For the peoples of Ecuador’s Amazon Basin, voting has a catch

Voting is mandatory in Ecuador.

Whether the nearest voting station is down the block or a days-long trek through the jungle, the government doesn’t care. Only the vote matters, and the punishment for failing to vote is severe.

“I have no desire to vote,” Maria Ushigua, a member of the Sápara nation living in the rainforest community of Llanchamacocha, told JWW. “But if you don’t vote, you get a fine. And you need the certificate of voting to do any government paperwork.”

Whenever a citizen votes, she receives a small sticker on her government ID. This voting certificate is required to access government programs and deal with the Ecuadorean bureaucracy. Starting a business or leaving the country becomes impossible without it. The requirement to vote even affects non-government services. The certificate acts like a credit score: It’s required to open a bank account, purchase a cellphone plan and buy a car.

“For us, it’s a punishment,” Elvia Dagua, leader of the Kichwa nation of Pastaza province, said. “In the jungle, we were born free, we live free, but the government tries to make us fear them by threatening us with these fines.”

Ecuador’s last national election was in February 2017, with a second round of voting for the presidency in April. Nearly 13 million people were eligible to vote, but only 10.5 million participated in the first round, according to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a nonprofit that provides data on electoral democracies.

The $50 fine can be a lucrative source of income for the government when millions of nonvoters have to pay to access basic government functions.

“The government isn’t doing anything to make it easier for indigenous communities to vote,” Benito Bonilla, the communications director for Terra Mater, an indigenous-advocacy group, said. “It’s a tax for being indigenous and living in their community.”

Even voters who make the trek through jungles and across rivers may end up paying the penalty because of circumstances out of their control.

“I did vote in the first round in the election, but I couldn’t vote in the second round,” Hilario Gualinga, a Kichwa man who married a Sápara woman and lives in Llanchamacocha, said. “My wife told me to stay home and help.”

Even though Gualinga made the day-long trek through the jungle to vote in the first round, he will have to pay the fine for missing the second round.

Citizens living in cities can vote at nearby schools, but the journey from deep into the rainforest can be long and expensive. The difficulty of getting to a voting station deters some of the voters who live in the jungle.

After repeated phone calls, a spokesperson from the Ecuadorean Council of National Elections was unavailable for comment.

“[Voting] should not be obligatory. In the last election, both candidates represented the same interests,” Domingo Peas, the leader of the Achuar Nation of Ecuador, said. “For us, the freedom to decide whether to vote or not is more important than the obligation to vote.”

For many indigenous people living in the Amazon basin, the fines are irrelevant because they have no intentions of leaving their communities. They don’t need to apply for passports or open bank accounts. But for those who want to start a business or travel, the voting process can be a strain.

Alcides Zacarías is the vice president of the Sápara community, and he needs the certificate to attend conferences and do business with the government. He couldn’t make the six-hour journey to a nearby town for the last election.

“I usually travel to Morete Cocha [a nearby community, also in the rainforest] in the canoe, but the river was too high,” Zacarías said. “Eventually, if I have to go out to the city to do paperwork, I’ll pay the fine. I can’t do anything about it.”

Editor’s note: All interviews were conducted through a translator.