth in the Montecristi Constitution.
A strong, autonomous, and potential-filled movement will always be confronted by those in power. So under this hypothesis, it was crucial to stop a popular referendum in order to prevent the collective from continuing to operate, increase its base of support, learn from experience and mature into an unmanageable political adversary.
There is at least one precedent for the confluence of these two factors, safeguarding oil investment and controlling civil society, and that was shown in the dissolution of the Pachamama Foundation. These two factors were present then, and used to justify the extreme way the foundation was alleged to have affected one of the oil negotiations, while cutting off its support for local communities, and sending a message to other NGOs.
Under this same logic, one must not exclude the possibility of a supreme confidence game: that this same President could decide to call for a popular referendum himself. With the disciplinary period over, the message to oil investors is also clear, and he could counteract some of the critics, take over the initiative and call for a referendum himself, but under his own conditions (and including his own issues).
It’s best to avoid debate
In addition to these factors, one could also consider a third aspect. It is truly striking all the costs and criticisms (both national and international) that were incurred in order to prevent a popular referendum on the Yasuní. It’s that if they had allowed the referendum, the result would have been uncertain, and I recognize that it is very possible that the decision to enable oil exploration might have won out. We cannot forget that the vast majority of voters live in cities, far from the Amazon, and many of them are more affected and concerned by their daily subsistence than what is happening in remote regions of Ecuador, and could possibly be overwhelmed by the government’s media campaign. Despite all this, until now, no one has taken the risk. Any analysis should not ignore that if a popular referendum were called, a public debate would be enabled that, even in the case of a loss, would educate the people, strengthen independent networks, and perhaps ultimately lead to victory.
Defending extractivism is regressive
Under these conditions appears the fourth, and final, point of these preliminary hypotheses. Governments cannot dive into far-reaching and multiple debates on extractivism because from these vantage points, there are too few arguments to defend it. Present day extractivism is only possible by reigning in democratic plurality. Few projects would surpass rigorous environmental and social regulation, as they always have great environmental impacts and few people in local communities would agree to sacrifice their lands.
This issue is more serious for progressive governments, since the vast majority of extractivist rationale is based on conservative arguments tied to the market and reinforcing global commercial subordination. These arguments are therefore contrary to the very essence of the left.
All this means that a progressive government, when forced to seriously discuss its appetite for petroleum or mining, must shed its clothes and reveal its most intimate mercantile thoughts. Public debates on oil exploration in the Amazon promoted through public referendum could raise discussion about issues much more far-reaching than the government’s petroleum strategy. There would rapidly also be discussion about development, government practices, etc., revealing their contradictions. And this is something that many progressives know, and why they avoid going there at all costs.
In this current state of affairs, economic interests, the appetite for control, and the fear of being trapped in ideological contradictions clarifies how progressivism is a process that is increasingly detached from the left from which it originated. What just happened concerning oil exploration in the Yasuní is but one more contribution to this divergence. In the meantime, the future of the Yasuní remains in question.
Eduardo Gudynas is one of South America’s most respected environmental analysts and activists.